One of the more common labels that is attached to infrastructure that is built in remote areas is that it is useless and wasteful. Most people happen to live close to others and benefit from the infrastructure that tends to result from people being close together and desirous of ways to travel and purchase and engage in the enjoyment of culture and all that social life among human beings entails. Yet people who live in large concentrations of people and who take for granted the sort of infrastructure that makes life manageable for them look with contempt on that infrastructure that is spent on more remote areas. So it is that we hear sniping about bridges to nowhere in Alaska or an airport in St. Helena (a place I would enjoy visiting if I had the chance) being viewed as the most useless airports in the world.
I think a lot of this has to do with the mindset of scarcity when it comes to infrastructure improvement and maintenance. In a world where infrastructure is not always maintained to a high degree because of the expense and the lack of glory in such work, it is easy for people who drive over pothole-filled roads to look at infrastructure expenses elsewhere as getting in the way of what should be a more pleasant and better maintained infrastructure closer to home. One sees the same competition between female rappers, for example, in a lack of interest in cheering on the success of others because we view it as threatening to our own well-being. I believe attitude to be at the basis of the contemporary hostility for infrastructure expenditures in remote areas where there are few people to enjoy the infrastructure that is built, because if infrastructure was a high priority in general, people would not see the building of a new canal or bridge or airport somewhere as being hostile or inimical to their own interests. It is scarcity and the resulting feelings of envy, rather than reason, that lead people to denigrate the expenditure of limited infrastructure monies on other areas.
Some time ago I commented on the moral implications of Laplace’s Tenth Principle , which used the increase in the conditions of life to people to comment that the fewer resources someone has, the greater impact small gains have on their existence. We may use a similar approach to point out that there is no such thing as useless infrastructure in the way that people often complain. Let us comment specifically on bridges to nowhere and airports in nowhere places like St. Helena as demonstration of the logic of there being no such useless infrastructure in these things, and in doing so we can help better appreciate what such infrastructure means to people who live in remote areas, rather than looking at matters from a perspective that fails to take the needs and concerns of people in remote areas into account.
What is the value of an airport to St. Helena. I recently watched a documentary that commented that the recently-build airport has often been viewed as a useless airport by many people given its expense and the limited demand for travel in a small island of few people that is a long way from anywhere else. As it happens, there are flights between St. Helena and South Africa and Namibia on a regular basis as well as monthly charter flights between the island and a relatively nearby island that is almost as remote, Ascension Island, notable for its military uses. The presence of the airport has allowed the capacity for emergency medical airlift for an island that used to depend on lengthy and infrequent travel from ships chartered to deliver goods and people between the UK, St. Helena, and South Africa. It is without question that the possibility of medical airlift from an island without state of the art medical care is of immense worth to people in a remote area, and that the possibility of travel to other countries in a few hours is greatly helpful in reducing the isolation of living in such a place as Napoleon’s place of exile. Whether or not such things are worth spending hundreds of millions of dollars on depends on the circumstances, but there is no question that such infrastructure is immensely worthwhile to the people who are there.
The same logic can be found in the building of bridges to nowhere. There is, for example, a lovely example of a suspension bridge in the Falkland Islands that I would like to see that is particularly remote from others that allows for ground transportation between the area of Goose Green and Lafonia, to reduce the distance that sheep needed to be driven in order for their processing. This bridge is fairly obscure, but more familiar to many people are bridges to nowhere. One example is the expensive Columbia River Crossing in Portland, where tens of millions of dollars were spent on a proposed crossing to the Columbia River without any actual construction being done. Similarly, a great deal of money was spent on a highway to nowhere because the bridge the highway would have served got cancelled instead for increased ferry service in something that attracted a lot of negative attention. However one may wonder the worth of expensive infrastructure products to nations as a whole, it is clear that they matter a great deal to remote people who find themselves cut off from others. And how much that matters is something worth considering.