Note to Facebook friends who snickered at us for spending our evenings reading about cancer and sewers - this is David's review of the book about sewers. LaVonne's review of the book about cancer is here. To any friends who may be genuinely worried about us - David is now reading a book about sentences (the kind with words in them, not the kind pronounced in courts), and LaVonne is reading the autobiography of a karmic dog.
An Entertaining Tour of the Mundane
I want to know how things work. That’s why I loved David Macaulay’s 1970s illustrated classics Cathedral, Castle, and City, and why I enjoyed learning about the mechanics of the longbow in Bernard Cornwell’s historical war novel Agincourt.
Scott Huler’s On the Grid is Macaulay for a modern city, absent the line drawings. Instead of flying buttresses and garderobes, Huler explores the engineering miracles of sewers, wastewater treatment, electrical power transmission, and landfill management.
His case study is Raleigh, North Carolina. A cease-and-desist order from Raleigh’s city fathers piqued his curiosity: all residents must stop using their garbage disposals. A drought and the resultant water shortage meant that citizens needed to take care of their kitchen garbage without running lots of water. Compost it or bundle it with the household refuse headed for the landfill, but don’t stuff it down the drains (where, even with enough water, it could clog the city’s pipes).
Thus Huler began wondering about—and investigating—systems that are so common as to be almost invisible: wires, cell towers, water pipes, power lines, telephone poles, roads, and modern landfills. He contacted the proper authorities, asked for tours, took notes, and eventually wrote this appreciative account of what the engineers who make it all work do for the common good.
Along the way, Huler gives us many revealing glimpses of invisible public servants. He also slips in enough historical material to make us appreciate the triumphs of earlier civilizations - the Roman roads, for example, and the eternal city’s Cloaca Maxima.
.After an entertaining tour of the mundane, Huler concludes with three imperatives.
First, “thank God for engineers.” As the father-in-law of an engineer, who is also a wonderful husband and father, I do that regularly. If you don’t know any engineers who make our systems work, Huler urges you to get to know some of them and express your appreciation.
Second, “get out your wallet.” Infrastructure costs money to build and maintain. Don’t support pandering politicians who cut taxes by deferring infrastructure repair and development. If your own home’s infrastructure needs repair, fix that leaky faucet or pay to have it fixed. Deferred maintenance is no bargain for cities or for homeowners, and repairs often cost more in the long run.
Third, “learn to love our infrastructure.” Here Huler waxes poetic about the aesthetics of the pylons that hold up our power lines. They are “lyrical” and like “ballet dancers spinning, arms above their heads.”
Although I can appreciate a great engineering feat like the Golden Gate Bridge, by and large I’m unconvinced by the aesthetics of infrastructure (I still prefer it to be invisible). Scott Huler, however, enormously enhanced my appreciation of its complex challenges and for the people who make it work.