Thursday, December 14, 2017

Urban v. Rural and the Alabama Senate Election Result



Urban v. Rural
and the
Alabama Senate Election Result

Kevin H. Posey


Set aside for just a moment the partisan aspects and implications of last night’s Alabama Senate election victory for the Democrat, Doug Jones, over the Republican nominee, Roy Moore, and consider how it reflects on the longstanding tensions between rural and urban interests in the United States. These tensions date back to the founding of the republic, with Thomas Jefferson advocating for an agrarian democracy, while it could fairly be argued that Alexander Hamilton represented urban interests with his focus on a central bank that would fuel industry.

With this in mind, take a look at Alabama’s county results. Check out how the largest counties (with the highest precinct count) voted. There’s nothing unusual about the fact that they diverge from smaller, more rural counties. What is unusual is that, this time, they prevailed.

 
Results courtesy of AL.com

Essentially, even in one of the lesser-urbanized regions in the US, the political power of the city is starting to be felt. One cannot help but wonder if this is a trend that might play out in 2018 in more urban regions. If the cities are on the political ascent, this will have tremendous implications for transportation priorities in the US. 

How? Well, highways are often used as a means to encourage economic growth in rural areas. The extension of Interstate 69 in Indiana (and eventually to Texas) is one such example. Or, they are often built to facilitate development in former agricultural areas outside of the city—also known as suburban sprawl.

Highways today are seldom built or expanded to benefit city residents. In fact, they are often fought for their destructive impacts on neighborhoods and the health of nearby residents. Opposition to the plan to drastically widen I-70 through the heart of Denver is reflective of this. So, if cities are growing in power, how likely is the funding spigot for road construction to stay open?

Birmingham, the largest city in Alabama, has had considerable trouble funding its transit system. At one point, city employees had to forego a raise just so it could stay in operation. Federal funding for such systems is often crucial, but Alabama’s Senators were elected primarily via support outside of the cities. But if you look at last night’s results, Jefferson County, wherein Birmingham lies, turned out for Senator-elect Doug Jones. One would imagine that he would be motivated to advocate for federal transit dollars to reward the constituents who gave him his narrow victory.

Now consider what happens if the scenario in Alabama plays out across the country in 2018. Keep an eye on Senate race competitiveness rankings via the independent Cook Political Report.

As we went into last night, it showed the Alabama seat as a toss-up. Seven other seats carry that ranking (shown as state-current occupant):

Democrats                                                     Republicans

Indiana- Donnelly                                        Arizona- Flake
Missouri- McCaskill                                     Nevada- Heller
West Virginia- Manchin                              Tennessee- Corker
Minnesota- Franken

Indiana, Missouri, Minnesota, Arizona, and Nevada all have large, urban centers comprising their electorate. If the Alabama scenario were to repeat, that could yield a pickup of three Senate seats for Democrats. All of the victors would likely owe their jobs to city voters. Greater funding for transit and complete streets projects, coupled with an overall de-emphasis of single occupant vehicles, is not out of the question.

The 2018 election is still a year off, and much can (and will) occur between now and then. But those with an interest in transportation and urban policy would do well to take heed of how the political winds are starting to blow.

Monday, October 23, 2017

New story posted: Roasting Marshmallows Over Lava & Other Adventures in Time Travel

Writing only about transportation can be a bit dull. So, I have a collection of stories posted on Atlanta media personality Melissa Carter’s site. My latest combines cooking, geology, and, um, heat exhaustion.


Sunday, October 15, 2017

Tourism, Bikes, and Money: How Atlanta Compares with Cities & Resort Communities Around the US


I recently wrote that Atlanta was slowly morphing into a city fit for bicycling. Thanks to the growing Beltline and an expanding grid of bike lanes, it is possible to use a bike for more than merely showing off one’s physique in Lycra. Biking is normal, so normal clothing may now be worn. Similarly, Atlantans on foot are no longer assumed to merely be training for the next Peachtree Road Race or walking from their broken-down car to the nearest gas station. They’re simply going somewhere.

