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David Bouchier: The Invisible Infrastructure

Image by Guy Dugas from Pixabay

We are hearing a lot about infrastructure at the moment, and it always makes me think about the old-fashioned kind of infrastructure that was built to last.

For a time, we lived in France just a few miles away from the Pont du Gard, an extraordinary engineering project begun about 2,000 years ago to bring water to the Roman city of Nimes. They built an aqueduct 30 miles long over arid, hilly territory, with no mechanical diggers or cranes, no pumps to move the water along, and no modern surveying equipment. The whole aqueduct descends only 41 feet over its entire length, just enough to keep the water flowing by gravity.

The most impressive part of the aqueduct is the Pont du Gard, a 160-foot-high bridge that carries the aqueduct over a river valley. This huge structure survives almost intact and is now a World Heritage Site visited by millions of tourists.

The entire project was undertaken, at vast expense, just so that the citizens of Roman Nimes could have fresh water for their homes and baths.

The Roman emperors believed in infrastructure. It was part of their definition of civilization. If a place was to be properly Roman it had to have Roman roads, Roman villas, Roman temples, Roman heating systems and Roman water systems. To build was to claim the territory. So, these dramatic ruins can be seen all over the old empire, including Britain, North Africa and the Middle East.

Our own crumbling infrastructure, let’s face it, was not built to Roman standards and is not going to last anything like as long. Our bridges, for example, seem to start falling down after about 50 years.

It wasn’t only the Romans who built for the future. Some of the oldest cathedrals in Europe, like Canterbury and Notre Dame, are still standing after almost 1,000 years. They were built for the long term, or even for eternity, in stark contrast to the flimsy matchboxes we build out of wood and plastic today.

Why am I telling you this ancient history? Well, infrastructure means a foundation or basic support, so it’s not just roads and bridges. There is also the invisible infrastructure that connects people and hold a civilization together — our language, culture, common beliefs, and common goals. No amount of impressive building will save a nation or an empire without those invisible connections.

Public Radio, like schools, like libraries, is part of this invisible infrastructure. It helps us to understand and perhaps even make sense of what’s going on in the world. If you are a regular listener, WSHU is part of the infrastructure of your life. You would miss it if it was gone, because it is an antidote to the problems that plagued the Romans in the last years of their civilization: ignorance, conspiracy theories, despotism and primitive superstition. Weakened by all these, Rome was overwhelmed by the barbarians after surviving for 700 years, leaving only its monuments and its literature for us to marvel at.

The barbarians are always at the gates, metaphorically speaking. They don’t care for civilization, and I’m quite sure that they never listen to Public Radio. This is a part of the infrastructure that you can’t afford not to support and, unlike the bill now in Congress, it won’t cost you $3 trillion.

Copyright: David Bouchier


David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.