Graceful degradation of infrastructure

Graceful degradation of infrastructure
Photo by Hazel Clifton / Unsplash

Have you ever been at home and had the power go out on you? Have you had a water main break, and you lose water pressure? Have you gone to the store and been unable to find what you were looking for? It's a headache, but you know you'll get through it. You always have before.

But as climate change worsens, budgets tighten, and priorities shift, what was an inconvenience will become more noticeable and critical. For example, warmer days will require more electricity for our air conditioners. Medical devices that can withstand a few minutes without power will need larger batteries. Drier soils will require more water for irrigation. Food that could be grown in deserts will no longer be and, because of that, might be more expensive.

This degradation won't be overnight. We might not even notice it from one day to another—a brownout here or burst water main there. Repairs will take a little longer. Potholes won't get fixed. Bridges might be smaller when rebuilt. There's not a lot we can do about this alone. This infrastructure is more extensive than any person can manage. The main thing we can do is soften the impact of these changes so that we have time to adapt with less stress.

The most significant shifts will probably be due to natural disasters. Texas's 2021 winter power outage is an excellent example with significant secondary effects that magnified the problems. For example, the extreme cold burst pipes in buildings, but, possibly because of licensing issues, there weren't enough plumbers to fix them quickly—follow-on effects like this compound stress.

Let's look at a few ways we can increase resilience in the face of these challenges. We shouldn't advocate for a prepper approach that pits us against everyone else. Instead, we should look for ways to work with each other. This resilience isn't just about the built environment—we need ways to withstand disruptions in our social fabric. But this post is long enough, so we'll explore possible resilient social practices in a future post.

Energy Distribution

Right now, our power tends to be centrally generated and then distributed through the power grid to us. This grid is somewhat resilient. For example, if a power line goes down, the power company can often reroute through another line and isolate the problem. But to get power, we have to have an uninterrupted connection from us to the generator, often miles away.

If we introduce local power generation or storage, similar to the Tesla Powerwall, for example, when the power goes out, we still have the energy to run essentials. Our freezer won't thaw, and we can use some light at night. As long as the sun shines and our batteries hold out, we can get by.

A Powerwall is excellent for those who can afford their own. But not everyone can. It might make sense to work together in a neighborhood to create local power storage that can provide energy to the nearby houses if they are knocked off the grid. Part of Birmingham, Alabama, is an example of this microgrid approach.

Decentralizing power generation makes it more resilient. It's not just having a diversified set of energy sources placed in different locations. It's about having energy sources at different scales, from local to national, that allow partitioning, as necessary, to preserve or provide energy flows.

Water Distribution

Water is not as centralized as power. Cities tend to manage their water systems. Rural homes might have wells with electric pumps, hand pumps, or windmills. Homes might capture rainwater for gardens, lawns, or other non-potable uses in some areas. Ranches might have ponds or other surface water capture.

But it's much easier to get by without power than without water. When we only have a single water source, we depend on it for everything water, from cooking to cleaning to waste management. When it's not available, we have to scramble to figure out how to get clean water to drink or flush a toilet. We usually don't want to use bottled water for bathrooms. That can get expensive. This is why authorities warn us to fill containers with water before an expected water outage, such as a major storm that might interrupt water treatment.

Collecting rainwater is an easy way to get water without infrastructure or nearby surface water. The easiest is a barrel with an open top. More complex systems might channel water from a roof and have screens or other methods to keep mosquitos from breeding in the collected water. But not everywhere allows this kind of collection. For example, Colorado limits collection to 110 gallons per household.

What's something between collecting water from our roof and connecting to the water main? Like neighborhood batteries for power, it could be a cistern or other water storage that lets neighbors draw in emergencies. Places like the Mãe d'Água das Amoreiras Reservoir show that we can do this while still being a beautiful part of the area. Or it could mean neighbors in more rural areas getting together and sharing access to wells in a mesh water supply.

Decentralizing water management makes it more resilient to interruption but, unlike distributed power generation and storage, doesn't solve the entire problem of long-term availability. However, it's closer to having diverse sources and ways to get water for different uses.

Over the coming decades, places like the western United States will face more drought and tighter water supplies due to climate change and more people moving to the region. The water supply should limit population growth, but because there aren't any policies to limit that growth, it could overshoot the supply and result in more severe shortages. This will pressure governments to restrict water use or find water from elsewhere and transport it to the region, similar to how Los Angeles gets water.

Food Distribution

With globalization, many foods are available year-round. Rather than regional cuisines based on what can be grown locally or easily imported, our menus are more varied and more the same. We can have almost anything, anywhere, at any time.

Climate change may bring this to a screeching halt. As growing seasons and regions change, or water becomes scarce, where we might have farmed or ranched might not be able to sustain the level of production needed to provide the food we've gotten used to. Aquifers are falling. Rivers are drying up, especially if they are fed with meltwater from shrinking glaciers.

We need to mix up our groceries, but this can be expensive. For some communities, it's too expensive or not even available at any price. Food deserts don't have many options other than unhealthy prepared foods from convenience stores that are cheap at the moment but expensive in the long run. These deserts show that the market can't deliver the required distribution to support a healthy society.

Right now, this "mixing up" takes the form of farmers' markets, food banks, and local farm-to-market efforts such as cooperatives and community-supported agriculture (CSA) farms. These group approaches augment the food distribution behind local supermarkets. But these systems aren't sufficient to carry the basic needs of a city if the global food supply chain sees a significant disruption. For example, when Texas decided to block trucks from Mexico, store shelves in the northeast of the US started missing some of the usual produce.

What about individual action? Those with plots of land can grow gardens, but not everyone has one. Even community gardens aren't enough. They are a hobby for those lucky enough to have a section. By some estimates, a person needs at least five acres to feed themselves without reliance on food markets. The best we can do as individuals is supplement what we can buy.  

We need to invest in a greater diversity of food production, with the global trade providing many of the extras rather than the necessities. Join CSAs or purchase from non-profits or public benefit corporations that support nearby or sustainable agriculture. Reduce our reliance on food that requires intensive practices—for example, cook more with basic ingredients rather than relying on prepackaged foods.


Centralized management of a resource can mean more efficient management. For example, only the water needed in aggregate is pumped from the ground and distributed. Only the total electricity that's required is generated. A particular food is only grown in an area optimal for that food.

Central production can benefit more quickly from improvements in efficiency and environmental practices. When we discover a more efficient way of generating power, the small number of main power generation plants means fewer plants need upgrading. On the other hand, upgrading all power generation equipment at people's houses could be more challenging because of many installations. The problem of replacing lead pipes gives us a sense of the scale.

The most resilience comes from a mix of centralized and decentralized processes at different scales. Have everyone on the grid, but also with local power generation so that society gets the efficiency of centralized generation with the resilience of local generation. The centralized generator simply tops off the local power supply in many cases.

What's the lesson for us? We should try to find ways to mix our dependencies. It's okay to be on the grid, but be prepared to be off the grid if it fails. It will. It's just a matter of time. But by being prepared, we'll be able to still get through the days and nights while others are frantically trying to get the grid back up. We won't have to worry about our freezer thawing, our toilet not working, or our pipes freezing. We might not be able to run the heater as high or cook as many hot meals, but we'll get through it.

Resiliency and graceful degradation aren't about replacing the current infrastructure to withstand everything. It's about having enough diversification at different levels that no one incident can cripple everything everywhere. And when things are degraded, to provide enough of a buffer that we can adapt.

We'll explore the social fabric in upcoming posts and look at these issues with a progressive enhancement approach.