Can't take the heat

Washington ground to a halt in a recent heatwave. What better proof of how America's infrastructure

This week, I vowed, I would do something unprecedented in modern times: I would not write a single word about the shenanigans of B****k or Mc***n or H*****y, or even about this year's presidential election at all. I intend to keep my word, too, with just one proviso: to say that the subject I have chosen to write about, notwithstanding its tragicomic aspects, should be exercising the mind of the next US president perhaps more than any other single issue.

The fact that I sat in my top-floor office in a puddle of sweat for most of the second week of this month because the air-conditioning had failed, for example, is hardly something I would expect the candidates to lose too much sleep over - even when the temperature inside crept past 110 degrees. For me, it all culminated in a visit from Bill, my friendly air-conditioning technician, on the morning of Friday the 13th.

What he told me symbolised much more than the strangely confused and angry mood that consumes America when the mere subject of "energy conservation" comes up. The ramifications went far beyond my usually nicely cooled, breezy office. Even America's outrageous hogging of the world's energy supplies - it comprises just 5 per cent of the world's population but uses 23 per cent of its energy resources - no longer seemed that surprising, let alone outrageous. It was what was going on around me and Bill as we spoke early that morning that brought home something I have been noticing with increasing alarm over the past two decades: the sheer fragility of America's crumbling infrastructures.

To my American readers: please do not get too angry with me when I say this, but the rapidity of the deterioration of your country's infra structures often reminds me of an extensive tour of the Soviet Union I undertook in 1986 - when I saw for myself, in places such as industrial Ukraine and Siberia and St Petersburg, that the Soviet Union had already had its day. For just as Bill and I were having our grim conversation early that Friday morning - and unknown to either of us at the time - the heart of the capital of the most powerful nation on earth, less than a mile from where we stood, had been plunged into the kind of chaos one might envisage in, say, New Delhi on a very, very bad day.

Because of the temperature, an underground train had earlier derailed as a result of what was described as a "heat-buckle" on the tracks. Two separate fires on the subway system were then triggered that morning by faulty "stud bolts". Terrified, sweaty commuters sprinted up stationary escalators while, from above, all they could hear was ambulance, police and fire sirens zigzagging frantically around them.

In the meantime, a switch in an electrical sub-station sizzled out, cutting power throughout central Washington - including, yes, the White House. "It was like each man for himself . . . like a third world country," next day's Washington Post quoted 34-year-old David Zaidain, "a city planner who was stunned by the level of anarchy he encountered while walking to work", as saying. Pedestrians were struck by cars at junctions where traffic lights were not working (although, miraculously, nobody was killed).

That one fused switch alone left 12,000 customers - which, in power company terminology, can mean one family house or a block of offices with thousands of workers - without power, the very prospect of which sent wealthy Washingtonians scurrying to book cool rooms or suites at the Four Seasons.

Most were not so lucky: every day, according to the Galvin Electricity Initiative, half a million Americans spend at least two hours without power, at an annual cost to the nation of at least $150bn. And yet, with conditions like those in DC on Friday-the-13th and the politicians who created them, Americans are scared of al-Qaeda? Bush et al scoffed at the prospect of the US joining the 174 other nations that ratified the Kyoto Accord, on the grounds that industrial giants such as China would then be able to take advantage of decent Americans doing the right thing.

Back in my office, I was not surprised when Bill pronounced my air-conditioning unit to be finished, but I was amazed to be told that, in order to replace it, we would need a much bigger unit that would have to be hoisted on to the roof by a crane; the street would have to be closed, a licence obtained beforehand to do so, and the roof strengthened to take the new weight.

Hadn't miniaturisation come to air-conditioning units, I asked Bill incredulously? Surely China, or some other poor smog-infested country, now churned out trillions of tiny units that cost next to nothing so that the likes of me could sit and work in comfort? No, he told me: because of emissions laws overseen by the Environmental Protection Agency, air-conditioning units had become much bigger rather than smaller.

This, in fact, is a neatly illustrative little allegory that demonstrates just how rabidly right-wing America has become in recent decades. The EPA has become a symbol of soppy lefty hand-wringing to so many Americans, yet it was proposed and signed into law in 1970 by none other than President Richard Nixon.

The lesson? All that do-gooding just means that you - the decent guy - now have to fuss around with licences and cranes while the likes of China, India and France (the French are always guilty of something truly diabolical) get away with murder.

Central truism

This is the one central truism about the United States that most Brits (particularly Blair, Brown and co) fail to understand: that (Nixon's noble exception notwithstanding) Americans instinctively reject strong government or regulatory rule, with the result that the government frequently fails to cope with problems or disasters (whether they be of the magnitude of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, or the ridiculous DC dramas on 13 June, or the collapse last August of the busy commuter I-35W bridge over the Mississippi in central Minneapolis, which led to 13 deaths).

The first of three official reports into why that bridge collapsed illustrates succinctly what I am saying. The reasons, in the words of Construction Bulletin of 16 June, were that "the Minnesota Department of Transportation missed opportunities to detect potentially fatal problems, lacked money which led to poor decisions, did not have the leadership to properly address a variety of projects, and did not document or follow up on its inspections . . ." The structure was only 40 years old, but for 17 successive years had been deemed to be in "poor" corrosive condition by inspectors; the American Society of Civil Engineers, which should know what it is talking about, estimates that some $1.7trn is now needed to repair America's crumbling infrastructure.

There are some hopeful signs, however. In March this year, Americans drove 11 billion fewer miles than they did in March 2007; they also took 10.3 billion trips on public transport in 2007, the highest total for 50 years. In other words, they may not be as genetically predisposed against public transport as many think. Indeed, Americans are outraged that a (US) gallon of petrol (the equivalent of 3.7 litres) now costs (at my local station last Monday, at least) between $4.19 and $4.49; I didn't have the heart to tell anyone that petrol was selling in Britain at around £1.18 a litre, almost double that.

Should anybody doubt my warnings about US infrastructure or comparisons with the Soviet Union of two or more decades ago, I recommend Fareed Zakaria's excellent The Post-American World. Zakaria, editor of Newsweek International, tells us that although the US remains militarily and economically the most powerful nation on earth, its role is changing. The world's wealthiest person is not American, but Mexican, he says; the world's tallest building is in Taipei and will soon be overshadowed by one in Dubai; Bollywood now makes more films and sells more tickets than Hollywood. And where do you go if you want to shop away to your heart's content at the world's biggest shopping mall? Beijing, of course.

Please don't write to me to say that, because I don't want to work in 110 degrees, I am part of the problem. I know that; I don't claim any moral superiority. I can report, too, that after I told Bill to mend my unit as best he could, he shook his head but said he would try - and that I am now sitting at my desk in blissfully cooled air, but doubtless still pumping out carbon dioxide to an extent that would certainly get me a deserved scolding from Dick Nixon.

Fareed Zakaria tells us, incidentally, that 48 million air conditioners were made in 2005 in, er, China - compared with 200 in 1978. It's just that these modern ones, you see, are big and designed to compete in the world market, and . . . Need I go on?