Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Geology of Opportunity

Last year, the New York Times published an article on the geography of opportunity. It discussed how upward mobility varied across many of the USA’s cities, and was particularly poor in urban centers in the South and rust belt.

 The article spent a fair amount of time discussing factors that gave cities like Seattle twice the upward mobility of cities like Atlanta. They discussed schools, and two parent families, and community engagement, and other social issues. They did not talk about rocks. Which his a shame, because rocks go a long way towards explaining the places with five to ten times the upward mobility of Atlanta. Consider the map from the article, reproduced below with geological annotation (Figure 1)

Figure 1: USA opportunity map with selected geology labeled. 

 The most striking thing about this map geologically is the prevalence of blue (or bluer in generally red areas) in parts of the country where fossil fuels are being extracted. If you’re poor, and you want your kids to be well off, your best bet is to live in an area with mines or wells. Many of these regions have upward mobility twice as high as the supposedly progressive cities like San Francisco and Seattle.

 Of course, fossil fuels are not all kisses and unicorns. But any attempt to phase them out has to consider te social impications of this technique. The reddest parts of the map are the slave belt and the rust belt; places where changing economic and social conditions rendered uneducated labor obsolete.

 Obviously energy has to come from somewhere, and renewables generally employ more people per kilowatt than fossil fuels do. But many of those jobs are not necessarily well paid, and many of the high level renewable jobs require advanced degrees which are difficult for the poorest people to obtain. We all know how gold rushes and oil booms work; the key social question is how to provide unskilled opportunity with wind and solar.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Channeling the tide...

Those of its inhabitants who had succeeded in surviving would find themselves at last face to face with the relentlessness of a scarcity of water constantly growing greater, till at last they would all die of thirst, either directly or indirectly; for either they themselves would not have water enough to drink, or the plants or animals which constituted their diet would perish for lack of it... Before this lamentable conclusion was reached, however, there would come a time in the course of the planet's history when water was not yet wanting, but simply scarce and requiring to be husbanded; when, for the inhabitants, the one supreme problem of existence would be the water problem,--how to get water enough to sustain life, and how best to utilize every drop of water they could get.
Percival Lowell, Mars, 1895