Science fiction has postulated the rise and fall of many civilizations, and the causes of those falls are many: warfare, famine, ecological disaster, energy shortages, internal collapse from overindulgence, conquest, pestilence, plague… and doubtless many others.The one cause I’ve not seen explored much is the collapse of infrastructure, and yet I suspect it’s the most likely reason for the failure and fall of a high-tech civilization. When most people talk about infrastructure, they think of highways and bridges, but infrastructure consists of far more than that.

The more people that live in an area and the greater the population concentration, the greater the infrastructure requirements, even in low-tech societies. In higher-tech societies, the physical infrastructure requirements pyramid. A clean and reliable water system, sewage and waste disposal systems, paved streets, roads, and bridges, dependable electric power and other domestic and commercial utilities are just the beginning. We also need redundant communications links, banking and financial systems, not to mention a system for maintaining law and order and adjudicating disputes.

The more infrastructure a society requires, the more each part of that structure has the potential for conflicting with the requirements of a another part, and the more of a society’s resources and effort that is required to keep all the parts of the infrastructure in good repair and operating properly. Also, the more susceptible each section is to damage and failure. For example, in the United States, the electric power grid is being stressed toward its limits, and electric power outages are already increasing. More powerful transmission lines and more power sources increase the vulnerability of the entire system to a host of problems, from solar storms to extreme weather, to simple wear and tear. Repairs or damage to one system can disable other systems, as when a backhoe used to excavate to repair a water line breaks a fiberoptic cable, or when a broken water main floods a subway tunnel, or…

The other significant problem with infrastructure is those aspects dealing with human interaction require acceptance and trust. Even the income taxation system in the United States is based largely on trust and the fact that the majority of Americans and/or their employers largely voluntarily submit their tax payments to maintain government. Likewise, most people obey the law without being forced to do so at gunpoint. Most civil and personal disputes are settled without recourse to physical force. And this is the norm in most countries. It is, however, not universal. No such trust and agreement exists in Somalia… or in other parts of Africa, nor in much of Afghanistan… and we’ve all seen the results. We’ve also seen the results in the financial sector in the United States, where greedy financiers betrayed the trust of investors on a massive scale.

We all know that physical infrastructure fails when it is not maintained, as in the case of collapsing bridges and deteriorating highways, but few politicians or other leaders consider the need to maintain the underlying trust that supports our society’s human infrastructure.

Right now… we need to shore up both aspects of infrastructure, or the science fiction that hasn’t explored infrastructure might end up being history.