Source and sink

In my usual roundabout way, while I was researching Chernobyl, I came across this Wikipedia article on the ecological theory of source and sink. A “source” is a habitat where a species does well, grows in population, and excess population disperses to a “sink,” often a less ideal habitat which paradoxically may become more populated than the “source” area. The article struck me as having some relevance to the familiar debates about 1) Upstate’s depopulation and 2) why things don’t ever really change here. My take is that Upstate New York has been, and may still be, a “source” in a source-and-sink American population dynamic, probably due to its intimate physical and political connection with New York City’s wealth engine.

This observation caught my eye:

…The dominant, older individuals in a population may occupy all of the best territories in the source so that the next best territory available may be in the sink. As the subordinate, younger individuals age, they may be able to take over territories in the source, but new subordinate juveniles from the source will have to move to the sink. Pulliam argued that such a pattern of dispersal can maintain a large sink population indefinitely. Furthermore, if good breeding sites in the source are rare and poor breeding sites in the sink are common, it is even possible that the majority of the population resides in the sink.

Upstate New York is a wonderful place to live… if you already occupy the best “territories” remaining: jobs in higher education, health care industry, stable industrial/research operations, state and city government (of course). Is it possible that our region has reached an equilibrium of sorts, at least under the way things have worked economically for the last 30-40 years? If the fundamentals of the larger system of which we are part do not change, are things likely to get rapidly better or rapidly worse? (I’m guessing not — but then again, the larger system may be about to suffer a prolonged series of shocks and then all bets may really be off.) A lot of talk has been about how Upstate has suffered in recent decades, but not so much talk about how resilient it has been in other ways — or, if you will, stable (or static). Many people have been trying to program in changes and transformations, but what if the cumulative resistance to change runs a lot deeper than party politics or even local attitudes?

More bluntly put, is it possible that the current arrangement is still working better for more people than it’s not working for (in rural areas, in the suburbs and the urban areas)? If not, then why aren’t people quickly fleeing from Upstate New York en masse?

I don’t pretend to know that much about ecology, so this analogy may be off (ecologists, please chime in…) The concept of the ecological trap might also be of interest – with, perhaps, highly artificial desert environments like Las Vegas or parts of the Sun Belt playing the role of “trap”?

You could, of course, run this thought experiment on “city of Syracuse vs. its suburbs,” too, with the suburbs playing the role of the “trap.”

One thought on “Source and sink

  1. Kathy

    One thing preventing people from leaving is the real estate market. Selling your home is not very easy now. Also, more friendly economies have higher house prices. I couldn’t barely purchase a condo in Nashville for what I can get for my house. The homes I can purchase are under 1000 sq feet with no basement.

    Bloom where you’re planted and just visit Portland, OR and steal their best ideas.

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