Care at Scale
Care at Scale

Care at Scale

Bodies, agency, and infrastructure.

Appears in Summer 2021

On the first day of the semester at the engineering college outside Boston where I teach, my first-year students and I leave the classroom and go out to the grounds, then walk along an unprepossessing grassy berm and out to the main road. It’s a modern campus, all plate glass and blonde wood, so it generally comes as a surprise when we arrive at a small, brick building, obviously much older than the college and set where a small stream crosses our path. That’s when my students realize that they’ve been walking on a water main—the Sudbury Aqueduct, constructed in 1878 to bring clean water from the outskirts into the city.

In the late nineteenth century, the wealthy taxpayers of Boston were convinced to build out water and sewage systems by a straightforward logic: every person in the city, rich or poor, needed clean water to drink every day. Without it, they would be at risk of contracting water-borne diseases like cholera. And with so many people in proximity, wealth alone couldn’t provide protection from contagious disease.

As the density and population of a city increases, it becomes harder and harder to meet the needs of residents with local water sources, sending residents looking beyond the city limits for a supply. Fortunately, water flows downhill—in fact, it’s difficult to stop water from flowing downhill—so it’s easy to move around. (To this day, 95 percent of New York City’s water is transported by gravity alone.) That flow can be divided and subdivided into a network and delivered all across the city. Now the density and population of a city works in its favour: it becomes easier and cheaper to add points of connection to that network—faucets and, for potable water’s mirror-image network of sewage, drains. These physiological and physical phenomena are sufficient to provide the rationale for building out a city-wide system with centralized water sources and treatment.

Over the course of the last few years, I’ve investigated much of the municipal water and sewage network that I live on. I’ve driven by the large reservoir northeast of the city and ridden my mountain bike along the Sudbury Aqueduct. I’ve visited the modern water treatment plant a mile or so north of my home that sits on Fresh Pond, whose name itself reveals how it’s long been used. I’ve photographed and identified the distinctively lopsided flounder and other local fish whose images are cast into the curbside steel sewer drain covers as a reminder that they drain to local waterways. And I’ve toured the massive wastewater treatment plant, built on sea-level landfill on Boston Harbor, where all the sewage in the region drains down to.

At the city water treatment plant, I learned that someone comes in each and every day of the year to take bacterial plates out of an incubator and verify that there are no pathogens in the drinking water. Then they prepare another set to be read the next day. And the next, and the next. Water treatment plants are a physical instantiation of the idea that politics are the structures we create when we are in a sustained relationship with other people. They’re more than just the technological systems. They’re also a connection to the expertise, labour, and care of all the people that make sure that the water is safe to drink, and a recognition by the city’s residents that they are connected to each other through the landscape and the human-made watershed of pipes that are laid on top of it (or buried beneath). In the rainy northeastern United States, municipal water and sewage systems function as the smallest-scale proof of concept for the value of building out collective systems to provide for our bodily needs—not for nothing is “indoor plumbing” still a metonym for “civilization.” And it’s just one of many infrastructural systems that we rely on.

Energy Is Agency

We use exogenous energy every day to exceed the limits of what our bodies can do. Artificial light compensates for our species’ poor night vision and gives us control over how we spend our time, releasing us from the constraints of sunrise and sunset. So valuable is artificial light that it’s a reliable correlate of wealth and economic development: researchers use the growing brightness of regions over time, as quantified from satellite images taken at night, as a proxy measure—more resources, more light. The southern half of the Korean Peninsula and the ocean surrounding it is ablaze with light; while North Korea has just faint threads of light leading out from Pyongyang, a result of decades of imposed scarcity.

Energy in the form of mechanical work also replaces our body’s labour, from the domestic scale—all the technologies for textiles, for example, from spinning and weaving to sewing and laundry—to scales that are nearly impossible for human bodies alone, like building skyscrapers and bridges. And we use mechanical energy to move our bodies and ferry goods around: transportation. Exogenous energy also makes our living environments more comfortable; for a long time, this was mostly limited to heating, but in the twentieth century, the technologies of refrigeration and air conditioning became widespread. The newest uses of energy are telecommunications technologies—from Morse code to TikTok, they turn electrons into bits of information, facilitating human connections on a global scale.

