Laleh Khalili is a professor of international politics at Queen Mary University of London.
Early on the morning of Feb. 7, in the foothills of the Indian Himalayas, a massive flash flood crashed through the Rishiganga hydroelectric dam, sending a tremendous flood of water and debris down the Dhauliganga River. Villages, roads and bridges were washed away. A month later, more than 70 bodies have been recovered, but at least 100 people are still missing.
Scientists from the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology later flew a helicopter over the scene. A glacier on a remote mountain peak had apparently broken apart, fallen down a steep hillside and blocked the flow of the river. The water in the river built up and then burst through, causing the massive flooding downstream.
For people who live in cities wrapped in smog, near hydraulic infrastructures whose aged concrete is degrading, along roads rumbling with traffic, abutting oil infrastructures heaving soot into the air and under flight paths zigzagged with vapor trails and jet engine fumes, infrastructures can be deadly — all the more so in an age of melting glaciers and permafrost.
While we sometimes stand in awe of gargantuan infrastructures like ports and bridges, we hardly ever appreciate the aesthetics of water and sewer systems whose subterranean routes make them invisible, or even electricity lines, telecommunication masts and satellite dishes, which are visible but unremarkable because of their ubiquity. These basic utilities constitute the furniture of our everyday lives, and they often make themselves felt only when they break down, like when toxic water pours out of the tap or the electric grid goes down after a hurricane.
Climate change and its effects — erratic temperatures, stormy weather, rising seas — portend the destruction of both awesome and quotidian infrastructures, without many of which our lives would be diminished. Welcome to the age of apocalyptic infrastructure.
In recent months, the Tory government in Britain issued a license to open a new deep coal mine in Cumbria county. While many oil rigs in the North Sea are being mothballed, the Biden administration is issuing offshore and on-land licenses for new oil exploration. Disintegrating bridges in Italy, the U.S. and many other places have resulted in dozens of deaths in recent years; one, in Kolkata, India, was brand new.
Blackouts and rationed electricity are a feature of life across the world, from California to Venezuela and Lebanon. The privatization of public utilities is responsible for some, punitive global or domestic politics for others. Massive dams built in the last two decades in India and China have displaced millions, while a new Ethiopian dam on the Blue Nile not only promises to affect the river’s flow patterns downstream through Egypt, but also ominously threatens a possible water war between the two countries. In cities as far apart as Beirut and Flint, the water that flows out of faucets is undrinkable.
New infrastructural inventions have revolutionized production, trade, consumption and war. Irrigation made agriculture possible in inhospitable climates. Railways, canals, mines and shipyards facilitated the movement of goods and the working of capitalist commerce and propelled Europeans to colonize and displace indigenous people from distant lands.
The British built railways in their colonies in Africa and Asia. But especially in Africa, the rails lead to the sea from inland mines, sometimes entirely avoiding population centers, and when they were not used to extract raw resources, they were conduits for the movement of troops.
Even today, extractive industries in Africa, Latin America and Asia enrich a miniscule minority who often live abroad, while impoverishing and endangering many locals. Both the Suez and Panama canals were built with conscripted or unpaid, unfree labor and at the cost of thousands of lost lives. Later, governments wielded the potential construction of infrastructure as a reward or punishment for intransigent populations in the peripheries and borderlands. The infrastructures that made possible industrial agriculture and capital accumulation also led to dispossession and proletarianization on a mass scale in some places, starvation in others.
But infrastructure construction was also foundational to revolutionary and anticolonial movements. The French Revolution saw the emergence of new education, communication and transportation systems. Under Henri Christophe, emancipated Haiti began to develop a national school system, until France’s brutal demand for indemnification of former slavers mired the island country in debt for the next 150 years. The Russian Revolution of 1917 set the stage for the electrification and integration of the vast Eurasian expanse.
In China, the Communist Revolution was followed by the construction of transportation, education, health and industrial infrastructures. Both the Soviet Union and China financed a great many infrastructure projects for their allies in the global south. After the Iranian Revolution, the Islamic regime bolstered the country’s health and education infrastructures, expanding the distribution of electricity and roadbuilding across the far reaches of Iran. In the ephemeral postcolonial movement — soon overtaken by externally sponsored kleptocrats, internal and external counterinsurgencies and the Cold War’s hot conflicts — dams, roads, airports, ports, electricity plants and water and sewerage systems became symbols and concrete manifestations of national independence.
Even in the postrevolutionary moment, however, some segments of the population benefited and some suffered the consequences of infrastructural upheavals. When it came to agricultural infrastructures in countries whose economies and livelihoods were so dependent on the land, hasty and poorly devised policies were exacerbated by external sanctions and internal political rifts, often resulting in hideous cases of famine. Decisions about which infrastructures were to be raised, who was going to build them and who would ultimately benefit were all too often made without consultation from the very populations that would be most affected.
Across political divides, all infrastructures share one common feature: their detrimental environmental effects. Dams destroy riverine ecosystems and leach the soil. Cement factories and coal-powered electricity spew out pollution across the globe. Sewer lines pour into sensitive riparian and coastal biospheres. Oil fields and pipelines contaminate vast swathes of land, leaking into fragile water tables. Data centers produce carbon dioxide and heat on a monumental scale.
Though gestures are made to the “negative externalities” of environmental destruction in discourses of economic development, infrastructures are nevertheless seen as panaceas to the global maldistribution of wealth and income and as growth projects for domestic economies. Ever since the economist Walt Rostow wrote “Stages of Economic Growth,” infrastructures have been seen as a foundational step toward the development of a capitalist economy and the pacification of revolutionary populations to boot. More recently, former U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson proposed “a new asset class comprised of things such as productive soils, crop pollination and watersheds,” further entrenching the financialization of the environment and of infrastructures themselves.
