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 fast-vanishing age littered the landscape. Gas stations, dead malls, extra lanes now emptied of shoppers and commuters. And as we took in all this ugliness, we worried about an ugliness to come. One that might lay still another life-crushing steel and concrete layer over the green and blue natural systems we hold dear.
The thing is, nature has its own infrastructure. What nature needs is for us to get out of its way and let its systems function in the manner that billions of years of evolution enabled them to do. It would be more than a shame, therefore, if Mr. Biden’s infrastructure planning doesn’t make that connection and instead yields to the easy justification of making long-neglected repairs.
We need a different kind of infrastructure entirely, one that accommodates the natural world and puts the long-term needs of ecosystems before the knee-jerk urges of all of us so eager to get back to life as we knew it. The Biden administration has an opportunity to meld its new infrastructure proposal with its plan to protect a third of America’s lands and waters. This would improve not just infrastructure but also America’s plan for what infrastructure is for — how it can serve people and the planet while improving our children’s futures.
So with an eye toward that, here are a few things we wish the president would consider as we move ahead.
Precautionary road building. As we’ve learned from our involvements in decades of struggles to reform the commercial fishing industry in the United States, successfully managed systems set precautionary limits at the careful end of avoiding long-term damage. We need to take the same approach with road building. More than four million miles of roads and highways lace the nation. In the Lower 48, the farthest one can get from a road is about 20 miles, according to a forthcoming book by the environmental journalist Ben Goldfarb. A pigeon can fly that distance in 20 minutes. All that “infrastructure,” Mr. Goldfarb adds, kills an estimated one million vertebrate animals every day.
So before we rush out to fix our crumbling roads, perhaps we should let a lot of them crumble. Let’s favor only those roads that carry significant amounts of public bus transportation or are essential links to getting workers to and from their places of employment. Let’s have more electric vehicles but also focus on making roads work better. And let’s build transport that more feasibly, desirably and efficiently carries 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 aforementioned dead malls, gas stations and extra lanes.) In our exuberance to build more green things, we need to focus on updating what we’ve already damaged. That dead mall could be a solar field. (It already has the power hookups.) That agglomeration of gas pumps could be a park-and-ride charging station for commuters traveling farther by train. We must instantly stop cutting down forests to put in vast arrays of solar panels so that utility monopolies can maintain their grasp. A forward-looking plan must heal what is broken before breaking more ground.
Creation of distributed electrical generation instead of huge centralized power stations like 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. For every dollar spent on a distant offshore wind farm, we’d like to see two bucks go to making cheap green power at homes everywhere.
Transportation, yes, but with wildlife corridors. Let’s broaden 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. But even as commuting changes radically in the coming postpandemic days, we can change it in accordance with nature. As we knit together our splintered transportation networks, let’s take care not to further fragment the increasingly interrupted ranges of migratory mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians. Let’s use some of those billions of dollars targeted for rail and road to build wildlife over- and underpasses and sheath public buildings in bird-safe glass. Let’s plan for frog fences and tunnels that already work to stop the roadkill slaughter where amorous amphibians remind the world what springtime is for. A lot is already possible.
An Abundant Species Act. Finally, now that we have a government that supports a return to responsible environmental laws, let’s bring those laws into the modern era by changing emphasis along with infrastructure. The Endangered Species Act sets a floor to protect at-risk plants and animals rather than a goal for them 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 declined by a third overall in the past half-century, and the numbers of insects that pollinate our crops, gardens and wild landscapes are plummeting. As pressures on wildlife rise, we need to protect populations before they decline. We need an Abundant Species Act, whose goal is ensuring that wildlife on the land and in the waters and skies are as visible as roads, rails or wind turbines.
Which brings us back to our initial premise. What is the point of a country with an infrastructure that seamlessly, silently and electrically flits us from place to place when those places have nothing left for us to see? The infrastructure of America — the guts, if you will — is a certain wildness that is essential to who we are. Without those guts, a new American infrastructure will be 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, an ecologist, is a professor at Stony Brook University, where he founded the Safina Center, and the author, most recently, of “Becoming Wild: How Animal Cultures Raise Families, Create Beauty and Achieve Peace.”
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