Published: June 7, 2021

A decade ago, I took up a campaign to popularize this phrase because it offered an accurate framework for thinking about how the majority of Americans had been living for the better part of a century.

It was my hope that “The Era of Improbable Comfort Made Possible by a Taken-for-Granted but Truly Astonishing Infrastructure” would acquire the status of a familiar household phrase.

So far, success has been limited. Worse, the relevance of this phrase is getting very shaky.

The infrastructure on which our comfort relies is still truly astonishing, but the taken-for-granted part is fading fast.

Here are several of the elements of our infrastructure-supported comfort that we can no longer take for granted:

  1. Sufficient water in Western streams, rivers, reservoirs, and aquifers.
  2. A supply of fossil fuel, produced without opposition or controversy, to power conventional automobiles and also to produce electricity.
  3. Supply chains of products ranging from rare earth minerals for renewable energy to lumber for home construction (we’ll return to alarm over the supplies of rental cars and chicken wings on another occasion).
  4. A postponement of the urgent demand for the maintenance of roads, bridges, and dams, coupled with the emerging need for careful, foresighted planning for the future of urban office buildings.
  5. The existence of sufficient agreement among citizens on the role of government in coordinating and supporting the shared enterprises necessary to adapt infrastructure to changing times.

Worst of all, in the decade since I coined my unwieldy phrase, a disturbing peril has emerged:  the vulnerability of the systems that supply us with essential goods and services to hacking by malicious entities worldwide.

The scale and intensity of these challenges, you might think, would have persuaded me to stop pleading with the public to adopt the phrase, “The Era of Improbable Comfort Made Possible by a Taken-for-Granted but Truly Astonishing Infrastructure.”

On the contrary, as eras shift around us, it becomes even more important to persuade people to adopt that phrase—because it makes it possible to contemplate the big picture of what would otherwise appear as a cluttered and chaotic set of vexations, and because it reminds us that, since human beings built this “truly astonishing infrastructure,” human beings can figure out how to design its future without the “taken-for-granted” part.

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