"Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink."
When English romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge published those words in 1798, there was no dense network of modern concrete and asphalt roads in Great Britain (or anywhere else) and there were no automobiles or trucks to ride on them. And so, of course, there was no salting of roads in winter.
The excerpt quoted above is from Coleridge's famous poem, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," and refers to the mariner's desperate desire for drinkable water while floating on the ocean.
We as a society are inching closer each year to bringing the ancient mariner's predicament on land because of our practice of salting roads in winter to make them safer for driving. The amount of salt we use for this purpose in the United States has gone from 0.15 metric tons per year in the 1940s to 18 million metric tons annually as of 2017.
The result has been dangerously escalating salt concentrations in rivers, streams, lakes and ponds. Some urban bodies of water exceed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's standard for protecting aquatic life by 20 to 30 times. Humans, of course, aren't aquatic life, but the trend in the salinization of surface water is troubling given the important role those waters play in water supplies around the country and the world.
The proposed solutions tend to emphasize substitutes—sand and beet juice (yes, really)—or more parsimonious use of road salt. What those proposing solutions do not explore is whether a road system serving over a billion motor vehicles—the vast majority of which consume petroleum and spew climate warming gases—is the best one for our needs. The assumption generally is that the current system cannot be changed and that all the problems attendant to this system have to be addressed without disturbing its basic structure.
This is how we get lock-in to so many systems. We cannot imagine fundamentally restructuring them, so we think of all sorts of ways to fiddle with them on the margin. We are certainly doing that with our energy system. A fundamental restructuring of our demand for energy (vastly downward) and our supply (vastly less carbon intensive) is absolutely essential to avoid catastrophic climate change. But either our leaders refuse to do what is needed because their benefactors are the very corporations that would be hardest hit by a fundamental restructuring or, more ominously, the entire organism we call modern global society is simply incapable of such a change.
So, if we try to imagine a transportation system without salt, we might also want to imagine one that runs on something other than petroleum. And, that system would have be economical to build if we expect it to be adopted as a full or partial replacement for the existing system. One system I wrote about in 2008 called JPods might be a candidate for replacing urban transportation systems over time.
Even if this or other systems proved close to ideal, they would meet resistance. Existing transit systems have workers with unions who would fight to protect their jobs. Transit systems often have debt in the form of bonds that they must pay off. Supplanting an existing transit system would jeopardize financial flows needed to make bond payments. And, of course, there would be the inevitable physical disruption of building a new system including the taking of at least some private property through eminent domain proceedings. And finally, JPods, if adopted, would only replace part of the transportation system, so solutions would have to be found for the other parts.
All this illustrates why lock-in is such a huge obstacle when trying to reform our infrastructure. If we could only see that our survival as a species depends on not just us, but also the survival of many other species of plants and animals, we might pay attention to the warning that aquatic life in our increasingly salty waters is giving. And, we might heed similar warnings about climate change.
Coleridge in "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" seemed to understand this when he wrote, "For the dear God who loveth us, He made and loveth all." That sentiment isn't just sentimental. It's actually a framework for everything we need to be doing to insure the survivability of the our species.
Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Resilience, Common Dreams, Naked Capitalism, Le Monde Diplomatique, Oilprice.com, OilVoice, TalkMarkets, Investing.com, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.