Book World: An engineer showcases the ‘nothing in particular’ our world depends on

“How Infrastructure Works” by Deb Chachra. MUST CREDIT: Riverhead

BOSTON – Most tourists who come here expect to visit various historical sites: the Boston Tea Party Museum, the Old South Meeting House. But when you’re on a tour with engineer Deb Chachra, you bypass all that. Instead, on a stroll around the harbor earlier this fall, she pointed out what was underfoot: an iron plaque stamped with the image of a flounder, to discourage dumping into storm drains.

“But the thing I really love,” said Chachra, speaking at a rapid, infectiously enthusiastic clip, “is, the next time you’re in Cambridge, look at the ones in Cambridge – because the ones that drain into the Charles River have different fish than the ones that flow into the Alewife.”

Chachra’s new book, “How Infrastructure Works,” makes you more alive to just this kind of detail – the little ways that human-made systems make their workings visible. All these specific fish remind us that we are connected to a larger system – in this case, the flow of water – and that we can transform our environment.

With the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency, and the construction and upgrading of the Deer Island Wastewater Plant, she notes, the harbor is much cleaner and more full of flounder than it was decades ago – so much so that we spot a man in hot pink swimming trunks doing backflips off a bridge.

Our infrastructural networks, Chachra writes, “have a combination of ubiquity and banality” that make them fuzz out of the edges of our perception.

But in the face of the climate crisis destabilizing our planet – and the built systems we depend on, from energy to transportation – Chachra wants us to see our infrastructure clearly: not just as a marvel of engineering, but as our social values made manifest. After all, it’s not physics, but human relationships, that determine the answers to questions like: Who has access to light? To the internet? And who’s forced to assume the burdens of pollution and displacement?

“I’m going to show you nothing in particular,” she announced cheerfully, as we looped back downtown, then stopped in front of an office, identical to all the ones next to it. “Totally nondescript building,” she said, sounding satisfied. “But it’s actually a data center – a major network hub for the region.”

We generally only notice infrastructure when it fails, either inconveniently (like when your train is late), or catastrophically (as in Texas’s 2021 power crisis).

Or else we notice when it takes the form of a “charismatic megastructure,” like a bridge or a dam – the built environment’s equivalent of a blue whale or a panda. Chachra grew up near one such structure in Canada: The Pickering Nuclear Generating Station was visible from where she and her siblings played on the beach at Lake Ontario. Some people might think the power plant spoiled the view; to Chachra, it was the view.

In some ways, Chachra jokes, she’s the opposite of the cliché about the rebellious children of immigrant engineers. Chachra’s family is from India, and in the book, she describes the infrastructural “culture shock” she experienced during extended visits there, when she learned to expect regular brownouts and to have running water for just a few hours daily.

By age 19, having skipped a few grades, Chachra was doing graduate-level coursework in physics. Then “I kind of crashed and burned a bunch in my senior year, and ended up failing most of my courses.” The upside: Her schedule now had room for a biomaterials course she’d had her eye on. It set her on her path to graduate study in materials science, with research interests spanning human bone tissue and plastic-producing bees.

Chachra, now a professor at Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts, says that materials science is “super fun to teach” because it explains the way the world works at a relatable scale. “Everybody has been interacting with materials their entire life, and we know an enormous amount about how materials behave” – and her class gives students a framework to help them make sense of it all.

That mirrors what she hopes to achieve with her book: “We all have this deep, direct experience of infrastructure, and we’re used to perceiving it on one scale: the scale of our bodies.” Every day we make contact with these systems just by turning on the faucet or backing out of our driveway. But what could we learn by zooming out to gain a societal vantage point?

She had planned all kinds of travel for her research: a town in Alaska that runs entirely on hydroelectric power; communities in Puerto Rico left without power long after Hurricane Maria. The coronavirus pandemic shut that down, but “being in my apartment for 18 months really clarified some things.”

On video calls with her nieces and nephews, she had a running bit about how she lived with her cats in a space station “and, every once in a while, I would put on my spacesuit and go to the grocery store to get supplies for Spaceship Deb.”

Nearly all her basic needs were met by systems embedded in her building: telecommunication, electricity, water, heat. She was the beneficiary of a wealth of infrastructure built by collective investment – a network that excluded others, especially the unhoused. “I realized that I’d like to have a universal basic infrastructure,” she said. “Everybody needs to have access to systems.”

Still, the book never feels claustrophobic. It’s fun to hear Chachra think out loud, which on the internet has also been a practice of thinking out loud with friends. Some of that took place on social media, but a lot of it brewed in inboxes, as writers including Chachra, Jay Owens and Charlie Loyd played off each other’s meditations on science and culture in their newsletters. (Chachra’s writing has spanned topics ranging from calico cat genetics to American cheese to why she’s worn almost exclusively black since she was a teenager.)

Some of these friends show up in the book, too: They drive with her to see parts of California’s water system; they take her to Snowdonia National Park in Wales, which contains a power station that can handle the peaks in demand triggered by an entire country plugging in its electric kettles after a TV show ends.

When you contemplate the many intersecting systems that enable you to do something as simple as make your daily cup of coffee, it can feel both dazzling and weirdly disempowering. All these resources, all this labor and ingenuity, were poured into creating systems that enable life as we know it – and they’re also dumping so much carbon into the atmosphere that life as we know it may end very soon.

Chachra’s students often struggle with how to think about their future on what they regard as a broken Earth. It’s difficult to be optimistic, she says, when you feel your two options are to accept the world as it is, or to spend your life in sacrifice and struggle in the hope of averting disaster: “That doesn’t sound very fun.”

She tries to help them shift to a different mind-set: We’re living on the cusp of total societal transformation and can build a more abundant, more equal future. The fact is, she would’ve had to write a very different book 50 years ago.

Today, decoupling energy consumption from carbon emissions is no longer some impossible engineering problem, she writes, and “like beating swords into plowshares, we can imagine transforming all the artifacts of a fossil-fuel-powered culture into the ones necessary for a sustainable world.”

Perhaps, Chachra suggests, we have to live like we’re in the early days of what novelist William Gibson called the “jackpot” – a multicausal apocalypse – but also, per writer Alasdair Gray, like we’re in the early days of a better civilization. What might that involve? “Well,” she says, smiling, “like everyone, I think I’m trying to figure that out.”



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