But if Atlanta is embracing better streetscapes for people who bike and walk, how does it compare to other cities? Complete Streets projects are known to have boosted tourism in a variety of communities. Are Atlanta’s efforts enough to provide a competitive edge versus not only other large cities, but also smaller towns and tourist-dependent communities?

Judging bike and pedestrian-friendliness can be a subjective exercise. Cycling advocates claim that riding a bike makes people happier, but we can’t measure smiles. So, let’s look at how much each city is actually spending on physical infrastructure for safer streets. Since the size of each of these communities varies widely, I will break down this spending on a per capita basis to keep comparisons relevant. I do the same for tourist spending numbers, so that a community’s dependency on tourism can more readily be seen.

Note that few cities delineate funds as being for “Complete Streets,” a term often used to describe spending on projects beyond those designed to ease motorist congestion, or any other readily identifiable label. However, spending for sidewalk projects, a specific bike trail, or road diets can sometimes be found buried in a budget. Where state and federal funding sources are called out by a city in its budget or press releases, I include them. 

To aid comparison with Atlanta, I have set three broad categories for population, tourism-per-capita, and Complete Streets spending-per capita: Higher, Similar, and Lower. Cities with higher, similar, or lower amounts than Atlanta in these categories are labeled as such.

Higher
Similar
Lower
Population (P)
600,001>
300,000-600,000
<299,999
Tourism (T)
$40,001>
$10,000-$40,000
<$9,999
Complete Streets (CS)
$101+
$30-$100
<$29.99

Atlanta, Georgia: 
Bike rental along Atlanta's Beltline at Ponce City Market
A group of cyclists climb a traffic-calmed McLendon Avenue in Atlanta's Lake Claire neighborhood.
With the world’s busiest airport and  film production spending just behind that of Hollywood, Atlanta has a robust, diverse economy and also substantial tourist revenue. While the city lacks any nearby natural attractions such as beaches or mountains, roughly $15 billion in 2016 tourist spending is generated by the city’s convention business. That’s good enough to propel the city into 7th position among US cities in terms of visitor numbers. Break down total tourist revenue by the city’s 470,000 residents and you get over $32,000 in per capita tourist dollars.

Atlanta has a massive list of Complete Streets projects that are in various stages of planning and construction. According to city staff, $77,430,000 in funding will be spent on these projects over the next five years. These funds originate from roughly $187 million in bonds and over $200 million in sales tax revenue over the next five years. That equates to $33.67 per person spent per year on cyclists and pedestrians. 

Boston, Massachusetts: P=Similar, T=Similar, CS=Similar
A typical unprotected bike lane in Boston's Back Bay neighborhood
A Barnes Dance crosswalk across high-speed, one-way streets in Boston
While Boston is known for transportation megaprojects like the Big Dig, the burial of the former Central Artery Expressway, as well as the seemingly constant rebuilding of Logan International Airport, the dense grid of streets in its center lends itself to walking and biking. How safe such activities are is another matter, as many streets are wide, one-way, and set up for high motorist speeds. 

To address the questionable safety of its streets, Boston plans to spend $100 million over five years in accordance with its Go Boston 2030 plan. A representative with the city’s transportation department tells me this funding includes:
·  $5 million a year toward Walk and Bike Friendly Main Streets Districts such as Hyde Square in Jamaica Plain and North Square in the North End
·  $6.5 million a year for corridor redesign and reconstruction with a focus on leveraging this investment for state and federal funding. Corridors such as Melnea Cass Boulevard in Roxbury and Harrison Avenue in the South End are included in this category.
·  $4 million a year on traffic-calming zones and on providing short-term "tactical" improvements to increase safety for pedestrians and those on bicycles at intersections and along corridors, including improvements on Massachusetts Avenue and Kneeland Street.
·  $2 million a year on multi-use paths for walking and biking including the city's contribution to the federally funded Connect Historic Boston project
·  $5 million a year in City and developer funding for traffic signal upgrades which includes re-timing them to give priority to pedestrians.

