Thermodynamics and quality of life |

Thermodynamics and quality of life

We have witnessed a great deal of heat on these pages, but never any actual study of thermodynamics. I believe there is something that science can teach us about the great political divide in Nevada County, hypergrowth vs. hypogrowth.

We are once again hearing a cry for affordable housing for the less affluent and jobs for our children, lest they are forced to leave the county.

Certainly affordable housing is a real problem and must be addressed. My primary problem with this debate is the apparent need to frame the issue as a struggle for the moral high ground. Those who take a more conservative view toward growth are cast as scoundrels. How can they oppose affordable housing for our local workers and jobs growth for our young people? Shame on these NIMBYs, these no-growthers.

So it is our moral duty to provide affordable housing and a job for all who are willing to work. True enough. We can do no less as an honorable people. But heed the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The more he talked of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons.”

It is not simple, and it is not a matter of moral conviction.

There are no barriers that allow us to insulate ourselves from the rest of the state. A drawbridge is not an option. Give me a moment to explain the problem in thermodynamic terms.

Thermodynamic systems tend to an equilibrium state, the state that maximizes the entropy, the disorder. If there is a fluctuation away from equilibrium, say a density or temperature gradient, a flux is quickly established to re-establish equilibrium, a flux of particles or heat energy. This is why heat flows from hot to cold, why cream diffuses in one’s coffee, and, metaphorically, why there is immigration across the U.S.-Mexican border.

We live in a free-flowing environment, both economically and demographically, in which an equilibrium is established through a flux of people who are seeking to maximize their quality of life. We currently hold a comparable position with respect to the rest of California in both affordable housing and perhaps an enviable position with respect to jobs, 4.6 unemployment in the county and 6.5 in the state.

If we achieve a greatly superior position, we will have to raise the drawbridge; how else can we see that it is our workers who win these jobs and our own children who enjoy newly affordable housing? But there is no drawbridge; in this liquid society, the net effect will be population growth and eventually return to our present equilibrium state in housing and jobs with respect to the rest of the state. Soon we are back where we started but with a density increase to cope with. Not smart.

(This is why I disagreed with Arnold’s slogan during the campaign: “My priority will be jobs, jobs, jobs.” Our problem in California is growing the population?)

Dealing with this dilemma is going to require some smart thinking. We need solutions that are real, not just spinning our wheels and making matters worse. One solution is that chosen by ski resorts at Tahoe, where housing is provided by employers for their workers. Another solution has been suggested: It is time to initiate the New Town. It would relieve the current threat to double the size of Grass Valley. And it could be accomplished in an area where it would not threaten long- established neighborhoods. (Some of my best friends are NIMBYs. They respect the zoning and environment they bought into and work hard to maintain it.)

The best solution, however, would be a transition to those higher paying jobs that allow the individual to make his or her own housing decision. We are actually making progress in this direction: As reported in The Union, jobs in manufacturing, transportation, warehousing and utility sectors are up, while service jobs are down.

The future is not bright, however. For reasons beyond comprehension, we have a habit of electing representatives whose interest in a solution is influenced by a personal economic interest in the outcome. Count your spoons.


Jim Hurley is a resident of Nevada City.

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