But what if infrastructure is designed, financed and adopted into the habits of everyday lives of its users in such a way that it is not a harbinger of apocalypse? I fear that thinking of infrastructures in a generalized and totalizing way, as always only girding the structures of capital accumulation, only ever destroying our ecosystem, only ever as death-dealing — also entrenches those same infrastructures by making them seem insurmountable. Such thinking would make it seem that the peculiarly capitalist modality of infrastructure today is the only possible way we can live with and alongside it. What if we began to imagine a new way of building what we need that does not inexorably turn the oceans, the shores, the soil, the air we breathe and the water we drink into an asset class to be traded on markets?
The justification for the construction of infrastructures is frequently economic growth, so a significant step toward a more just infrastructural life would be to dethrone growth as the measure of social and political wellbeing. As the historian Julie Livingston argued in “Self-Devouring Growth,” the imperative of the ideology of growth is “grow or die; grow or be eaten — with an implicit assumption that this growth is predicated on uninhibited consumption.”
The dilemma is how to provide a livable life and livelihood, health, education, basic utilities, clean air and clean water without hitching them to the zero-sum game of growth. Degrowth would entail slowing down fossil fuel consumption, arresting the constant drive toward the financialization of every aspect of life, and contracting the processes that produce waste. It asks of us all to consume less and more thoughtfully.
Infrastructures that would emerge out of an ideology of degrowth would incorporate a more redistributive, participatory and egalitarian ethos. And a strategy of degrowth would include ecological wellbeing as an immutable principle in all planning and use.
Infrastructures would have to be redistributive. They must not enrich some at the expense of others. The World Bank recommends public-private partnerships for the construction of roads and other transport infrastructures, but it does not grapple with the long-term costs to the public purse or the common expatriation of profits to global conglomerates. Even where the profits remain within the country, they often end up concentrated in the hands of the private investors who can foot the bill for the large-scale expenditures that infrastructures require, while the risks associated with badly planned and poorly constructed infrastructures are socialized.
Redistributive infrastructures allow benefits to reach the public, who often fund them. In the Indian state of Goa, the Goenchi Mati Movement is campaigning for zero-loss mining, which would distribute profits for the benefit of the citizens of the state. In Scotland, where schools and hospitals were shoddily built by private companies with public money, the organization Jubilee Scotland is campaigning against “being held ransom by private companies to access … public services.”
All too often, the very populations and communities who are most detrimentally affected by infrastructure are those who are least able to help determine the design, implementation and use of it. Centrally planned and constructed infrastructures operate on the basis of aggregate statistics, abstract determinations, modular planning often imported from elsewhere, and generalized principles that ignore, if not run roughshod over, local contexts, concerns and contingencies.
The reconstruction of Beirut’s city center after the civil war, for example, was centrally planned, riven with special and sectarian interests, and utterly devoid of any participatory or consultative aspects with the people most affected by it. Very little say in the process came from the fishermen whose livelihoods depend on the sea, the shopkeepers who were forced to cede their deeds to the parastatal reconstruction company, or the ordinary citizens whose wanderings in the area are circumscribed by the securitized and privatized caretakers of the space. A more participatory approach would have incorporated the concerns of these unrepresented populations.
Inequalities in the making of infrastructures emerge out of preexisting forms of social prejudice, which leads to a differential allocation of benefits and harms. The sectarian configuration of Lebanese politics means that the provision of basic needs is often a victim of sectarian wrangling, and critical utilities are allocated to the public at the pleasure of sectarian leaders.
In effect, this means that public utilities have deteriorated, and the public can only replace these infrastructures in a fragmented way — if they can afford to. Electricity supplies in Lebanon have become so erratic that a burgeoning industry has grown out of the sale of shares in private generators. Tap water in Beirut is undrinkable, since ground water has been salinized, and water filtration is unreliable. Potable water has to be purchased, often in wasteful plastic packaging. Waste collection infrastructures across the country regularly fall prey to communal and political conflicts, with rubbish piles gathering at street corners or being dumped in the sea near neighborhoods with little political clout.
Financial and technological innovations produce other forms of infrastructural inequality. Where states have abdicated their role in laying down telecommunication infrastructures, private providers have stepped into the breach. Piggybacking on these mobile networks are new financial technologies that provide banking, payment and lending services via phones. While mobile providers — many located in the global north — reap vast profits, financial technologies in unregulated spaces have become vehicles for new forms of debt accumulation and have exacerbated gender and urban/rural inequalities.
The lack of regulation over electricity has led to new social fissures around infrastructure. Some of the world’s largest consumers of electricity today are data centers, and among these, cryptocurrency miners have become astonishingly profligate. Cryptocurrency financiers search the world for places with cheap power, few environmental or financial regulations, and lax taxation. Some fantasized about an Ayn Randian libertarian utopia in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria laid waste to the island. One cryptocurrency entrepreneur claimed nonchalantly that, though the hurricane “was really bad for the people of Puerto Rico, in the long term, it’s a godsend if people look past that.”
It’s difficult to imagine how to reclaim some infrastructures — prisons, border walls, military bases and armament supply chains — because they are violent forces that maintain the order of things. But people, often indigenous groups, are trying: the Sioux in the U.S. protested against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline across their tribal lands; the Wet’suwet’en in Canada have set up camps to block a gas pipeline; the southeast Amazonian Shuar Nation has mobilized against the expansion of foreign drilling for oil in Ecuador; the Kukama indigenous community of Peru is fighting against the contamination of their lands by oil companies.
Planners must not privatize the profits made from infrastructures while demanding public investments and socializing the risks. For infrastructure to work, for it to serve the public and steward the world’s air, water and soil for future generations, it has to be planned through more open, egalitarian and environmentally militant processes.