Breaking this average annual budget of $20 million by the city’s population of 673,000 yields a per capita figure of $29.72. Tourism spending in 2015 hit $12.7 billion, or $18,870 per capita.

Chincoteague, Virginia: P=Less, T=Similar, CS=Less
A buffered bike lane on a roundabout in Chincoteague, Virginia
Heavy bike traffic on the bikeway to Assateague Island National Seashore and Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge
This coastal town is the gateway to Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge and the unspoiled southern beaches of the Assateague Island National Seashore. As such, it tends to boom in the summer months and go quiet in winter. Thanks to a fairly high park entry fee for motorists, many visitors choose the cheaper alternative of biking from town to the beach. Inside the parks, separated multiuser paths can be found along much of the main road. A wildlife loop road is closed to motorists until 3 PM each day and sees heavy bike traffic prior to that hour.
With a small year-round population of 2913, overall budget numbers will naturally be small. The 2017 draft budget shows $60,000 allotted for sidewalks, but calculating on-road expenditures is complicated by the fact that many Virginia streets are under the control of the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT), which recently installed bike lanes in the town. But even accounting for that, the per capita Complete Street spending is less than $30 when divided by the population of 2919. Annual tourist spending is approximately $50 million or $17,129 per capita.

Columbus, Georgia: P=Less, T=Less, CS=Similar
A group from the Georgia Bike Summit relaxes on the newly-pedestrianized 14th Street Bridge in downtown Columbus, GA
This former textile mill town repurposed its river from what was little more than an open sewer for much of the 20th century into a recreational centerpiece, complete with the world’s longest urban whitewater course, zip line and adjacent multiuser trail--- the Chattahoochee Riverwalk. An abandoned  railroad extending into the far northeast of the county is now the Fall Line Trace, a rail trail with several signalized street crossings. 

Many of the city’s capital projects in transportation are funded via a special local option sales tax similar to that in Atlanta.  This tax will yield more than $100 million over ten years. In FY 2016 the city planned to spend more than $7.3 million on a variety of pedestrian and bike-friendly projects, including a multiuser bridge and trail extension near Fort Benning, a large military base south of town. Break that down by the population of nearly 200,000 within the city limits and you get an average annual figure of $36.50 per person going towards safer streets.

Columbus’s urban whitewater course and small convention center pull in some tourism revenue, but it isn’t a major vacation destination. Tourism expenditures in 2015 were approximately $340 million. That breaks down to $1700 in per capita tourist dollars.

Columbus, Ohio: P=More, T=Less, CS=More
This riverfront park is part of a large network of trails and bike lanes in downtown Columbus, Ohio.
The other Columbus in this survey is a major city of over 860,000 people with a lot of things going for it. As Ohio’s state capital, a lot of business is naturally drawn here. Its location in what is virtually the geographic center of the state at the junction of major transportation corridors helps, as well. The city’s culture is kept vibrant by the massive population of over 66,000 students at Ohio State University. Perhaps this explains why so many people come to Columbus, for tourism expenditures exceeded $6.4 billion in 2015. That yields a per capita tourist revenue figure of $7441. 

As with many riverfront cities, Columbus has revitalized its shore with trails and other amenities. However, the city is now venturing into the workaday downtown and surrounding neighborhoods with better  bike and pedestrian facilities.

Columbus plans street reconstructions “so that, where feasible, new or rebuilt streets will be designed for safe access by all users, whether they drive, ride, pedal, walk or use mass transit.” Revenue for these comes from voter-approved bonds that are financed via income tax collections and utility ratepayer fees. In 2017 this contributed $178.5 million to new sidewalks, bike improvements.  Break this down by the city’s population and Columbus is spending a per capita figure of $207 on Complete Streets.