In fact, this ability to access more energy than our bodies themselves can provide is—all but literally—baked into being a human. All cultures eat cooked food (and no animals cook their food). While it’s not required to survive, strictly speaking, heating food breaks it down, making the nutrients more bioavailable; in essence, the food becomes more nutritious. Learning to cook our food is thought to have been an important contributor to the development of our calorie-dense brains and all that followed, helping to free humans from the ongoing labour of foraging and eating that occupies most animals. But the near-necessity of cooking food then requires a different labour: for most women on most of the planet, obtaining fuel for cooking remains their primary daily occupation.

The Nobel Prize–winning developmental economist Amartya Sen describes income and wealth as desirable “because, typically, they are admirable general-purpose means for having more freedom to lead the kind of lives we have reason to value. The usefulness of wealth lies in the things that it allows us to do—the substantive freedoms it helps us to achieve.” This is also a fairly good description of infrastructural systems: they’re a general-purpose means of freeing up time, energy, and attention. On a day-to-day basis, my personal freedom doesn’t come from money per se—it mostly comes from having a home where these systems are built into the walls, which became abundantly clear during the coronavirus pandemic. Stable housing and a salary that covered my utility bills meant that, with the exception of food and taking out the trash, all of my basic needs were met without my ever even having to go outside. It’s worth noting that this is an important reason why guaranteed housing for everyone is important—not just because of privacy, security, and a legible address, but also because our homes are nodes on these infrastructural networks. They are our locus of access to clean water and sewage, electricity, and telecommunications.

On a day-to-day basis, my personal freedom doesn’t come from money per se—it mostly comes from having a home where these infrastructural systems are built into the walls.

But the real difference between money and infrastructural systems as general-purpose providers of freedom is that money is individual and our infrastructural systems are, by their nature, collective. If municipal water systems mean that we are enduringly connected to each other through the landscape where our bodies are, our other systems ratchet this up by orders of magnitude. Behind the wheel of a car, we are a cyborg: our human body controls a powered exoskeleton that lets us move further and faster than we ever could without it. But this freedom depends on roads and supply chains for fuels, to say nothing of traffic laws and safety regulations. In researcher Paul Graham Raven’s memorable formulation, infrastructural systems make us all into collective cyborgs. Alone in my apartment, when I reach out my hand to flip a switch or turn on a tap, I am a continent-spanning colossus, tapping into vast systems that span thousands of miles to bring energy, atoms, and information to my household. But I’m only the slenderest tranche of these collective systems, constituting the whole with all the other members of our federated infrastructural cyborg bodies.

Infrastructural Birthrights

As a small, nerdy child, I spent many Sunday afternoons at the visitor centre of the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station, just outside Toronto. We had come online within a few months and miles of each other; I was born two towns over, the same year it began producing electricity. Both of us were part of Canada’s investment in itself in the 1960s and the 1970s. My family was part of the first wave of non-European immigration that would reshape the city and the country, and the new Pickering plant was built to power that coming population and economic growth. My father, trained as an electrical engineer in India, had come to Canada to study for his MBA, and then he spent his career at Ontario Hydro—one of the world’s oldest public electrical utilities, named for the hydroelectric power generation of Niagara Falls.

Being born between Niagara Falls and Pickering, among the earliest and the newest forms of large-scale electricity generation, gifted me a powerful infrastructural birthright. I benefited on a daily basis from the time and agency I was granted by these systems. I was especially aware of this because, while growing up, I also spent the better part of a year in New Delhi and our family’s home in Bhopal. There, we had running water for only an hour or two a day, which we collected and stored for later, boiling and filtering it for drinking. Even in our well-off urban neighbourhoods, blackouts were a predictable feature of summer afternoons. Back home in Canada, I had artificial light, energy for cooking and heating, and clean water so reliably available on demand that it gave our language the phrase “on tap.” My daily needs were met not by virtue of my family’s personal wealth or because we had servants working to provide them, but pretty much just because I was growing up in suburban Toronto.

The philosopher John Rawls once offered up a thought experiment, building on the classic question: How best should society be ordered? His key addition was the concept of a “veil of ignorance”: not just that you would live in the society you designed, but that you wouldn’t know ahead of time what role you would have within it. So, while you might want to live in a world where you are an absolute ruler whose every whim is fulfilled by fawning minions, the veil of ignorance means that there is no guarantee you wouldn’t be one of the minions—in fact, given the numerical odds, it’s a lot more likely. Positing a veil of ignorance is a powerful tool to consider more equitable societies.

