December 11, 2017

Maintenance: a limit to growth

Editorial article by Edward Goldsmith published in the Ecologist Quarterly autumn 1978.


The physical infrastructure of our industrial society is disintegrating fast. The obvious reasons are shoddy construction work and a lack of maintenance largely due to capital shortages. Just about everything is affected. Our schools, for instance, are visibly decaying; they have been described by the National Association of Head Teachers as “disintegrating into slums”. A recent government study estimates that £1,500 million is required for repairs. A sum that, needless to say, is simply not available.

Our roads are crumbling at an equally rapid rate. We are told that they are now in a worse condition than at any time in the last forty years. In Norfolk the County Surveyor reports “Some roads may just begin to fall apart”. [The Times, 18 November 1975] In Dorset, because of pot-holes in the county’s roads, bus operators report that they now have to replace springs four times as often as previously. [Sunday Telegraph, 28 May 1978] In Bristol nearly £3.5 million is required to repair crumbling roads and pavements. Everywhere the picture is the same and the causes are shoddy construction and lack of funds for repair and maintenance. Indeed the amount of money spent on road repairs in Britain has actually fallen from an average of £674 million annually in the years from 1973 to 1977, to a projected £536 million in 1978/9. [Sunday Telegraph, 28 May 1978]

The same is true of the railways. According to the British Rail Annual Report 1976, tracks are wearing out and hundreds of locomotives are becoming obsolete. There is already a backlog of 375 miles of track in need of re-laying at a cost of £100,000 per mile. British Rail insists that £315 million a year is required for maintenance and modernisation, but little more than £200 million is available. As a result some lines are closed and speed limits are imposed on others.

Much the same can be said of our sewers and water mains. The cost of maintenance appears to be, on average, £260 million a year, while no more than £150 million is at present available. Inevitably, a considerable backlog of work is accumulating, and shoddy workmanship can again be partly incriminated. Indeed, while Sir Joseph Bazalgett’s trunk sewers built between 1856 and 1875 are still in sound condition, modern sewers have structural failures within the first few years of service. [Sewers and Water Mains: A National Assessment, National Water Council]

The same is true too of our gas distribution system. Gas mains are in a very poor state of repair. This is the main reason for the many explosions that occurred in 1976/7 at the cost of ten lives and £800,000 worth of damage. The Department of Energy considers that £400 million should be set aside for replacing old cast iron gas mains before 1984. Once again the necessary funds are not available. [Department of Energy Report on serious gas explosions]

It may be a consoling thought that these problems are not just peculiar to Britain. In the USA for instance, roads are also in a deplorable state. In New York City more than a million pot-holes are filled each year; nevertheless, 35,000 law suits were filed against the city during the last seven years and $61 million were paid out in damages for financial losses attributable to pot-holes and crumbling pavements.

American sewers are also in a terrible condition. New Orleans is about to spend $60 million on its sewers which is less than half of what is required (see US News and World Report, 3 July 1973). In other cities the situation is just as bad.

US bridges are also deteriorating fast. Pittsburgh’s 129 bridges have been described by public works director John Ruff as ‘Engineering antiques’. Eleven of them had to be closed last year because of decay and structural problems and more will be shut this year. The situation is equally bad in New York, and in Washington it appears even worse. Last year, nearly half the city’s capital expenditure went on bridge repairs. This was nothing like enough. A complete overhaul is required and this would $500 million. In the US as a whole, 100,000 bridges are regarded as dangerous and the cost of replacing them is estimated at $23 billion. [Federal Highway Administration]

What is more the outlook for the future is bleak. Less rather than more money, is likely to be available for maintenance. Indeed state and local governments are already devoting 50 percent less of their spending on capital needs than they did in 1965. A Congressional Joint Economic Committee has gone so far as to say that paying for maintenance, improvements and new public works may be “the single greatest problem facing our nation’s cities”.

If the present physical infrastructure of our industrial society is disintegrating, why, we might ask, do we go on systematically expanding it? If we cannot maintain existing roads, why do we build so many new ones? If we have to impose speed limits on deteriorating railway lines why do we spend so much money in designing faster trains?

The answer is presumably that neither political kudos nor commercial profits can be derived from routine maintenance work. Designing and building new motorways and new trains, on the other hand, means research and development grants for scientists and technologists, profits for industrial enterprises and more tax revenue for the government.

Also our society is committed to further increasing economic growth. Indeed if current plans materialise, Britain’s GNP will have doubled by the end of the century. In order to manufacture and distribute all the goods involved, however, must mean at least doubling the number of factories, power stations, water mains, gas distribution networks, sewage works, motorways, roads, bridges, railway lines, airports etc – and this in spite of the fact that we are incapable of maintaining the ones we already have.

In reality the infrastructure required to accommodate twice the present economic activity will be very much more than double the present one. The reason is that conditions are ever less favourable to the industrial process. Among other things, economic growth involves the use of increasing amounts of energy and non-renewable resources. Unfortunately we have largely depleted economic sources of most such commodities, and to obtain the less economic ones means putting up increasingly elaborate installations.

Thus we could once obtain our oil supply by digging a hole in the Arabian desert. We must now obtain it either from Alaska, for which purpose we must build a pipeline stretching across half a continent: or we must obtain it from the Tar Sands of Athabasca which requires building ‘syncrude’ plants that cost several billion dollars each: or we must extract it from way out in the middle of the North Sea, which means building vast and extremely expensive platforms and other elaborate installations.