Denver, Colorado: P=More, T=Less, CS= Less
This pedestrian bridge in downtown Denver, Colorado, has tracks for those walking their bikes.
The 16th Street Mall in downtown Denver

While the city’s high altitude and frigid winter climate can be a challenge for those who forsake the car, bike commuting grew by 43% from 2014 to 2015. To encourage pedestrians and revitalize downtown, the 16th Street Mall was closed to all vehicular traffic except buses.

Denver’s efforts to shift away from car dependence haven’t been trouble-free: violent attacks have marred the 16th Street Mall. Plus, whereas savvy transportation officials now remove urban interstates, Colorado’s planners are disregarding the likelihood of induced demand by dramatically widening I-70 through Denver.
Denver’s FY 2017 budget for pedestrian and bike-friendly projects was set at $2.7 million and $2.2 million, respectively. With a population of 682,000 people, that works out to $7.18 per resident going to safer streets for all. Tourism revenue in 2016 hit $5.3 billion, or almost $7800 per capita.

Greenville, South Carolina: P=Less, T=Similar, CS=Similar
The Swamp Rabbit Trail as it passes through downtown Greenville.
With no natural features of any consequence or any other big attractions, you might not expect Greenville to be making a play for tourists. However, the city has managed to attract 9.1% of the state’s total travel market share. That pales in comparison to Charleston on the coast with over $2 billion in 2015 revenue, but it still accounts for $1.145 billion in 2015 tourist spending. With a population of just over 67,000, per capita tourist spending is over $17,000.

Some of this tourism may be encouraged by the rejuvenation of downtown properties and parkland along the Reedy River. This redevelopment links up with the former Swamp Rabbit railroad, now a very popular multiuser path sponsored by the Greenville Health System. The trail is nearly 20 miles long and still growing.

Greenville secured $400,000 in FY 2016 via the US Department of Transportation’s Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP) for a sidewalk project. This program requires participation in a competitive bid process and 20% in local matching funds. Greenville City Council also approved $2.5 million in its FY 2016 budget for expansion of the Swamp Rabbit Trail. That puts per capita spending on bike and pedestrian projects at just over $43. 

Hilo, Hawaii: P=Less, T=Similar, CS=Less
A typical street in downtown Hilo, Hawaii
A bike race just east of downtown Hilo
Hilo is the largest city on the largest island in the Hawaiian chain, but it isn’t as popular with tourists as Kona on the opposite side of the Big Island. In 2015 nearly 1.28 million tourists disembarked at Kona’s airport, while nearly 549,000 arrived at Hilo’s. If we apply this ratio to the reported tourist expenditures for that same year, $1.9 billion, the tourist revenue in the vicinity of Hilo would be roughly $570 million. Hilo’s population is just over 43,000, yielding per capita tourism revenue of over $13,000. 

While Hilo is in the shadow of Mauna Loa, one of the largest shield volcanoes on earth, much of the town is actually fairly level. Coupled with a pleasant climate, this would seem like a great place to walk bike. However, bike lanes are few while pedestrians must contend with wide roads and long blocks outside the picturesque downtown.

The city is in the process of developing a master plan for making the urban core more pedestrian and bike friendly, but no budget has been set for the plan yet.  According to Aaron Brown of the Hawaii County Department of Public Works, “…the Complete Streets program at this point is in the conceptual and planning phase.” While funding has been found for sending staff to Complete Streets-themed conferences, expenditures on projects are $0.

Indianapolis, Indiana:  P=More, T=Less, CS=Less
A stylized street crossing along the Cultural Trail in downtown Indianapolis, Indiana

Bike-share in downtown Indianapolis
With visitors drawn by the famous racetrack--- that’s technically in another town--- Indianapolis has a significant tourist appeal. In 2015 over $4.9 billion emptied from visitors’ wallets into the coffers of local businesses. Given its population of over 864,000 people, per capita tourist spending hit over $5670.

