Creaking in the Wind

Doesn’t it all look normal?

Maintenance is an insidious thing. Everything wears out. Repair or replace it early in that cycle, the cost is low and the disruption is low.

But more and more of our world around us hasn’t been so well treated.

Its maintenance was deferred. More wear, more damage has occurred. The cost and the effort have gone up; the disruption potentially far greater.

We rented a house the year we lived in The Hague. At first I put the damp and the moulds and mildews that would appear down to living on reclaimed land (as is so much of The Netherlands). The trap in the floor with its pump was working, after all.

It was only when we packed to move that I discovered how much mould had spread, especially on the top floor. Apparently there was a small leak up there, too, just enough to dampen the plaster and allow the growths to take root. Some of the backs of the storage cupboards were more black than anything else.

Deferred maintenance, by an absentee landlord who’d rented to us right after a previous tenant, and would no doubt rent immediately again, was slowly undermining his property.

It’s like that on the roads and bridges, where surfaces are undermined from below as well as from pounding from above, where rust slowly spreads from a spot of worn paint to undermine still good protection, where freezing and expansion slowly cause cracks and pits to appear.

Public buildings — schools, courts, city halls, arts venues — all the same story. “It’ll keep for another year.”

When times are good, growth is occurring and money is easy, you would expect that all this repair work would get done. It does not.

Instead, we reward ourselves with tax reductions, locking more of the future budget into operating obligations (wages, benefits, pensions). Or we use the money to reward ourselves with new “benefits”. But we don’t fix things.

Comes harder times (and they always do) and then we defer maintenance to try and make ends meet.

The years ahead will have no shortage of harder times. Our debt binge to maintain the illusion of growth ensures that: repudiate the debt, pay it down, struggle along paying interest under austerity, it matters not.

Yet we have also built up a huge maintenance deficit.

What we are likely to find, therefore, is that when an “event” occurs — a heavy sustained storm, a natural disaster, or just the collapse of something (as bridges have a habit of doing when the failure to act is left uncorrected too long) — we no longer have the wherewithal to do anything much about it.

We’re already seeing paved roads be broken up rather than repaired and returned to gravel in rural areas. We’re already seeing bridges be closed permanently rather than made safe to cross.

We’re already in the habit of knocking buildings down that have gone too long without repairs, even though they are eminently repairable, not to replace them, but simply to head off their inevitable collapse. Better a brick-and-shards-strewn lot by design, goes the thinking.

Maintenance also depends on the premises being occupied: someone has to see the leak when it is small, the mould when it is beginning, the beam cracking early. The combination of big box stores cannibalizing town centres and remote corporations driving local businesses under coupled with zoning rules that preclude anything other than monocultures to emerge means that many locations go empty — and stay that way.

A less wealthy future is bad enough. One with less cheap energy becomes even harder to deal with.

Now you have an inkling of how the Mayans could have cities in one generation, and abandoned sites crumbling into the jungle in the next. Or how Roman Britain’s buildings and roads mostly disappeared within a decade or two.

How much of what’s around us will be usable and useful in another generation, if we keep putting things off?

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