Many of us who live in the United States or other highly-developed countries take for granted the significant benefits and conveniences afforded to us by the systems upon which we build homes, transport our wastes, receive potable water, or that allow us to turn on our lights and heat our homes. Indeed, these systems provide the very fabric and structure that governs our social interactions, our lifestyles, and many of our expectations of how we think things should be. It also has to be maintained, thus forming an enormous source of labor for our citizens as well as a destination for our efforts and resources.
The ways in which we maintain this assemblage of services (also known as our infrastructure) affects our lifestyles and our social classes. Its spatial distribution is representative of the levels of equity and inequity present within our society. Furthermore, our infrastructure, which includes not only how we live, but how we travel from place to place and how we produce and transport our food, is a primary driver of the changes to the climate that we have been and that we continue to engage. Therefore, in grappling with the climate crisis in which we find ourselves immersed, an education of the social and physical aspects of our infrastructure, its history, its current state, and its potential future, is critical to making informed decisions that address not only our own communities, but communities throughout the planet, both current ones and future ones.
By presenting materials on courses in infrastructure taught from both a social science/social justice and a physical science standpoint, we hope to provide a structure that will allow instructors anywhere to relay the context, importance, and impact of infrastructure on our communities, our species and our planet. It is our hope that informed and educated infrastructure development will be forward thinking, climate positive, and a step forward for both the current and future populace.
Professor Marina Bergen Jensen from the University of Copenhagen shows how science can aid in adapting our cities to the changing climate.
Teaching Infrastructure from a Social Justice Standpoint
Teaching infrastructure from a social justice standpoint allows us to see how systems of value are embedded in each and every part of the built environment, from planning and implementation to construction and repair. These values shape both landscapes of privilege and landscapes of risk. Understanding how these systems operate across space and time is vital to engaging with projects of environmental and climate justice.
For the past two years, I have been developing this topic for undergraduate students in the Environmental Studies Program at the University of California, Santa Barbara. The course, titled “The Built World: Infrastructure, Power, and the Environmental Change,” emphasizes infrastructure as an assemblage of materials, values, and desires. I use a variety of sources, texts, articles, creative narratives, and films from all over the world to illustrate concepts and theories, starting with histories of extraction, colonization, and development. I then introduce and analyze case studies to illustrate the frictions and divergent perspectives inherent in the production and maintenance of infrastructure. Case studies include: the contentious development of the Sardar Sarovar Dam in India; the controversial breach of the levees in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina; the highly criticized creation of barrier walls in Palestine; the unfathomable damage to Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria; the invasion of informal settlements in Brazil; and the inequity of broadband and digital storage in the United States. With the coming crisis of climate change, we also look at pathways for repair and transformation and work together to imagine creative alternatives that can help build ecologically sustainable and just futures.
Early on, I invite students to write a short “ethnographic exercise” on a hidden infrastructure of their choice, describing how it becomes visible upon breakdown and how it embodies systems of value. In the past, students have chosen a range of surprising subjects including a favorite sidewalk, frequently used beach stairs, and the internet. This has proven to be a useful way to foster a personal connection to infrastructure, or what anthropologist Susan Leigh Star calls “the boring things.” By encouraging students to see taken-for-granted systems in their own lives, they start to see the world of infrastructure in less abstract terms. Other assignments for the course center around group projects in which students investigate problems and research alternatives, while following, reflecting upon, and analyzing a case or set of cases. I also mix in role-playing exercises, designed in part by the students. Last year we created a class role play based on the nationwide Amazon HQ2 bidding war, while exploring Henri Lefebvre’s concept of “the right to the city,” as reflected upon by David Harvey.
As I continue to grow this course, I hope that it will provide a window into an invisible world of choices, limitations, and possibilities that confront us all, especially in the context of climate disruption. When we start to view our roads, highways, water supply systems, electric grids, oil pipelines, wind farms, seawalls, broadband, border walls, and other socio-technical “stuff” as the outcome of value systems, the world begins to look and feel different. We can then ask whether these systems serve to maintain political authority and reinforce social inequity, or whether they challenge existing structures of power.
Teaching Infrastructure From a Physical Science Standpoint
In 2013 we began a new Environmental Studies program at CSUMB. Concerned that very often students (and anyone in general) may protest or object to some aspect of our society without recognizing that they themselves depend upon that very feature that their objection is centered upon, I wanted to provide them with a course that illustrates, describes, and provides both a current and an historical context for the infrastructural systems upon which we depend and which are also the main contributors of our climate crisis.
This course has two major components. One is centered upon reading, chapter by chapter, the book On the Grid by Scott Huler. This book addresses through engaging and descriptive narrative the author’s journey in understanding the infrastructural systems of his hometown in Raleigh, North Carolina and the costs and challenges associated with their maintenance. Having taught this course five times thus far, the book, despite being published in 2010, remains quite current and the students in the class pretty much unequivocally state each year how much they enjoy reading it. The few topics that are not addressed by the book but that I think are also important to consider, building construction and agriculture, are addressed through supplemental materials.
The second component to this course involves weekly panels I arrange where I invite regional practitioners in the relevant topic. These panels, which generally consist of from two to five people, are set up to allow these experts to describe their work, provide some historical context, and state how they see the field changing. Most of the practitioners have also read the assigned chapter, allowing them to place their work in the context of what the students have already studied.
Additionally, the students in the class engage in a variety of projects, generally with a local municipality, that help to address some of the issues the municipality is experiencing regarding the sustainability of their infrastructural systems. While most students are not yet practitioners in the fields discussed, they can and do offer valuable assistance and perspectives and they can research topics of interest to the municipality that it would otherwise be unable to do. At the end of the semester, the students present their projects both in written form and orally and the panelists and municipality are invited to attend the presentations, effectively swapping the roles of presenter and audience that occurred throughout the semester.
A look at The UC Water Academy, an experiential educational component inaugurated in 2017 by The University of California Water Security and Sustainability Research Initiative that aims to train the next generation of water leaders in the state. After three months of studies, the students from four UC campuses visited key water infrastructure sites, met with experts in agriculture, conveyance, and natural resources management, and finally rafted the South Fork of the American River. Series: “Sustainable California”
CLIMATE RESILIENT CITIES – Professor Marina Bergen Jensen , University of Copenhagen, 2015
Intro – Harry Helling 2:35 – Main Presentation – Mark Merrifield, Director, Center for Climate Change Impacts and Adaptations Scripps Institution of Oceanography.
As humankind faces massive changes in weather patterns, sea level, ocean acidity, and oxygen levels, Scripps Oceanography has launched a new center focused on understanding and adapting to the impacts of climate change.
Mark Merrifield, Director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography Center for Climate Change Impacts and Adaptations explains how the members of this dynamic network will develop strategies for climate change adaptation. Recorded on 06/11/2018. Series: “Jeffrey B. Graham Perspectives on Ocean Science Lecture Series”