A (Technically Unsound) Technocratic Dream

I submitted this to the NYTimes as an op-ed last week. It wasn’t good for them. Passing up on stuff like this, no wonder they’re losing money! (Kidding).

An op-ed by Henry Petroski, civil engineering professor at Duke is an old reincarnation of the technocratic dream, get the politics out and just let the experts do their work, and everything will be fine. But while we’re almost always better off with experts than without, sometimes they get it wrong. As JFK said following the Bay of Pigs “All my life I’ve known better than to depend on the experts. How could I have been so stupid, to let them go ahead?”

Prof. Petroski himself diverts about halfway through the article from a rather nice discussion of changing perspectives on infrastructure and the limitations of cost and risk benefit analysis to make a political argument of his own. “Underdesigned” systems risk physical damage and human life we are warned. Yes an “underdesigned” system is always bad, but so is an overengineered system, which will needlessly waste resources with no benefit.

Prof. Petroski unfortunately does not realize that he has begun to make political arguments of his own, declaring that engineers are absolved of any responsibility to change their ways as we deal with climate change, we just need to give them enough money.

He holds up the efficiency of the Hoover Dam project as the ideal we should aspire to in contrast to the embarrassingly expensive and delayed Bay Bridge in California. But this equates the efficiency of the planning and building of the project with an ultimately successful outcome from the project. The Hoover Dam also took the brakes off growth in the arid Southwest and allowed massive cities and a thirsty agricultural system to sprawl in the desert. To the extent the dam aggravated unsustainable growth in this water poor region, we can say it was a disastrous and expensive failure, no matter how good the engineering was.

I worked for four and a half years at the U.S. EPA and spent much of my time working on water quality problems from stormwater runoff, a problem created by the last generation of engineers when they came up with what seemed to be a logical method to protect developed areas from flooding. In response to the water quality problem, a new generation of green infrastructure technologies, such as rain gardens and green roofs, and planning methods that favor preservation and connection between existing green areas have been developed to address both water quality and flooding problems in a cost effective manner. The technologies also offer carbon sequestration to adapt to climate change and reduce heat island effect which can help cities adapt to it.

These technologies didn’t develop in a vacuum or in a silo, they were the product of engineers and decision makers recognizing a problem and working together to make sure that the “know how” to address current problems existed and that the policy and political environment was such that this know how could be applied. Despite their promise, these techniques are often seen as unproven and resistance is still strong among those trained in the last generation of techniques and the policy environment can often hinder their adoption.
The challenges we face are immense and no professional or academic discipline is exempt from periodic re-examination of its role. Indeed, there is much consensus that the solutions to our problems will be interdisciplinary. And here Prof. Petroski might do well to consult economists and political scientists before laying the blame at an amorphous “political climate.” Because if we currently had all the money and the proper political institutions and decision making frameworks to solve our infrastructure problems in the face of a changing climate, they wouldn’t really be problems in the first place.

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