Infrastructures of Hope

Erika Bsumek


This section or module  looks at different approaches to infrastructure in America and what studying them might tell us about sustainability, environment, and hope. Readings  focus on the ways in which politicians, architects, engineers, urban planners, naturalists, environmentalists, and residents of the areas being transformed have approached the relationship between large-scale infrastructure projects and social development – and how, in turn, the land and peoples’ relationship to it (and each other) was transformed in the process.  An examination of hard infrastructures, like dams, can be juxtaposed with that of the social infrastructures of law, education, and government. Readings are meant to help participants explore the relationship between physical and social/cultural infrastructures and how studying both, along with how they are connected, may yield new solutions to older environmental problems. 

While their designers were “hopeful” that large scale infrastructure projects would help society function more effectively, many of the large scale infrastructure projects they created have caused environmental and social harm. The goal, moving forward, is to design and construct and physical and social infrastructures of hope that avoid such unintended consequences.

How do you define radical hope?

The continued act of questioning what is best for the environment and how humans can sustainably interact with it. This includes learning from the past in a way that fosters a persistent ability to think about the how present day problems can be solved without, hopefully, creating new environmental problems in the future.

How do you see radical hope emerging or playing out in your case study?

First and foremost, I am not a techno optimist. Nor am I a techno-pessimist (as Leo Marx defines them).  Instead, I think we need to take a hard look at the relationship between technology, the environment, and political, social, and cultural relationships in the United States over the course of the 20th century. I also think there is inherent value in looking to the past to understand what techo-optimists, engineers, urban-planners, and industrialists were thinking (and what they ignored) when they designed our roads, highways, dams, electrical grids, cities, and suburbs. The plans they made — and projects they built — have deeply influenced our not just the way Americans think about “hard” infrastructure (i.e. the built environment) but also how specific  “soft” infrastructures  facilitated and/or sometimes pushed back against seemingly unbridled techno-optimism (i.e. environmental organization, educational institutions, legal institutions, financial institutions, governmental entities, etc.). Looking at such histories helps us see how society has been consciously organized in terms of race, ethnicity, class, and gender. Resource management, while seemingly a practical matter, is also key to any functioning society. Looking at the relationship between hope (which is inherently future oriented) and infrastructure (who dominates our daily lives and shapes our future) forms the basis of this unit.

“It’s not the end of the world,” Graffiti, Munich 2015. Photo by Erika Bsumek


  • Richard C. Bradley, “Is Engineering Education Enough?” A Paper presented at the 70th Annual Meeting of the American Society for Engineering Education; U.S. Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, Colorado; June 18 to 22, 1962) Primary source.
  • Tó éí ííńá át’é: Water Is Life Documentary and website
  • David Brower, “Let the River Run through it
  • Companion: Listen: Floyd Dominy 
  • Jared Farmer, “Glen Canyon and the Persistence of Wilderness,” in WHQ (Summer 1996); 210-222.
  • Andrew Needham, Power Lines: Phoenix and the Making of the Modern Southwest, (Princeton University Press, 2016).
  • Companion short reading: Erika Bsumek and Betsy Frederick Rothwell, “Stop Trying to Control Nature,Time Magazine, April 22, 2016. 
  • Josh Lewis, “Ecological Checkpoints, Issue 10, April, 2018.
  • Darin Wahl, “Rethinking Cities as Vulnerable Ecosystems” 
  • Henry Petroski, To Engineer is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design (Vintage, 1992).
  • Dana Powell, Landscapes of Power: Politics of Energy in the Navajo Nation (Duke University Press, 2018)
  • Amy Slaton,  Race, Rigor, and Selectivity in U.S. Engineering: This History of an Occupational Color Line (Harvard University Press, 2010).
  • Tom Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Post War Detroit (Princeton University Press, 2014).
  • –Companion resource: Real Estate and Race: Read the information on the website and explore the maps. Detroit Redlining
  • Kyle Shelton, Power Moves:  Transportation, Politics, and Development in Houston (University of Texas Press, 2017)
  • Ted Steinberg, Down to Earth: Nature’s Role in American History (Oxford University Press, 2009).
    Chris Wells, Car Country: An Environmental History (University of Washington Press, 2014)
  • Erik Klinenberg, Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure and Help  Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life, (New York: Crown Books, 2018)
  • Companion primary documents to Shelton and Wells: –“On the Interstate” from Smithsonian exhibit America on the Move
  • “Eisenhower Interstate Highway System Home Page.”
  • Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum.
  • McKinnon, Catriona. “Climate Change: Against Despair.” Ethics and the Environment 19, no. 1 (2014): 31-48. doi:10.2979/ethicsenviro.19.1.31.

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