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The rise of the word “infrastructure” in public consciousness seems to have coincided with the political abandonment and defunding of what it referred to: the building and maintenance of foundational public services. Today, the idea of infrastructure is everywhere. A typical recent headline reads: “$1 Trillion Infrastructure Bill Pours Money into Long-Delayed Needs.” Images of subways flooding in New York City and Zhengzhou, China, where people were trapped inside trains by rising water, make our dependence on infrastructure particularly visceral.

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When it was coined in late nineteenth-century France, “infrastructure” meant the tracks that trains run on. World War I saw the word’s adoption into English, where it broadened in meaning to encompass all things military. Right into the Cold War, “infrastructure” connoted bases, ports, supply depots, and roads hardened to handle tanks. But by 1950, the word was creeping out from under the military realm. In a debate over the foundations of the European Common Market in that year, Winston Churchill mocked what he took as its Latinate pomposity, “the usual jargon about ‘the infra-structure of a supra-national authority.’”

Still, scholar Thomas Zeller notes, “infrastructure” remains ill-defined, a “fashionably vague planner’s shibboleth.” It seems to mean everything underlying human living now: water and sewer systems; electrical grids; roads, railways, airports; cables, cell towers, satellites. The world wide web in your pocket. Networks upon networks. These are the things and systems which “undergird and define societies and environments alike.”

But in the United States, Zeller argues, this public conceptualization of infrastructure only appeared in the early 1980s. At the time, “it was surrounded by negativity,” he adds.

A typical mid-1980s report from policy experts was titled America in Ruins; The Decaying Infrastructure. Ever since, infrastructure has become a permanent crisis, highlighted by highway collapses, levee failures, and hospitals and morgues utterly overwhelmed by pandemic.

It is probably worth rethinking the definition of the word. Zeller writes that infrastructures are usually thought of as superimposed on the environment, a sure mark of humanity’s foolproof domination of the world. But he disagrees. The large technical systems of infrastructure are interconnected with, and inseparable from, nature. They are “neither wholly technological nor wholly natural.” And since the control of nature is illusory, infrastructures “remain difficult to govern.”

“Instead of simplifying relationships between humans and non-human nature,” writes Zeller, “infrastructures complicate them in the long run.” The world is becoming “more and more infrastructural,” just as the new normal of extreme climate events—flash floods, high winds, storm surges, drought, fires, rising seas—begins to present unprecedented challenges.

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Global Environment, Vol. 10, No. 1, Special issue: Manufacturing landscapes: Nature and technology in environmental history (2017), pp. 202-228
White Horse Press