When I graduated junior high school in 1961, the tag under my yearbook photo read “at home on the launching pad”. And indeed, both my imagination and my then career-goal had been formed by a combination of NASA, The Hayden Planetarium… and science fiction.

The specialized public high school I started later that year was considered part of the USA response to Sputnik, and to close “the missile gap”.

Neither my boyhood dream, nor those of visionary scientists and engineers –never mind the geopoliticians— came to pass. You could say that was because a 14-year-old’s techno-utopia was always improbable. It would be equally true, however, to say that the prevailing optimism about science, progress and our country – rested on shaky foundations.

We are marvelous imaginers and builders. We are also a society that quantifies the value of life into a number of dollars. We call the ability to increase that number “freedom,” and believe that (in democratic principle at least) each person’s honest, free effort will be reflected in some amalgam of net worth and family security.

But we have always cheated in that calculation. Capitalism banishes as “externalities” many of the greatest costs of industrialization and the construction of the American Dream: Short shrift as we displaced and decimated the peoples who lived in North America before Europeans arrived. Short shrift for our darker brothers and sisters who were legal property. Short shrift for miners and countless others, who paid for the transcontinental behemoth with their health, immiseration, and stunted futures.

Are you worried about the national debt? Probably the shortest shrift – the biggest unpaid bill – is to our sustaining Mother Earth. But just as with indigenous people, human chattel and exploited workers, the “reckoning” is a matter of life and death. To put it baldly — it is a matter of empirical as well as moral interest to know how many times you can rape your mother – before she dies.

(Transition. Deep breath.)

Sunday’s Washington Post brings us in-depth journalism about a remarkable piece of engineering: a 4.5 mile-long, 23-foot-wide tunnel currently being dug under Washington, DC. It’s supposed to be complete in 2025 – to remedy the current ancient system, that disposes of human waste and storm runoff together, often into local waqterways, and so into the Cheasapeake Bay and the ocean.


Do we like this? Ashley Halsey’s extensive piece


does a great job – with really useful graphics – of explaining what its for, how it will work, and especially the the massive, slow, hi-and lo-tech construction process featuring an engineering prodigy “longer than a footbal field”. Towards the end she gets into the conomics – which reminds us that DC’s sewage mess is part of a much larger picture. Public Infrastructure in the land of the free – roads, utilities, euipment etc. – had been under-maintained for decades, or longer. Even here, the free market has disinvested in the long run. Or, you could say, cheated the future. (Whether one agrees with a carbon-spewing industrial future – catastrophic, I think—or not.)

Halsey also does a good, if too-cute, job of explaining how we got here. It seems that in the 19th-century “combined systems” that carried both waste andf rainwater we “all the rage”– and still used especially in large East Coast cities. The bottom line for such systems is that when there is a high flow of wasftewater (snowmelt or a rainstorm, for example) the overflow is – by design – sent to ou rivers and other waterways. Happens “hundreds of times a year”. Swallow that, consumer. But do not try to drink it.

And it sure sounds like the original problem was not an engineering mistake, but rather the assumption that just as the earth is a free source of wood, ores etc., our waters make a great garbage can.

So: What’s Love got to do with it?  Love nature — or at least respect our planet. Figure our what makes sustainable economic sense and more beautiful light into our world. Or else you can exploit it, benefit from corporations and governments that do, and huddle in the “big , mainstream tent” with the other abusers.