Tip of the Smithbilt to Those Cherished Utilities: Modern infrastructure allows us to become more productive

Commentary, Energy, Marco Navarro-Genie

During Stampede, perhaps more than at any other time, Calgarians celebrate their pioneer heritage.

The challenging lives of cattle ranching and farming are part of our provincial lore and come together in a mixture of reality and common myth. We celebrate the pioneering lives of those who opened the way.

And while we celebrate the way in which these pioneers lived at the end of the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th, not many of us wish to live without the comfort of modern utilities like they did.

Life on the range was hard and demanding. The newly arrived often built sod huts that were not impervious to water leaking in or to prairie winds. A sod hut beat exposure to the elements, but not by much. Later wood or stone construction was no less drafty, and drafty quarters required good heating sources of wood and coal. Cooking over fire stoves made for smoky households.

None of the conveniences related to potable running water existed. Obtaining water for basic necessities was a time consuming activity, from hauling it in from a river or pond to pumping from a well by hand. The absence of running water meant trickier hygiene and less cleanliness: trips to an outhouse, bedpans for the night and water basins for washing up in the mornings.

Given the scarcity of laundry facilities, people often wore their clothes more than once between washings.

There was none of the electric conveniences we now enjoy, to say nothing of the practical luxury of computers, electronic games and the entertainment features brought by television and stereo equipment. Lighting, of course, was provided by smelly oil lamps or candles, which always seemed to give insufficient clarity.

No power meant no power tools. Repairs and maintenance were done with rudimentary tools.

The lack of refrigeration forced quite different dietary strategies. No waffle-and bread-making appliances, electric mixers, coffee makers, toasters or microwave ovens. Vegetables and fruit for the winter were canned and preserved, pickled and marinated, according to one's ethnic heritage, while meats were cured and spiced, dried or smoked for later consumption. All of these required laborious preparation and execution.

If life today seems like a bed of roses by comparison, we owe it to the same entrepreneurial spirit that opened the West and settled the Prairies. We owe it to people who have financed, built and maintained the infrastructure necessary for all the comforts we enjoy today.

Water, electricity, gas, cable and telephone come directly to our homes, and are accessed at the click of a switch, the touch of a button, or the turn of a faucet. The way we have designed and built our houses matters. But it's the infrastructure outside our homes that makes it all possible in the end. There are hundreds of kilometres of piping needed for gas and water to come to most households, thousands of kilometres of cable and fibre to bring electricity and telephones to our homes.

When we receive our utility bills, we can see that the services we get are expensive. Acknowledging this fact should not be construed as an effort to endorse frivolous increases. But we take much for granted. It's easy to forget that it takes enormous capital, organization and knowhow, and the efforts of many people to get electricity, gas, telephones and treated water to our homes.

A recent study found that it may take $1 trillion to meet the need of electricity infrastructure alone in North America over the next decade. The cost of extending water distribution and sewage services to new developments in Calgary is $63,942 and $55,980 per hectare, respectively.

But the cost of not having them would be infinitely worse. Because of ready access to water, gas, electricity and telecommunication, we are a more productive society, and it is this productivity that allows us to generate greater wealth to pay for public parks, hospitals and schools.

Let's continue to celebrate Stampede and the efforts of earlier settlers, cognizant of the difficulties they endured. But I also want to thank and celebrate all those pioneers who make it possible for us to avoid the hardships of earlier settlers -to say nothing of the majority of people around the world that lack these basic services today.

Utilities and the accompanying infrastructure have given us unparalleled comfort, and have made us freer to achieve more and greater things for ourselves, our families and our communities.