Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Our Inter-Connected World: Ethanol, Corn, Sprawl and Urban Inequality

By Jason Reece, Senior Researcher at the Kirwan Institute

One of the side effects of the recent oil price increase is a surge in ethanol production in the US. As a biomass based fuel, ethanol is developed with agricultural products, primarily corn, in the US.
So, why would I be talking about ethanol production on the Kirwan Institute blog? What does ethanol have to do with racial and ethnic groups or marginalized populations?
The answers to those questions are powerful illustrations of the complexity of interconnection and systems, and the story begins with corn. Corn is grown on agricultural land and is one of the primary crops produced in the Midwest. The renewed interest in ethanol has elevated the price of corn, thus encouraging more farmers to plant more corn (leading to shortages of other non-staple crops like Barley) and has increased the productive value of farmland.
Cheap agricultural land and cheap gasoline are the two principal elements needed to fuel urban sprawl in areas with little population growth like the Midwest. New subdivisions rely on easy and cheap auto transportation and inexpensive farmland to be profitable and sustainable. The increase in the potential productive value of farmland (for corn to be used in ethanol) paired with an increase in fuel costs has weakened two of the principal pillars supporting our nation’s seemingly inexhaustible thirst for new sprawling development.
As ample research has shown, urban sprawl is one of the primary factors contributing to disinvestment and marginalization in urban communities of color. Racial and economic segregation in schools and neighborhoods, declining infrastructure, concentrated poverty, the spatial mismatch between workers of color and jobs are all attributable to the role urban sprawl plays in draining resources and people out of urban communities.
Thus in this scenario, as the production of ethanol increases in the US, a decline in suburban and exurban development could follow, restricting the flow of resources and people out of urban communities of color and reducing the racial and opportunity isolation inflicted on these communities.
It is hard to predict if this trend will continue (or if all the factors listed above will remain static). But, it is a powerful example of the way all things are interconnected in our world and the complexity of social justice challenges.

1 comment:

  1. i agree to these assumptions and do strongly believe that the interconnections can be clearly seen and derived at--soon they will be quantified into statistical explanations--we do need to re-visit our priorities and to see the effect of this to the rest of the world---the US economy does have rippling effects all around on world economies.