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Sunday, February 17, 2013

Could a "Boom" Knock Us Right Out of the Ring?

The London Review of Books had a page-and-a-half “Diary” feature in the 7 February 2013 issue. Rebecca Solnit was the author, and her topic was the Silicon Valley economic boom and how it has affected housing availability and prices in San Francisco and the surrounding area. Where high-paid, high-tech workers (“routinely make six-figure salaries, not necessarily beginning with a 1”) commute 3-1/2 to 4-1/2 hours to work, the corporations they work for provide buses with wifi, so employees can start work before arriving at their offices (and unfortunately undermining community support for improved public transportation).

“Where orchards grew Apple stands.” 

Why does that one sentence make me, an Apple user, so sad? Because I live in orchard country? Because I could live more easily without the Internet than without fruit?  Once wild and creative San Francisco, now a bedroom community for Silicon Valley, is the scene of regular evictions, and prospective home buyers bid up property minute by minute.

It’s a boom.

The story was fascinating enough (to me, it was fascinating in the manner of a disaster story), but then Solnit changed the subject somewhat: “San Francisco’s tech boom has often been compared to the Gold Rush....” In the mining boom, there was a population explosion, runaway inflation, and, while the boom lasted, high wages for the workers flooding in. Booms are like that.
The oil and gas boomtowns of the present, in Wyoming, North Dakota and Alberta, among other places, follow this model. Lots of money sloshes around boomtowns, but everyday life is shaped by scarcity, not abundance. The boom workers are newcomers. They work long hours, earn high wages, drive up the cost of housing for the locals, drive out some locals.... Like a virus, mining destroys its host and then moves on. There are ghost towns across the west full of dying businesses with the landscape around them ground into heaps leaching toxic residue.
Silicon Valley, she writes, returning to her main subject, is different from mining towns in many ways—“clean, quiet work, and here to stay in one form or another.” It’s the similarities that interest her, though—the “mass displacements and the casual erasure of what was here before.” Mining or high-tech, she is saying, there are similar losses for those not in on the boom.

I couldn’t help thinking that there is another connection between the two kinds of booms that Solnit did not explore. This is not criticism: she had a certain focus, certain points she wanted to make, and the piece does that very well. But the truth is that there could be no Silicon Valley industry, no high-tech boom, without nonrenewable mineral resources. Mining is part of San Francisco's boom today.

Okay, I’m not a hermit, and I write this blog on a laptop. I even have a cheap, pay-as-you-go cell phone for emergencies. It’s almost impossible to be an American these days and not be connected. As I've said before, I’m not a Luddite. But neither do I want the electronic devices in my life to proliferate like those animated brooms poor Mickey Mouse, would-be sorcerer, had to deal with in “Fantasia.”

Soil, water, food grown in soil, minerals under the earth—these must be protected and conserved. It doesn’t make sense to pollute water and soil by mining and processing finite, nonrenewable materials. It isn't in California's backyard, but the high-tech industry is not as "clean" as it appears from that one geographical area. We can do better. We can insist that the industry do better.

Does all this seem a long, long way from your backyard? No, it's right at your fingertips!

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