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Book Review: On the Grid: A Plot of Land, An Average Neighborhood and the Systems That Make Our World Work by Scott Huler

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Hearing the term “the grid” makes me think about recent reports regarding its vulnerability to cyber-terrorism.  Conspiratorial types may think that the rolling blackouts of recent memory and these vulnerability reports are all plots by the government.  They want the grid to be weak and old so that they have no choice but to take it over and control it for the good of the entire country.  Hello Socialism.  (What?  No, of course I’d never think anything like that.  Ever).

Perhaps, though, some of this stems from not knowing enough about this enigmatic grid.  Like many I turn on my tap, flip on light switches, pick up my phone, turn on my air conditioner and many other things without thinking twice about how I’m able to do such things with ease.  Sure, I have a vague idea of how it happens but I don’t put much thought into it.  I put my trash dumpster on the street on Tuesday’s and Friday’s and it’s taken away and I don’t have to worry about it.  In his book On the Grid, while discussing the history of sanitation, Scott Huler makes this observation: “now it seems as though we’ve known what we were doing forever.”  The same is true, not just for city sanitation, but all the other myriad systems in place in almost every municipality.  These things all just happen for us.  Maybe not knowing how contributes to our worry that either it will all collapse or be taken over or something else.

Now, honestly, I can’t say that On the Grid will alleviate concerns that the infrastructure of the United States will collapse, but at least he helps us to understand it all.  Huler wanted to know how water, electricity, gas and telephone/Internet connections made it to his house.  So he began tracing everything.  Yes, he ended up crawling around in culverts and in the water and sewer tunnels beneath his home town — Raleigh, North Carolina — and visiting a secure nuclear facility and finagling a glimpse of the secret headquarters of the electric company and had many other adventures.

Obviously his story is the story of Raleigh’s infrastructure.  For about two-thirds of On the Grid this aggravated and wearied me, being as I am a product of the instant gratification culture of the Internet and America.  I found Huler’s premise fascinating, but I wanted to know how all this stuff worked for me, not Raleigh.  Huler points out that Raleigh has mirrored the demographic and developmental changes occurring throughout America.  He says that “what’s been happening in America over the last half-century is Raleigh.”  So it is, apparently, the quintessential American city.  Still, I wanted the story to be more local.  It finally dawned on me, though, that Huler’s book was succeeding in exactly what it needed to accomplish: it was making me interested in how my town operated.

After that epiphany, I began to pay more attention.  Of course he could only examine Raleigh.  That made sense now.  It was up to me to understand Kingman, Arizona and Huler provided in his book a good plan on how to do just that.  He busticates the city, tackling one piece of infrastructure in each chapter:  surveying stormwater management,  water supply, sewage, electricity, gas, landfill, roads, technology.  He explains how it works for Raleigh, which in truth probably is a fair picture of how the same system works for each of us.  But more importantly he mentions who he talks to in his city management.  This can be important because it will allow me — or you — to find a counterpart in our own city government and pump him or her for information.

I was also impressed by the amount of history and statistics that Huler packed into his narrative.  He often will travel back to the founding of this country or further — to Rome in its heyday, for example — tracing each piece of infrastructure to its roots.  He goes back to Rome often when discussing water management and roads (the collapse of its infrastructure did not bode well for that historical city) and he referred often to John Snow’s troubleshooting of the cholera epidemic in London.  The sheer amount of historical facts and the tons of garbage that need to be buried and the amount of rainfall that impervious and compacted soils can handle and Pierre L’Enfant’s designs – it was all rather staggering after consideration.

Huler paints an agreeable picture, too, of all the workers involved in supporting and managing all this infrastructure, for the most part.  Yes, even those egg-headed and dreaded engineers.  All these people are compelled to continue feeding a beast that seems to be on its deathbed.  It’s an awkward and frustrating position for them, to be sure.  Mostly On the Grid is simply an examination of all these systems, but in his conclusion he does discuss their future.  Each of these systems face severe problems.  But they all have solutions.  The holdup: “Money and political will.”  Perhaps they are doomed.

As with almost any issue a major step in dealing with it is education.  With so much information being put out about living green and living a sustainable lifestyle, by focusing on the redneck, postmodern-ish dream of ‘living off the grid’, we’ve perhaps not bothered to see how the existing system is used and misused, thus giving ourselves a chance to correct the abuse.  Scott Huler has made infrastructure an intriguing subject and has done his part to engender respect for the existing systems and a curiosity for them.

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