Something happens. I can't tell you what precipitates the conversion, or even if it has a single trigger. More likely, I think, the change is a process of internal reorganization that those of us unaffected or not paying close attention fail to notice or remark until it's complete, until some startling, irrational action or pronouncement signals that a new creature has emerged and begun to feed and corrupt its environment. And I certainly lack the resources in these constricted times to do the research that might help us understand how more or less reasonable and sometimes even quite intelligent human beings can accept and believe and promulgate such fantasies with so much conviction so soon after taking an oath of office. But it is so, and because it is so you and I might as well plant our gardens and watch the sunsets and read the better poets and forget about much of anything going in any direction but worse.
Take our governor. Or, probably, almost any governor, but Governor John Baldacci, State of Maine, is the executive whose recent little speech brings me to this focus this afternoon.
A great windfall has deposited upon his desk. This windfall has a name: the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act Of 2009. You may better know it as the "economic stimulus", the 780 billion dollar loan we're taking out so we can give ourselves about 270 billion dollars worth of tax cuts and pay over the rest mostly to private contractors for a variety of projects, interest on the whole to be paid by whichever of our descendants may survive the wars and ecological ruin we shall leave them. And how did our governor decide to spend Maine's spurt of stimulus? He's going to rebuild a road. Or part of a road. Or half of a part of that road.
That is to say, Maine will engage Pike Industries to rebuild the rough and sagging northbound lanes of that portion of Interstate 295 that runs from Topsham to Gardiner. The southbound lanes were done previously. This twenty-four mile stretch of road will cost us thirty-four million dollars. I do not argue with the price (although I do wish Maine didn't farm out everything possible, from local road plowing to school bus operation, to private industry, building in the cost of contractor profit and administrative overhead). I question the application of the money to this purpose.
This bit of Interstate was completed, I remember, about 1976 or so. It was among the last of the odd-lots of connectors and bypasses designed to complete the Interstate scheme. Troubled at the outset, certain sections had inadequate concrete and had to be redone. Since, thirty years of traffic and groundwater and settling have indeed produced rough spots and cracks and even whole concrete pours that simply slumped. Several remediations, some including new pieces of concrete, some merely filling cracks and holes with concrete or hot top, have already been effected. And there is no question that the new southbound lanes are smooth and nearly perfect. But to what great purpose?
Look at a map. Several state routes parallel 295 through this area. In fact, during construction all traffic is diverted to Route 201, a perfectly good and satisfactory two-lane highway. So what can you do on the Interstate you can't do on the roads that were there before it was built? You can drive seventy-five instead of fifty-five or sixty without worrying about the law. In fact the cops frequently breeze right by you at that speed. (A few years ago this occasioned some embarrassment when a trooper chauffeuring the governor on this very road operated at the proverbial "speed imprudent for conditions" and got Mr. Baldacci a concussion and a broken rib.)
Now, in a limitless world you would want to keep the Interstates in perfect repair. Not only could the governor then have the state SUV wound up like a screaming turbojet as the maximum lawman detailed to drive hauls his skinny ass from meeting to meeting to photo-opportunity to emergency room visit, but all manner of commercial and recreational vehicles could enjoy the broad curves and gentle grades of America's version of the Autobahn. But that world without limit never was. And now and increasingly painfully, we know it.
Look at your map. State Route 24, River Road, will also get you from Topsham to Gardiner. But you won't enjoy the ride, and in winter, in bad weather, at night, you might fear for your life. This road needs to be rebuilt. Narrow, shaded by overhanging trees, and with a thin, water-saturated base and in places not nearly enough shoulder or open space to plow snow off the travel surface, it becomes a roller-coaster tunnel of icy dread that pitches and yaws the whole of its length from the first deep cold spell in January through its eventual settling sometime in late April. And then, for the rest of the year, it's merely miserable.
But hundreds of people live along this road. They're not hauling truckloads of plastic crap to the Bangor Wal-Mart, they're going about their lives forced to use a road that is a hazard and a disgrace. The damned thing needs to be dug up, drained, reconfigured and rebuilt with better sight lines, new guardrails, adequate shoulders, brush removal and enough good base and new surface to render it safely passable year-round. What might thirty-four million dollars do for a road like this?
What would my road commissioner do with Alna's share of the sum, were the governor to apportion it among the municipalities?
