I recently had a conversation with a civil engineer who specializes in highly integrated super efficient infrastructure projects. For example, the methane gas from a sewerage treatment plant can be captured and used to generate electricity. The waste heat from a power generator can be used to run a desalination plant. Purified sewer water can be used for irrigation. And if the sewer, power, and desalination plants are all co-located they can feed off each other’s waste streams in a tight little bundle.
I’m actually a big fan of the concept in theory. But I asked him about the drawbacks. The more efficient a system is the more brittle it becomes. If one part of the arrangement breaks down it tends to create cascading failures throughout the whole system. Isn’t multiple redundancy (slack, fat, inefficiency) also part of an engineer’s design criteria? And what about the hyper complex financial arrangements used to fund these projects? Federal grants, state funds, municipal bonds, corporate shares, user fees… all highly leveraged and interdependent. How about creating a system that’s smaller, simpler, more distributed, and cheaper instead?
He was very direct in his response. He earns his living adding value to infrastructure projects. “Adding value” means adding complexity. And that costs money. There’s no money in simplifying systems, reducing consumption, or eliminating debt. That’s the beginning, middle, and end of what’s driving our current circumstances. No one anywhere in the supply chain has any incentive to make anything smaller, simpler, or cheaper. All the incentives push toward more of everything at a higher price point with more centralized authority.
I’m concerned that people are becoming increasingly dependent on levels of complexity that are inherently fragile – not for extras or frills, but for survival. A lot can go very wrong very quickly.