The U.S. spends $400 billion a year fighting rust, but very little energy talking about it.
Jonathan Waldman’s new book—Rust: The Longest War—is an exploration of how corrosion eats away at the United States’ infrastructure, military equipment, and monuments. The U.S. spends $400 billion a year fighting rust. And it’s certainly something Pennsylvania’s cities—once producers of so much steel, now part of the Rust Belt—spend a lot of time dealing with.
Keystone Crossroads spoke with Waldman about Rust.
Your interest in rust came from a personal experience, right? Can you tell us what happened and how it turned into a book?
In 2007 two adventurous, or maybe over-adventurous, friends and I decided that we’d buy an old 40-foot sailboat and see if we could sail her around the world. And then we basically spent the next two years depleting our bank accounts and tearing our hair out trying to fix every possible thing on the boat that had rusted in some way or another. We had a pretty rough introduction to rust and that’s what sort of opened my eyes to it.
So what is the scope of the problem?
It’s actually the most destructive natural disaster in the modern world. It amounts to something like 3 percent of our GDP. It’s tearing apart our infrastructure. It’s why the American Society of Civil Engineers regularly gives the state of American infrastructure a ‘D.’ It’s the number one threat to the U.S. Navy. It nearly took down the Statue of Liberty. It’s so easy to say, oh rust, it’s just this ugly brown stuff and it’s kind of an aesthetic matter, but it’s not. It’s really costly and it tears apart the things that we built and that we maintain and that we rely on.
When I think Rust Belt, I think of shared cultural, economic, you know, social, historic fabric. So even though it’s everywhere here, actual rust isn’t the first thing I think of. Do you think physical rust gets overlooked a lot? Is it just me or did you see this happening with others, as well?
Oh, I saw it happening everywhere. Because we’ve all seen it on the side of the road or under our cars, we sort of interpret it as familiar, which allows us to say, ‘well someone must be dealing with it.’ Or maybe no one is dealing with it because it’s just a thing that we see everywhere. And there are so few corrosion engineers in the entire country, most of whom work behind the scenes anyway, protecting things that we care about, that it’s easy to think well maybe there’s nothing we do about it. So yeah, I see it, you see it, and that’s kind of the end of the story.
But it happens in an official capacity, too. You write that rust is rarely mentioned when officials talk about infrastructure even though it’s an obvious problem. So why is that happening?
I like to say that we think of rust somewhere between cholesterol and hemorrhoids. We ascribe some shame to it. Unless you’ve got a rusty old truck and you’re cool showing your buddies how rusty it is, most of us think it’s kind of embarrassing, it’s perhaps a sign that you’re not on top of everything.
So you think it’s actually taboo, not ignorance of how big of an issue it is?
I think it’s mostly taboo, yeah. Culturally, yeah. I think there are a couple of things happening, I think in America right now you can have an iPhone in your hand and text and talk and see a video of your grandmother across the country. We sort of think we’re so advanced that maybe we think we’re past needing to pay attention to maintenance. So I think that’s sort of combining with the fact that maintenance also just isn’t very sexy, that we sort of think it’s beneath us, we’re so modern. It’s just easy to ignore.
You write that corrosion engineers are kind of a dry bunch—a mustachioed dry bunch. Did you ever hear any rust jokes?
I never heard any rust jokes and believe me, I tried. I found a couple of rust poems…
So do you think you could maybe take us out by reading a rust poem from your book?
Okay. Here is a poem that was written in June of 1974 by the president of the National Association of Corrosion Engineers. It’s called Rust’s a Must:
Mighty ships upon the oceanSuffer from severe corrosion,Even those that stay at docksideAre rapidly becoming oxide.Alas, that piling in the seaIs mostly Fe2O3.And where the ocean meets the shore,You’ll find there’s Fe3O4.’Cause when the wind is salt and gusty,Things are getting awful rusty. We can measure, we can test it,We can halt it or arrest it.We can gather it and weigh it,We can coat it, we can spray it.We examine and dissect it,We cathodically protect itWe can pick it up and drop it.But heaven knows we’ll never stop it!So here’s to rust, no doubt about it,Most of us would starve without it.
It’s pretty good.