I recently read a young adult novel called The Age of Miracles by Karen Walker. The story is written from the perspective of an eleven-year-old girl in California, beginning on the day that scientists announce that the earth’s rotation is slowing. The author proceeds with the narrator’s life, describing the physical and societal effects. The days and nights increase in length progressively, necessitating a variety of changes to keep ‘normal life’ functioning. In the end, Ms. Walker covers ten years, with the US government still operating at the end of the book. I do not believe that the United States would still exist and function normally if, as Ms. Walker implies, individuals alone primarily took responsibility for the adaptations to the physical changes in their environment. This situation would have required an emergency response from the government, and then an overarching plan for specific infrastructure related to the environmental changes.
In The Age of Miracles, the government decides that the US should remain on ‘clock time,’ regardless of the discrepancy between it and the ‘real time,’ and shuts down the internet to save energy. These are the only real steps that Ms. Walker has the government make.
Individuals in the story arrange for backyard greenhouses, protective siding on houses against radiation, and backyard bomb shelters. Governments can recognize that these items should be “public goods,” characterized by “joint supply,” “non-excludability,” and “non-rejectability” (Graham and Marvin 80). Otherwise access to these items is based on supply and demand, and those with the money to purchase them and other protective items will do so. As Graham and Marvin describe, “those users who cannot afford to obtain access to formal systems are forced to search for informal and usually unregulated alternatives” (161) The families without the resources to provide for themselves will be at risk of radiation poisoning and reduced food supplies unless they can acquire them in new ways.
As another emergency situation demonstrates, during Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, “after enduring days without food or water, and without access to radio or television to know that help was on the way, they [citizens affected] stole to save their lives and the lives of their loved ones” (Langston). Citizens can protest to the government, accept their fate, or break laws to gain the supplies that they lack. None of these responses promote the smooth functioning of society. Hurricane Katrina resulted in all of these responses. The federal government attempted to coordinate a response and received backlash from the community because of flaws in the coordination, information provided, and extent of the help.
In the end, the success or failure of the United States and the continued existence of the majority of its population would be related to the governmental response. If it took a neoliberal or capitalist market-based approach, as Ms. Walker seems to describe, letting individuals choose their own infrastructure, some groups would have been left out. The splintering of society into ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ would lead to the breakdown of the social order. The US government should learn from its experiences with emergency responses. Realizing the magnitude of the problem facing the country and the world, the government would need to declare a state of emergency and draw upon its past history of social and urban planning.
The new demands of providing fuel, food, and radiation protection to the citizens will require centrally organized, overarching plans for the creation of new infrastructure and the reorganization of citizens. This would call for a new version of the “modern urban infrastructural ideal” popular from the 1890’s to the mid twentieth century. A new ideal would need to be inclusive and not limited to the urban area but with the same professed goal of the past; “to support the shift to regulated, near universal access to infrastructure networks across cities, regions and nations” (Graham and Marvin 73).
Following this path would prioritize the lives of all of the citizens, not just the ones who can afford specialized infrastructure. It would promote societal stability and citizen health as food and access to protective infrastructure would be offered to all. I believe this would lead to the end result of Ms. Walker’s novel, a functioning US government, continuing to govern living citizens despite an ongoing state of emergency.
Graham, Stephen, and Simon Marvin. Splintering Urbanism: Networked Infrastructures, Technological Mobilities and the Urban Condition. New York: 2001. Print.
Langston, Lundy. “Why Hurricane Katrina’s So-Called Looters Were Not Lawless: They Are Entitled to the Well-Established Defense of Necessity.” FindLaw, 13 Sept. 2005. Web. 27 Sept. 2012. < http://writ.news.findlaw.com/commentary/20050913_langston.html>.