Indianapolis is beginning to take advantage of its flat terrain with a multitude of trails and bike lanes. The Cultural trail is a protected bikeway running through the central business district and by the zoo and museums. North of this, a former shipping canal is now the Canal Walk, a linear park. On the north side of town, the Monon Trail follows an abandoned railroad out through the suburbs.

Spending on bike and pedestrian projects as spelled out by the Indianapolis Metropolitan Planning Organization (IndyMPO) will exceed $23 million between 2018 and 2021. These funds, derived from a mix that includes federal grants, means the Indianapolis will spend more than $27 per resident annually on Complete Streets projects. 

New Orleans, Louisiana:  P=Similar, T=Similar, CS=Less
A multiuser path atop a Mississippi River levee in downtown New Orleans
My Tern Link C7 in the heart of the French Quarter
After the destruction of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans appears to be shedding the legacy of corruption and poor city management that bedeviled it for most of the latter 20th century. The population has rebounded to more than 391,000 people within the city limits. Tourists have returned, spending over $7.41 billion in 2016. That breaks down to a tourist per capita expenditure amount of nearly $19,000.

The city’s terrain is well-known for its flat, sea-level terrain. While this makes it vulnerable to hurricane-related flooding, it also reminded me of another city susceptible to flooding yet ideally suited to cycling: Amsterdam in The Netherlands. That city was once as dominated by motorist traffic as New Orleans is today, but chose in the 1970s to transform itself into the bike capital of the world that it is today.

However, much of the New Orleans transportation budget is dedicated to simply repairing streets damaged by Hurricane Katrina and the poor city governance that preceded it. Yet $800,000 in bond funds has been allocated in FY2018 for Various enhancement projects including bicycle routes, pedestrian walkways, signalization, ADA access ramps, complete streets improvements, and other projects.”  Another $700,000 over the next two years had been proposed to connect the  2.6 mile Lafitte Greenway to another corridor, but Council declined to fund it.

This means that New Orleans seems to be spending little more than $2 per person on bike and pedestrian infrastructure. At that rate, achieving the goals set forth in the city’s Complete Streets ordinance looks rather daunting. 

New York City, New York: P=More, T=Less, CS= Less
The East River Bikeway in New York City
A sadly common sight in Manhattan: a blocked, unprotected bike lane in front of a NYPD precinct
New York is known in transportation industry circles for its early embrace back in 2008 of Complete Streets- referred to as Sustainable Streets by NYC DOT- and boisterous political brawls over bike lanes. While many of the bike lanes in Manhattan are unprotected and prone to blockage or encroachment by motorists, overall biking is up to the point where the city now plans a major expansion of its bike lane network. Massive sidewalk congestion is also leading to more space being taken away from motorists and given over to pedestrians as sidewalks are widened.

The budget allocated by New York’s city council is roughly $66 million per year. With a population of 8.5 million people, that works out to the city spending approximately $7.76 per person on safer streets. The city’s tourism industry is quite large, with revenues topping $42 billion in 2015, but on a per capita basis it is just over $4900. 

Savannah, Georgia: P=Less, T=Similar, CS=Less
Just another bicyclist taking advantage of Savannah's dense street grid
Savannah in the mid 20th century was a sleepy coastal city that served as a gateway to one of the few beach resort areas in Georgia, Tybee Island. But as it popped up in bestsellers like Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and drew a young, creative population via the Savannah College of Art & Design (SCAD), it grew to a population of over 146,000 and became a tourist destination in its own right with visitor spending of over $2.8 billion in 2016. That equates to a per capita tourism revenue of $19,178.

Much of the city’s appeal rests on the many bucolic squares surrounded by elegant houses and townhomes dating back to previous centuries. One reason the city has such a fine stock of such homes is because, unlike Boston, New York, or other contemporary coastal cities, Savannah was sleepy for a very long time.

Since so much of the city was laid out in a pattern designed around travel no faster than a horse-drawn carriage, walking and biking should be easy. “Should” is the operative word, here. In fact, the streets are given over to motorists, with heavy congestion that’s not exactly welcoming to vulnerable users. Savannah’s spending on Complete Streets projects in FY2016 was $43,000 for a bikeshare expansion project. With a budget of $0.29 per capita spent on sustainable, non-transit projects, Savannah may struggle to meet the challenges set forth in its own Complete Streets resolution.

