Technological advances and cultural change can do only so much to fight rust, however. We can greatly slow corrosion, but we cannot stop it outright. Exposed iron and steel naturally revert to their lowest energy states by giving up their electrons to oxygen and water. The process is formally known as oxidation. Informally, it’s called rusting. By any name, it’s inevitable. “We’re fighting the second law of thermodynamics,” Dunmire likes to say.
At some point, higher concerns must come to bear in a war we can’t win but can’t afford not to wage. Changing America’s report card from a D+ to a B, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers, would take $3.6 trillion of investment by 2020. The current shortfall, by the organization’s estimate, is $201 billion annually. The odds of closing that gap, and the costs of failing to, are similar to the odds and costs of the next bridge you drive across collapsing while you’re on it: respectively, minuscule and catastrophic.
Waldman, who has tracked down good sources in the little-known realm of corrosion experts, quotes one of them blaming America’s wealth for our failure to address the problem of infrastructure rot: “The more money you have,” Mike Baach observes, “the more reckless you are.” We do appear stuck in the bullish mind-set of the mid‑20th century, behaving as though we are rich enough to buy all the new bridges we want and too rich to worry about fixing all the old bridges we have. “We can’t afford it anymore,” Baach argues. “Is it a moral issue when a busload of kids will get killed when a bridge falls? You can’t separate them. It’s moral and it’s economic.” More than a few critics have lately been encouraging the United States to get its house in order. The country could do worse than to take the advice literally.