For that matter, where else could we do some good with this amount of cash? Suppose we built a fleet of traveling dental vans, hired some eager, public-spirited young dentists (there must be some), and went out into the countryside and fixed the teeth of the residents of this state who, since the advent of dental insurance, have found they can't afford the price of a filling? Did you ever try to work with an infected tooth? Consider the improved productivity we would gain by reducing such suffering.
You could no doubt find a dozen or a hundred other good uses for thirty-four million dollars. But all Governor Baldacci could think to do was to dump it down the funnel of conventional thinking and let it spread out to enrich and enable the participants in the well-known fossil fuel economy. This is my complaint-not so much this particular project, but the attraction to the same old quick fix, big idea, business-as-usual ideas. Even the "alternative", "outside the box" thinking our representatives and leaders come up with are of the same ilk: big, expensive, often obsolete at conception and frequently contributory to the problem they were designed to fix.
"Energy independence", a fantasy at best, is one such thought that spills out the mouths of politicians, much as maggots erupt from the bodies of the long dead. Ferreting out "waste, fraud and abuse" in programs supported by the opposition party is another. And pretty much every damned one of them has proclaimed it his or her sacred duty to "make Maine more business-friendly." It wears me out just listening to the radio and reading the newspapers.
Last month the governor went up to Kingfield and got all chummy with the boys from Poland Spring Bottling Company (the Nestle Corporation), who are putting Maine groundwater into plastic bottles for shipment to discerning drinkers who, one must assume, do not have spigots in their homes. Now, this outfit uses fossil fuels and electricity and petrochemical feedstock to manufacture plastic bottles that they load on trucks (probably mostly diesel) for delivery. Some, no doubt gets delivered to customers in the neighborhoods of competing bottlers who, likewise, send their products to Maine, thus increasing the idiotic waste factor considerably. We can buy Fiji water in Maine; can Fijians, likewise, drink Poland Spring?
Some of the bottles may be recycled (using more energy) into plastic lawn furniture and plastic composite decking. Ultimately even this brief re-use will only keep the product out of a landfill or dioxin-generating incinerator for a few years. Most go there directly after a single use. Not a few end up floating around the oceans as part of the vast, strangulating plastic mat that gyres in deadly currents, killing and poisoning..
But everybody was in a happy mood that day, including the governor, the corporate suits, and the reporters who uncritically pumped up the company line, because it's (yes, they really said this) such a wonderfully green industry we have among us. Green like money? Or green like puke?
Here's what we do. This is how we look to the world. We lock ourselves to a bad idea and then we play a game with ourselves whereby the more obvious our folly, the more proudly we cling to it, the more we spend on it, the greater the collateral damage we will tolerate in its promulgation. So we build roads we may not much longer have fuel to drive on, we promote businesses that ruin our air and water and deplete our forests and give us cancers. And when we grow those cancers we give twenty per cent of every health care dollar to an insurance company instead of a doctor.
And our government is so busy handing over money to insurance companies (another big lot to AIG, just this week), car companies, banks, investment houses, and any other outfit with no business sense, no shame, and a desire for a free lunch, that there has not yet been time to look into this rumor that something is happening with the Arctic ice or the Amazon forests or the North Atlantic Gyre that might soon give us a bigger change than this new president (himself as in love with the disbursement of billions to the benefit of billionaires as any of the rest of them) thought he'd be dealing with when he told us he'd give us the change we needed.
The resurfacing of twenty-four miles of Route 295 is supposed to last twenty years. I might still be alive in twenty years. I'm betting the worries we'll have then will be bigger than whether to make a good superhighway just a little smoother. We'll still be paying interest on the stimulus bill that made the project happen long after the work has crumbled and the road returned to ruin.
Do politicians take a Conventional Wisdom injection? Do they catch shallowness from their associates? Or are they born with limited vision? Somebody should study this. Maybe there's money for research in the stimulus bill.
We would do better, Cooper believes, to keep our local and state roads in safe repair and let the vacationers and salesmen and merchandise haulers and governors in a hurry slow down on the slightly rougher Interstates. To this end, he has been keeping the ditches open on his driveway all this long and depressingly snowy winter, that erosion will not displace the gravel he spends the warmer months grading and replenishing. If you cannot travel to see his work in Alna, Maine, you may E-mail him.