Friday, March 17, 2017

Energy and Jobs:

A Delicate Balance

I have long been troubled by the question of how society should deal with the human impact of technology advances.  I have been especially concerned when I see advertisements for an industry arguing that a factory or a power plant or a coal mine needs to be kept open because of the jobs these industries generate.  Therefore, I was very pleased to see an article by Professor Maria Zuber of MIT reflecting on just this situation for the coal mining industry, and offering some practical suggestions for dealing with the impacts of change in a constructive way. 

In the past, when I've heard advertisements by industry groups promoting themselves on the basis of the jobs they create, one part of me has always reflected on the fact that a lot of occupations that once employed thousands of people now exist as niche markets, if they exist at all.  Somehow, in the past, the job market has always evolved and people have adapted.  So why is today different?

But another part of me recognizes that the situation is much more complex than just telling people to get another job.  In past generations, there were more people who were self-employed or who worked at small businesses, and they were spread out geographically.  The need for farriers or buggy-whip manufacturers or other such occupations diminished over a period of time, so probably, to a large extent, there was a natural progression.  People in these professions continued to work in the professions, but new people didn't take those jobs.  Since they were geographically spread, people needing these services could continue to get them, but perhaps had to travel a little farther.

I'm not saying that all this happened without any disruption or difficulty, but that kind of transition is not the same as a company employing hundreds or thousands of people in one area suddenly shutting down.  We have had some experience with large companies, or industries that dominated a region, closing their doors, and it has not been good.  Cities and towns have been devastated by the large-scale unemployment that has resulted from changes of fortune of the industries they  hosted.  When hundreds or thousands of people in a region are suddenly left without jobs, there is no place for them to turn.  It is easy to say they should move to a different region or to a different industry.  It is harder to accomplish. 

Yet, every time I have heard an industry argue that it is important because of the jobs it has creased, I have wondered how we can ever move ahead if we need to keep the doors open because of the jobs.  How can we reduce the pollution from dirty industries?  How can we reduce the health and safety risks from inherently dangerous occupations?  How can we replace outmoded technologies with new ones if we have to keep supporting the old ones?

Professor Zuber addresses this issue for the coal industry.  What is particularly impressive to me is that she has a very personal perspective on the coal industry, as she grew up in coal country and her grandfathers were coal miners (and were afflicted with black lung disease).  Therefore, she does not see this as an us-versus-them or an either-or situation.  She argues that we need to reduce the emissions that burning coal produces, but at the same time, she has empathy for the people whose jobs are at risk.  The solution she describes is multi-pronged:  develop and deploy carbon capture technology, develop other uses for coal, and most of all, develop and support a plan to assist workers in transitioning from the coal industry to other industries.

All this is easy to say, but harder to implement, especially if it has to be scaled up to other industries and other parts of the country.  Nevertheless, as we move forward, I think we have to avoid the knee-jerk reaction of saying that the jobs justify the existence of a factory or a mine or a power plant.  We must instead look at the bigger picture and look at all the options.  Professor Zuber's suggestions for the coal industry provide a good model for how we might start to approach such decisions. 


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