The New American Republic: Efficiency Is Infrastructure

Micheal Lind has an interesting piece in arguing that Obama's presidency augurs the beginning of a new American Republic; the refounding of the nation driven by drastic changes in the economy and technology. The second republic, begun under Lincoln, saw the transition from farm animals to the steam engine and railroads, for Roosevelt's third republic it was the spread of both electricity and the internal combustion engine.

In both cases these transitions meant the beginning of a new era of economic modernization driven by state spending on infrastructure and economic modernization. The question, for Lind, is what new technologies will form the foundation for this new American Age. In the short term that means asking, what will the new president spend money on in his plans to rebuild America's infrastructure?

But it's not just about the US. The combined economic and infrastructure crisis have spurred spending both here in Canada, and around the globe. In that context I want to make an obvious but important point : Efficiency is Infrastructure. Lind asks what the future holds: " Nuclear? Solar? Clean coal?" All of those are yesterday's answers (or red herrings) and have the familiar big government bias for big investments in monumental projects. The major shift that we need to see is one where we move away from major capital investments in large single projects to ones that increase the efficiency of the multiple systems that we already have.

Clearly money is going to have to go into crumbling roads and bridges. We know how to do that. But the real challenge is going to be figuring out how to tap into the millions of smaller targets (the energy hungry homes, offices and factories that fill our landscape) and turn those into targets for infrastructure spending. Again and again we've seen that efficiency is miles cheaper than building new generation facilities. Given our wasteful past, the economic and employment potential of the efficiency sector is huge. And every dollar spent on efficiency means less money spent on imported energy and more money that stays in the local economy.

Efficiency retrofits are only a sliver of what we need to do to respond to meet our pressing environmental crisis. But if we want to get closer to a solution, we need to recognize that efficiency retrofits deserve infrastructure dollars just as much as bridge repair. Otherwise there is a real danger that we'll wake up a few years down the line and realize we've spent all our money and have nothing to show for it but more asphalt and overpasses.


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