Seattle, Washington:  P=More, T=Less, CS=Less
A protected bikeway calms traffic in Seattle
A failed investment in transportation infrastructure passes above a successful one in downtown Seattle
With its hilly terrain and rainy weather, you might not expect Seattle to have a transportation culture that embraces modes other than the car. Yet pedestrian mode share grew from 8.6% in 2010 to 10.7% in 2015; cycling grew from 3.6% to 4% over the same period. Solo car commuters dropped from 53.3% to 48.5%. With its strong tech industry populated mostly by Millennials who prize a less car-dependent, urban lifestyle, these numbers shouldn’t be surprising. 

For its population of 704,000, Seattle’s city government set aside $4.5 million for pedestrian and bike improvements in FY2016. That works out to almost $6.39 per city resident. The tourism industry provided $7 billion to the city’s economy in 2015, or just over $9900 per capita.

These numbers show that while Atlanta is doing well on a per capita basis in getting tourists to visit, there is at least one community that is out-competing it on Complete Streets spending: Columbus, Ohio. Interestingly, that city also lacks the obvious tourist attractions of Boston or Hilo. 

So, if things are going well now, what should keep Atlanta’s business and political leaders up at night? It’s what would happen to their competitiveness if cities with obvious tourism appeal suddenly boosted their Complete Streets spending-per-capita beyond that of Atlanta. The tourist spending-per-capita could drop.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

The Shape of Things to Come- An Update




In 1936 Things to Come, a film adaptation written by H.G. Wells based on his book, The Shape of Things to Come, foretold of apocalyptic wars followed by the thuggish rule of a warlord (played by Ralph Richardson) put in power by an angry, fearful mob. This warlord would ultimately be overthrown by a technocratic movement, known in the film as Wings Over the World, that had banded together in a remote location in anticipation of the apocalypse. These technocrats, who prized intellectual achievement and peace, would go on to usher in a golden age, though not without further uprisings by angry mobs.

As is often the case, H.G. Wells is eerily prescient, at least in regards to the early-21st century United States. But instead of raging wars, the devastating effects of accelerating climate change are coupling with the decline of low-skill, US manufacturing to bring an apocalypse down upon rural America. The desperate residents of this bleak landscape have reacted by electing a President who, like the aforementioned warlord, panders to the mob using racially-charged rhetoric coupled with empty economic promises.

An example of these empty promises came shortly after his election, but before his inauguration. Donald Trump boasted he had saved hundreds of jobs in largely-rural Indiana by persuading Carrier Corporation to refrain from moving to Mexico. However, Carrier still planned to move more jobs to Mexico than it was keeping in the US. That’s in spite of a large subsidy by the state of Indiana, home of Vice President-Elect Mike Pence, to stay. 

A lack of manufacturing employment means rural populations must rely on agriculture. But agriculture is vulnerable to climate change. Temperatures are now rising in the Midwest, a region known for agriculture and a large rural population.  According to the US Global Change Research Program, greater heat in southern areas of the Midwest will decrease summer precipitation by an average of about 8% in 2041-2062 versus 1979-2000. 

That lack of precipitation impacts crop yields. According to Wolfram Schlenker of Columbia University and Michael J. Roberts of North Carolina State University, “…area-weighted average yields are predicted to decrease by 30 – 46% before the end of the century under the slowest warming scenario and decrease by 63– 82% under the most rapid warming scenario…” 

While rural communities dependent on agriculture face an economic threat, those dependent on tourism face a potentially existential threat as vegetation dries out due to extreme drought. Gatlinburg, Tennessee, a vacation retreat nestled in a valley at the northern entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, was surrounded by lush forests fed by a plethora of streams and rivers. That was until it burned.

