Not a Sexy Problem, but a Scary One
The Second in a Series on Infrastructure Justice
Try a new experiment today: Every time you use the water faucet, every time you make use of a bathroom, every time you drive down a street or highway, every time you turn on a light switch or simply use electricity (like you are right now with your computer)—every time you do any of these things—say to yourself, “Thank you, Infrastructure!” If you faithfully adhere to this practice of gratitude today, I am willing to bet that you will soon be saying, “Thank you, Infrastructure” more than you say “Thank you, God” or “Thank you, Jesus.” The point of this exercise is not to claim that “infrastructure” should be elevated to the status of deity. The point is to recognize just how important this vastly under-appreciated and taken-for-granted dimension of our everyday life is. Harvard Business School professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter captures the paradoxical status of infrastructure in observing, “Infrastructure is such a dull word. But it’s really an issue that touches almost everything.”
In a stroke of comic genius, John Oliver once devoted a segment of his late night talk to illustrating this same point. The YouTube video of this 21-minute piece has been viewed more than 7 million times and bears the descriptive line “America’s crumbling infrastructure: It’s not a sexy problem, but it is a scary one.” Indeed, Oliver begins his segment with a string of video clips in which public officials lament infrastructure’s lack of sex appeal. Oliver compares his own passionate interest in infrastructure to “the rad youth counselor trying to convince you Jesus was the Taylor Swift of his time.” Yet, across the political spectrum—from Sanders to Trump—everyone agrees that infrastructure is a major problem to be addressed. Oliver notes that on this issue even labor and business agree (which has not happened since the death of Jimmy Hoffa).
Despite the near universal support for tackling one of our nation’s most serious matters, nothing has been done. While the word “infrastructure” may suffer from a chronic lack of appeal, there are deeper reasons for why our nation’s infrastructure suffers from a starvation diet of minimal funding and falls further into disrepair. In an April article for The New Yorker, James Surowiecki explores how infrastructure went from being “the heart of American public policy” to being a matter of enormous neglect. Among the reasons he lists are an ideological aversion to big government spending, an onslaught of bureaucratic entanglements, and a political system that gives more weight to short-term budgetary pressures than long-term concerns. As Surowiecki notes, the result is that “infrastructure policy has become a matter of lurching from crisis to crisis, solving problems after the fact rather than preventing them from happening.” One political scientist observes that we have become a nation of “short-term-fix addicts.”
There is also a deeper ethical-spiritual matter at play here that Surowiecki points toward when he says, “Infrastructure is the ultimate public good.” A Christian ethicist would speak of the common good, the shared elements of life that allow for not only human survival but human fulfillment. The existence and maintenance of these shared elements depend upon an ethos of mutual concern, a love of one’s neighbors. We currently exist in a political situation in which the basic decency of caring for others falters underneath the weight of ideologies and institutions that serve the interests of the powerful rather than the needs of the many. The challenge for people of faith is to both articulate and act upon our core values in a way that compels change to happen. We might not be able to make infrastructure a sexy topic, but we can make it one that speaks to hearts and minds with persuasive urgency.
The Rev. Brooks Berndt is Minister for Environmental Justice for the United Church of Christ.