As oil supplies cease to be sufficient to power our growing industrial machine, so do we turn to nuclear power which involves putting up even more elaborate installations, reactors, uranium-enrichment factories, re-treatment plants, waste disposal facilities etc. Also as our environment becomes ever less capable of absorbing the pollutants generated by our industrial activities, so must we install ever more elaborate anti-pollution devices. In the US, for instance, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, it is now estimated that municipalities will have to spend $96 billion to build the facilities necessary to meet the requirements of the 1972 Water Pollution Control Act, and another $54 billion to prevent pollution from storm waters.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to postpone expenditure on controls for specific pollutants that are beginning to have a global impact. Sulphur dioxide is a case in point and it looks as if Britain alone will have to spend £3,000 million on installations plus £900 million in maintenance costs to reduce emissions from power stations. Over the next decades similar measures will have to be taken to control other specific pollutants whose impact is becoming ever less tolerable – various radio-nuclides from nuclear power stations and re-treatment plants for instance. This will mean still further elaborate installations.

In addition capital shortages in the next decades are likely to be very much more serious than they are today. The amount of money available for investment in the manufacturing industry, for instance, in the UK is decreasing rather than increasing (from £2,130 million in 1970 to £1,764 million in 1977). Investment in service industries in this period has increased only marginally from £1,799 to £2,081 million (Trade and Industry, 9 June 1978) which means that total investment during this period has fallen from £3,929 to £3,845 million.

There is no valid reason for supposing that it is likely to increase very substantially in the coming decades, yet Mr Justice Parker and his friends tell us, in their report on the Windscale Inquiry, that Britain must build two fast breeder reactors a year from 1985 onwards. Where the money will come from doesn’t seem to concern them.

The estimate for putting up the Clinch River fast breeder reactor in the US was $3 billion. Today according to conservative estimates a 1,000 megawatt fast breeder reactor could cost about £2,000 million. We are thus asked to invest in two power stations just about 100 percent of all the capital available today for industrial investment – 200 percent of what is available for the manufacturing industry. This gives some idea of the total irresponsibility of the nuclear mafia in this country. It also gives an idea of the capital shortages we are due to encounter. Because of these shortages, the shift of funds away from maintenance towards new constructions is certain to be accentuated.

Clearly these trends cannot continue for very long. A point must eventually be reached when the rate at which the physical infrastructure is disintegrating is equal to that at which it is being extended. When this occurs, the lack of money for maintenance becomes an effective, indeed an insuperable, barrier to further economic growth. In fact it may well be that this point has already been reached, who knows? No government has, to my knowledge, even considered the matter. It may also be that even without further economic growth, we may not be able to maintain the physical infrastructure that we have already built.

Consider that in the U.K. we have nearly 20 million housing units. If these cost £150,000, then their total replacement cost must be £300,000 million. If they are to be renewed over 30 years (a conservative estimate, if they were of the type built since the war) then the cost of maintenance would be £10,000 million per year, more than 10 percent of our present GNP – £3,000 million a year just to renew our stock of 6 million council houses.

The replacement value of our sewage system is apparently £19,000 million: that of our water mains £9,000 million: that of the older part of our gas distribution system £4,000 million. What is the replacement cost of 340,000 kilometres of roads? of 2,000 kilometres of motorways? of our railway lines? of our power stations and electricity distribution system? of our factories, warehouses, shops, supermarkets, office blocks, airports, schools, universities, technical colleges, prisons, day care centres, old peoples’ homes and the rest of the institutions on which we have become so dependent? also at what rate must they be amortised? It would be very interesting to know the answer.

This brings us to an important theoretical consideration. It is an accepted ecological principle that in the early stages of development of an ecosystem a very considerable proportion of the energy and resources used are devoted to growth. If this is possible it is because little, at this stage, is required for maintenance. As the ecosystem develops however, less energy and resources can be devoted to growth because correspondingly more are required for the maintenance of the growing biomass. Eventually when the ecosystem reaches its climax state (adulthood) practically all the energy and resources used are required for maintenance.

As Geno (Environment Canada) points out, the same principle must apply to the development of the man-made physical infrastructure of our industrial society. There is a difference, however, and a fairly critical one at that:- a climax ecosystem no longer has to grow, for it has achieved the ideal state – that at which it is the most stable i.e. at which discontinuities, such as plant epidemics, population oscillations, drought, floods and local climatic variations have been reduced to a minimum.

In the latter case however the opposite is true. As an industrial society grows, rather than become more stable it becomes, on the contrary, ever less so. The reason is that the destructive impact of economic activities on the social and ecological environment must thereby increase. The problems this gives rise to must become correspondingly serious, and to these problems our industrial society can only provide technological solutions, which, needless to say, do not work.

In order to apply them however, the economy must continue to expand, which gives rise to more problems requiring more technological solutions etc. In this way our industrial society becomes addicted to growth, and hence to the consumption of ever larger quantities of energy and resources – which, as we all know, are becoming ever more expensive and less available to it.

Our growing inability to maintain the physical infrastructure of our industrial society constitutes in itself, yet another limit to growth.

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