Pop quiz: What do marshes, pipelines, forests, and underground parking structures have in common?
The answer is they are all infrastructure – part of the "underlying foundation," as my dictionary puts it, "on which the continuance and growth of a community depend." A lot of that foundation, like pipelines and parking structures, is artificial. But most of the goods and services we rely on come from the natural environment, itself, like clean water, breathable air, and a stable climate.
Ideally, both kinds of infrastructure – gray and green – would work together to provide the food, transport, and energy we need. But the story of gray and green infrastructure is often one of conflict. In the Upper Midwest, oil pipelines tear through important forest habitat and spoil wetlands that filter water and are vital to the ecosystem. In Houston, six-lane highways have covered grasslands that used to slow and contain seasonal floods. To understand how we might address the conflict and harmonize our infrastructure through passionate advocacy and sensible policy, we need to connect the dots.
In Season 2 of CPR's Connect the Dots podcast, I interview a range of experts, community advocates, and political leaders to find out how we can get the balance right. The work is often daunting, as I learned when talking with Greenpeace's Rachel Rye Butler about the efforts of indigenous tribes to organize with environmentalists and forward-looking investors to stop the spread of destructive oil-and-gas pipelines across North America.
Sometimes the work is exhilarating. From Shalini Vajjhala, a private resilience consultant, I learned about an underground parking garage in Hoboken, N.Y., that doubles as a flood reservoir. "What you want to be able to do," she told me, "is find ways to really thread the needle between doing the stuff that really helps the most hard-hit get back on their feet [while] creating a space for systems change. And that's why we think infrastructure is exciting, right? Because it's the stuff that's largely invisible that will completely change how your community functions."
As these examples imply, hard conversations about climate disruption are never far away. That oil that flows from the Alberta tar sands through the Keystone XL pipeline inevitably combusts into millions of tons of new greenhouse gases. The wetlands and seawalls we rely on to protect us from storm and saltwater intrusion face increasing challenges as weather patterns grow more erratic and sea levels rise.
And politics and policy are always part of the mix, confirming, once again, why connecting the dots across disciplines and locales is so important. When I spoke with Sharan Burrow of the International Trade Union Confederation about the "just transition" away from fossil fuels and the feasibility of the "Green New Deal," she was encouraging but frank about the critical task we face: "It's just not possible that we can keep electing people that refuse to understand that we are rendering the earth uninhabitable. We can have jobs. We can have communities that are great places to live. But we have to want to. And we have to act."
The first two episodes of Connect the Dots: Season 2 explore the pipeline and climate resiliency issues more in-depth. They are available now on a variety of sites and platforms, including CPR's website, Podbean, iTunes, Spotify, and Stitcher. Episode 3, covering the Green New Deal, a just energy transition, and more, will be available in early June. Future episodes in Season 2 will be uploaded monthly.