In late 2016, a devastating and extremely unprecedented drought converted the lush forests into a vast source of fuel for a fire that swept from the center of the park into Gatlinburg. Hundreds of homes and businesses were destroyed with the death toll rising into the double-digits. The local economy, which depended on tourism, was shattered. But this was only one fire in a broad outbreak that spanned six states. Climate change experts anticipate more such fires, as extreme drought in the interior of the US due to global warming is as likely as a widely-anticipated rise in sea level

History shows how Americans will react to such hardship: by embarking on a mass migration such as that last seen in the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. The Dust Bowl was a semi-arid region in the central US that included parts or the entirety of Oklahoma, Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas, and other states. During periods of heavy rain, the region could seem deceptively friendly to aggressive agricultural exploitation. But when the rains failed, that exploitation resulted in a rapid loss of topsoil to high winds, making it virtually impossible to farm. In the 1930s, the rainfall failure led to a mass exodus from the Midwest to California. These climatic/economic refugees were often derisively known as Okies, famously depicted by John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath

A repeat of this migration is now underway, as census data shows that eight out of ten US counties that are losing population are rural. An early indicator of a region’s duress is where the children end up. If there’s prosperity, they might remain in familiar environs. But in rural America, young people are fleeing for the cities in search of employment. As economic conditions back home collapse due to population decline, their extended families may join them, as has happened in other countries. Economic weakness and sheer numbers will obligate them to seek the cheapest housing available. That will be in the suburbs of major cities.

In December of 2016 the Wall Street Journal reported that suburban population growth outperformed that of central cities. In the fifty largest US metro regions, the suburbs accounted for 91% of the population growth over the past 15 years. According to the Urban Land Institute (ULI), many households cite lower housing costs as a key reason for moving to the suburbs. Demand in the suburbs therefore isn’t a function of desirability, but of necessity. 

Who are these economic and climatic refugees? According to US Census figures, the rapidly-emptying rural America from which this migration originates is nearly 78% white.  Thus it is one of history’s great ironies that after the race-based rancor towards Latin American migrants during the 2016 Presidential Campaign, a mostly white, mid-21st century refugee migration has begun. 

Troublingly, many of these new migrants are very capable of fomenting serious political instability. According to Gallup polling, rural Americans are twice as likely to possess firearms as those living in cities.  Most of these gun owners are white men who are buying guns at a higher rate than at any point in the past quarter-century: over 500,000 per year. Alarmingly, in 2010 this rate was still as low as 70,000 per year, meaning most of the surge came in the last decade.

Economic duress often leads to civil violence. Runaway inflation and unemployment was a cause of the Yugoslav Civil War of the 1990s. Germany’s slide into extreme militarism and fascist rule was exacerbated by the Great Depression of the 1930s. A mass of armed refugees clustering at the edges of major US cities is not a recipe for peace and tranquility. One need only look at the banlieue of Paris or the favelas of  Rio de Janiero to see the shape of things to come. 

The blasted landscape envisioned by H. G. Wells hasn’t manifested itself yet, but avoiding that future is looking more difficult. There is no Wings Over the World to save the American people from themselves. Technocrats and intellectuals are frowned upon by a celebrity and athlete-obsessed culture. As Notre Dame professor Gary Gutting observed in The New York Times, “in the United States, there is a strong strain of anti-intellectualism that undervalues intellectual culture and overvalues athletics.” 

That anti-intellectual bias is already showing up in the rising wage inequality between those with and without advanced degrees. According to a study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, demand for those with advanced degrees exceeds the supply. That drives up their salaries. Those without such degrees must compete for an ever-dwindling number of jobs. In effect, anti-intellectualism is making the poor more numerous, more vulnerable to economic and climatic change.

Only if this basic anti-intellectual cultural flaw is undone will there be any hope of finding a way to avoid catastrophe and restart American progress. H. G. Wells’ dialogue sums up the choice:
 “All the universe or nothingness? Which shall it be, Passworthy? Which shall it be?”