Seen from this perspective, shared infrastructural systems provide for the basic needs of—and therefore grant agency to—members of a community in a way that would satisfy Rawls. Universal provision of water, sewage, electricity, access to transportation networks that allow for personal mobility, and broadband internet access creates a society where everyone—rich or poor, regardless of what you look like or believe—has access to at least a baseline level of agency and opportunity.

But here’s the kicker: it’s not a thought experiment. We’ve all passed through Rawls’s veil of ignorance. None of us chooses the circumstances of our birth. This is immediate and inarguable if you’re the child of immigrants. If one of the most salient facts of my life is that I was born in Canada, it’s also obvious that I had nothing to do with it. But it’s equally true for the American who proudly traces their family back to ancestors who came over on the Mayflower, or the English family whose landholdings are listed in the Domesday Book. Had I been born in India, my infrastructural birthright would have been far less robust as an underpinning for the life of agency and opportunity that I am fortunate to live, which stems in large part from the sheer blind luck (from my perspective) of being born in Canada.

Our infrastructural systems, particularly our energy systems, are largely built around the idea of localizing the benefits to their consumers and distributing the harms.

Joseph Carens, a political science professor at the University of Toronto, argues that this social order—of relatively closed borders, where citizenship is an inherited privilege—has much in common with the feudalism of the Middle Ages. Being born a citizen of a rich, developed country like Canada is analogous to being a child of the nobility: regardless of your exact rank or wealth, you are likely to have a life of greater prospects and opportunity than if you were a peasant. And like feudalism, this seems like an entirely reasonable system for those to the manor born, but there is no argument that you can make to a serf in the field that justifies their lot in life. Realizing this makes me feel like my parents, born and raised outside of the castle walls, smuggled me across the drawbridge.

Localized Benefits, Distributed Harms

The comparison to feudalism—the nobility supported by the labour of the peasants, without their consent—is apt in another way. Our infrastructural systems, particularly our energy systems, are largely built around the idea of localizing the benefits to their consumers and distributing the harms.

When the energy grid as we know it was still being developed, electricity was generated close to where it was used. Significant harms of these power stations were borne locally as well. For example, the Battersea and Bankside power stations (now iconic as the cover of a Pink Floyd album and the Tate Modern, respectively) were major contributors to the killing air pollution of London in the mid-twentieth century, before the combustion of coal was banned from the city and they were decommissioned.

Today, some of the electrons that I use to power my home in Massachusetts come from Hydro-Quebec and the massive dams of the James Bay Project that drowned First Nations lands and displaced their people, a thousand miles north and across an international border from where I live. Some electrons come from nuclear power plants, which displaces the responsibility of safely managing radioactive waste to thousands of years into the future and people not yet born. And a significant fraction of the electricity consumed in the United States and Canada comes from greenhouse gas-producing coal- or natural-gas-fired power stations.

Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is allowed to go everywhere. People are not.

The dependence on fossil fuels for energy is the largest and most important example of displaced harms and localized benefits, and the hardest to comprehend. On a day-to-day basis, my relationships with the people with whom I share a landscape and infrastructural systems can be as simple and direct as avoiding bumping into them in the subway. But when I light my gas stove to make breakfast or get into my car and drive to work, the carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases released by combustion enter the atmosphere and contribute to anthropogenic climate change. By virtue of these systems and the shared planetary biosphere, my small contribution to global pollution establishes a relationship to people that I most likely will never meet. For me, that interaction appears diffuse and stochastic—a few molecules of carbon dioxide here in Massachusetts might result in more intense cyclones on the other side of the world, perhaps. But for the community in the path of the cyclone, the interaction is anything but diffuse: they are affected materially, even catastrophically.

We focus on the borders between individual countries, but the important border lies between the wealthy countries that are in the end stages of industrial development, with their robust infrastructure and energy systems, and those countries with less access to money and energy, who are more affected by climate change and have fewer resources available for mitigation. The border between the United States and Canada, like those within Europe, is just a national border. But the southern US border is more than a line between two countries; it’s part of an invisible ring fence around the wealthier nations of the world. What’s more, as the true impact of climate change begins to take hold (to say nothing of other phenomena, like pandemics), and more and more people can’t survive in their homes, there will be increased political pressure to make this fencing even higher and more deadly. This is already visible at the southern border of the United States or in the responses to migrant ships crossing the Mediterranean.

Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is allowed to go everywhere. People are not.

Thriving in Uncertainty

Our infrastructural systems are the technological basis of the modern world, the basis for a level of global wealth and personal agency that would have been unthinkable only a few centuries ago. But those of us who have been fortunate enough to live as part of a collective cyborg have gained our personal agency at an enormous moral cost. And now anthropogenic climate change is teaching us that there are no others, no elsewhere.

The true promise of renewable energy is not that it doesn’t contribute to climate change. It’s that renewable energy is ubiquitous and abundant.

For millennia, these systems have been built out assuming a steady, predictable landscape, allowing us to design long-lived networks where century-old aqueducts underlay new college campuses. But this predictability is becoming a thing of the past. More heat in the atmosphere means warmer weather and shifting climates, with attendant droughts, wildfires, and more frequent and severe hurricanes. But it also increases uncertainty: as the effects of greenhouse gases compound, we may reach tipping points, trigger positive feedback loops, and face other unprecedented changes to climates. Engineers can’t design systems to withstand hundred-year storms when the last century provides little guide to the weather of the next. No matter where in the world you reside, this is the future we will all have to live in. The only question that remains is what kind of world we want to build there.

Our shared infrastructural systems are the most profound and effective means that we’ve created to both relieve the day-to-day burdens of meeting our bodies’ needs and to allow us to go beyond their physiological limits. To face anthropogenic climate change is to become a civilization that can respond to this shifting, unpredictable new world while maintaining these systems: if you benefit from them today, then any future in which they are compromised is recognizably a dystopia. But that “dystopia” is where most of the world already lives. To face anthropogenic climate change ethically is to do so in a way that minimizes human suffering.

Mitigation—limiting the amount of warming, primarily through decarbonizing our energy sources—is one element of this transition. But the true promise of renewable energy is not that it doesn’t contribute to climate change. It’s that renewable energy is ubiquitous and abundant—if every human used energy at the same rate as North Americans, it would still only be a tiny percentage of the solar energy that reaches the Earth. Transforming our energy systems, and the infrastructural systems that they power, so that they become sustainable and resilient might be the most powerful lever that we have to not just survive this transition but to create a world where everyone can thrive. And given the planetwide interconnectedness of infrastructural systems, except in the shortest of short terms, they will be maintained equitably or not at all.

We need to have a conception of infrastructural citizenship that includes a responsibility to look after each other, in perpetuity.

Ursula Franklin wrote, “Central to any new technology is the concept of justice.” We can commit to developing the technologies and building out new infrastructural systems that are flexible and sustainable, but we have the same urgency and unparalleled opportunity to transform our ultrastructure, the social systems that surround and shape them. Every human being has a body with similar needs, embedded in the material world at a specific place in the landscape. This requires a different relationship with each other, one in which we acknowledge and act on how we are connected to each other through our bodies in the landscapes where we find ourselves. We need to have a conception of infrastructural citizenship that includes a responsibility to look after each other, in perpetuity. And with that, we can begin to transform our technological systems into systems of compassion, care, and resource-sharing at all scales, from the individual level, through the level of cities and nations, all the way up to the global.

Our social relationships with each other—our culture, our learning, our art, our shared jokes and shared sorrow, raising our children, attending to our elderly, and together dreaming of our future—these are the essence of what it means to be human. We thrive as individuals and communities by caring for others, and being taken care of in turn. Collective infrastructural systems that are resilient, sustainable, and globally equitable provide the means for us to care for each other at scale. They are a commitment to our shared humanity.

Debbie Chachra
Debbie Chachra

Debbie Chachra is a professor of engineering at Olin College of Engineering, outside Boston, MA, where she was one of the earliest faculty members. She is currently writing a book about infrastructural systems, provisionally titled Public Utility (Riverhead Books, 2023) and supported by a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Dr. Chachra also speaks, writes, and consults widely on undergraduate engineering education, with an emphasis on equity and inclusion. Prior to joining Olin, she held a postdoctoral fellowship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and she earned her doctorate in materials science and engineering at the University of Toronto.  


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