We were driving through Long Island’s sprawling road system in a borrowed electric car when we heard the news about President Biden’s proposed $2 trillion infrastructure package. All around us, the bric a brac of a rapidly-vanishing age littered our landscape. We now see empty gas stations and dead malls. We worried about what would happen to all this uglyness as we ate it. One that could add another layer of concrete and steel to the green and natural systems we cherish.
Nature is able to manage its own infrastructure. It is up to us to help nature function the way that millions of years of evolution has allowed them to. It would be an affront to nature if the infrastructure planning of Mr. Biden fails to make that connection and instead justifies making long-neglected fixes.
A new kind of infrastructure is needed. One that takes into account the long-term needs and balances the emotions of those of us who are so desperate to return to the old life we know. Biden’s new infrastructure proposal can be combined with the plan of the administration to help protect a third America’s lands. This would help America improve its infrastructure as well as America’s plans for what infrastructure is used for — how it can best serve the planet and benefit our children’s lives.
As we look to the future, these are some of the things that we would like for President Obama to consider.
Precautionary road-building. As we have seen through decades of efforts to reform the fishing industry in America, successful managed systems set precautionary limits in order to avoid long-term harm. It is time to do the same with road building. The country is connected to more than four hundred thousand miles by highways and roads. A forthcoming book by Ben Goldfarb, an environmental journalist and author, reveals that the lowest distance you can drive from a highway in the Lower 48 is 20 miles. In 20 minutes, a pigeon can fly the same distance. All that “infrastructure,” Mr. Goldfarb says, kills approximately one million vertebrate species every day.
Let them all fall before we rush to fix them. Let’s prioritize roads that provide essential connections to workers or public bus transportation. Let’s encourage more electric vehicles and also improve the road network. Let’s also make it easier to transport electric vehicles.
Using the already built environment before destroying the natural one. We have already mowed down a lot of nature to make room for our assorted stuff. (See the above dead malls, gasoline stations and extra lanes. Our desire to build greener things should be balanced with our need to repair what we’ve already done. This abandoned mall could become a sun-filled field. (It already has the power hookups.) This cluster of gas pumps could become a park & ride charging station that commuters can use to travel farther by train. To ensure utility monopolies’ control, must immediately stop from cutting down forests and install large arrays of solar cells. A forward-looking plan must heal what is broken before breaking more ground.
Create distributed electric generation instead of large, centrally-owned power stations like the wind farms. Utility monopolies rightly see an existential threat in distributed energy systems that generate electricity at or near where it is consumed as a far better generator of jobs. Rooftop solar is getting cheaper and cheaper with each passing year. We’d love to see two dollars for every dollar spent on distant offshore wind farms.
Transportation, yes. But with wildlife corridors. Let’s increase public transportation. As others have suggested, we should vastly expand bus service and link the dispiriting fragments of short- and long-distance travel needs of millions of Americans. We can make commuting more efficient in the future post-pandemic. We must not fragment the ever-changing ranges of migratory mammals. Let’s spend some of the billions that have been allocated to rail and road in order to build wildlife over-and underpasses and wrap public buildings in bird-safe glass. Let’s design frog tunnels, which will stop roadkill and slaughter. There are many things that can be done.
An Abundant Species Act. We now have a government which supports the return to responsible environmental laws. Let’s make those laws modern by shifting the emphasis and improving infrastructure. The Endangered Species act sets a threshold to protect at-risk species, not a goal for them all to flourish. Contrastingly, the Clean Water Act is aspirational; it set out to improve U.S. waters, with the mandate of making them “fishable and swimmable.” Since passage of the Endangered Species Act, extinctions have indeed been slowed, but wild bird populations have Declination by a third in the last half-century. In addition, the number and quality of insects that help us to pollinate our wildlands, crops, and gardens has plummeted. Protecting wildlife populations is essential to avoid their decline. An Abundant Species Act would be necessary to ensure that wildlife both on land and in waters and skies is as visible as roads and rails.
We are back at our original premise. What good is an infrastructure that quietly, seamlessly and electrically moves us from place to spot when there is no other option? The infrastructure of America — the guts, if you will — is a certain wildness that is essential to who we are. Without those guts, America’s new infrastructure will be nothing but an empty package.
Paul Greenberg is the author of “The Climate Diet: 50 Simple Ways to Trim Your Carbon Footprint” and the writer in residence at the Safina Center at Stony Brook University. Carl Safina (ecologist) is a professor of Stony Brook University. He also founded the Safina Center. His most recent book, “Becoming Wild” is his latest.
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