Infrastructure: A field guide to systems on the verge of change

Have you ever wondered what all of those gizmos were in the local power station? Wondered how water treatment works? The benefits and drawbacks of different styles of bridges? Brian Hayes, whose day job is a senior writer at American Scientist, didn’t just wonder. He took pictures over a 15 year period, found out how things worked, and explained it to the rest of us in Infrastructure, The Book of Everything for the Industrial Landscape. As a science writer, Hayes avoids “coffee table book” syndrome, where beautiful pictures are matched with superficial text. He figures out how the system works and explains it. The pictures are fabulous, and would be even better if they were complemented by some diagrams with labels — it wasn’t always easy to figure out which bit of circuitry or process gear was which (the picture below is a set of air-blast switches with porcelain insulators at the Ravenswood power plan in Queens).

The hardback first edition was titled: “A Field Guide to the Industrial Landscape.” Hayes describes the artifacts of the industrial landscape like nature guides describe birds and mountains. While describing the artifacts and systems, Hayes also strives to explain why the industrial landscape is obscure to many of us. From Hayes’ point of view a major reason for the obscurity of industrial objects in plain sight is that industrial infrastructure has an image problem. There is a great divide between the green/populist image of “Dark Satanic Mills” and the reality of the engineered systems that our society depends on, which have a pragmatic intricacy, elegance and beauty of their own. Hayes sees a self-reinforcing gulf between the negative stereotype of the industrial landscape, and the paranoid and secretive attitude of some industrial organizations. Hayes therefore describes the industrial systems as they are, without much critique, in the hope of increasing appreciation and understanding.
Still, Hayes notices the smokestack-scrubbing, emissions-reducing, landscape-restoring, material recycling, and other environmental innovations that have modified industrial systems in recent decades. These were put into place because of valid criticism of the destruction wrought by industry. Mining companies that behead mountains in West Virginia and oil refineries that create cancer alley in the Houston area may be secretive because they don’t want to share information about the harm they cause.
Seeing the big picture of industrial systems also felt like looking at a crystal on the verge of phase change. Oil processing, roads and bridges for gas-fueled cars and trucks, centralized energy power plants and big power grids; factory farms; massive waste creation and disposal systems — all of these depend on the last century’s abundance of cheap energy, and much of it is going to change, hopefully without civilization collapsing. Renewable, decentralized energy generation, electrified transport, sustainable agriculture, cradle to cradle no-waste manufacturing or bust. I’m wanting to read “Infrastructure” as annotated by Natural Capitalism and the Journal of Industrial Ecology, showing the opportunities to reduce wasted material and energy throughout the industrial ecosystem. I hope that this book appears 50 years from now like a tour guide to Colonial Williamsburg, with descriptions of blacksmithing, barrel-making, candle-dipping, quill pen cutting, tub laundry, and other antique technologies.

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