Betting on the Rust Belt

I owe, I think, an apology as well as a few words of explanation to the regular readers of this blog. The weeks I’ve taken off from posting here this summer have not been as innocent as they seemed, and those of you who may have imagined me basking in the mostly theoretical sun on some gray and rainy Oregon beach are about to be sadly disillusioned. Conspiracy fans take note: a plot has been afoot.

Over the last few weeks, my spouse and I have relocated to the other side of North America and are now settling into a new home in Cumberland, an old mill town of 20,000 people tucked away in the north-central Appalachians, up in the panhandle of western Maryland. The Amish country of Pennsylvania begins not that many miles north of us, and West Virginia’s a stone’s throw across the river to the south; the big cities of the east coast are only a few hours away by train, but you wouldn’t guess that from the rural ambience and the dense forest blanketing the hills. It’s a pleasant place, with old brick buildings and pretty scenery, and it’s becoming a regional hub for the arts, with the help of very low rents and the enthusiasm of the local arts council. Still, none of those are the primary reason why we moved here.

Readers of this blog who remember an earlier post, “Rethinking the Rust Belt,” may have already guessed at some of the deeper motives behind the move. Though it flowered earlier than most, Cumberland is a quintessential Rust Belt town. Founded in the 18th century along one of the most important transport routes linking the east coast to the interior, it became by turns a canal center, a railroad hub, and a thriving industrial town where factories powered first by water and then by local coal anchored an economy lively enough to make Cumberland the second largest city in Maryland. From its red brick factories and faux-medieval county courthouse to its distinctive local beers – Queen City Brewery was the big name here until it went under in the Seventies – it’s hard to think of a detail of the old American industrial heartland that wasn’t present and accounted for.

As America’s manufacturing economy ebbed, in turn, Cumberland suffered accordingly, and its population today is little more than half what it was forty years ago. Most of the old mansions on Washington Street have been subdivided, the once fabulously busy C&O Canal that ran from here to Chesapeake Bay has not been used in many decades, the last factories closed long ago, and half a century of struggle for survival has left visible wounds across the city. The railroad still runs through the middle of town, and there’s daily passenger service west to Pittsburgh and east to Washington DC, but the splendid old station that once graced the town was torn down decades ago and replaced with a bleak little cinderblock building about the size of a suburban three-car garage. The tourist brochures call Cumberland scenic and friendly, and not without reason, but not even the most imaginative publicist would think of calling it prosperous.

The conventional wisdom these days holds that towns like Cumberland have a future only if they can find some way to catch the coattails of the booming (well, formerly booming) economies of the two coasts. Cumberland city boosters have done their level best to follow that lead in recent years, with tourism and the arts scene as focal points, and they’ve had modest success so far. If I’m right about the future of America and the rest of the industrial world, though, they might want to consider raising their sights a bit, because the tide of history that left Cumberland and so many towns like it high and dry may just be turning.

I don’t know how many readers of this blog remember, as I do, the headlines that came out of the Rust Belt in the 1970s, when the economic collapse of America’s industrial hinterland first really became visible on the large scale. Anyone who needs a refresher, though, can get one easily enough by reading the equivalent headlines coming right now out of California. The political gridlock, the sclerotic economy, the slumping quality-of-life indices, the special interests clinging to oversized shares of a shrinking pie – it’s all there, made all the more poignant by the anguished yelps of California politicians insisting that the rest of the country can’t just sit by and let the formerly Golden State finish circling the drain. (A hint to Sacramento might be in order here: state governments from Pennsylvania to Illinois tried that gambit repeatedly forty-odd years ago,and it didn’t work then, either.)

The underlying cause is essentially the same, too. The collapse of America’s industrial heartland into the Rust Belt was part of the price, as I’ve pointed out in previous posts, of the economic shift that turned America from an industrial economy that produced most of its own goods and services at home to a global power that imported most of its manufactured goods from overseas. Since so much of the resulting flood of products came from Asia, the great ports of the west coast boomed – for decades now, the Los Angeles-Long Beach complex has been the single busiest port in America – and the resulting flows of wealth turned the entire west coast from a mildly exotic region on the nation’s periphery to one of its core economic hubs.

Yet it’s only in the imaginations of believers in linear progress that such shifts are permanent. America is learning the hard way, as Britain did a century ago and Spain a century and a half before that, that the sheer economic burden of maintaining a global military presence is quite capable of pushing even the richest nation into bankruptcy. The Asian industrial powers that once churned out consumer goods for American stores are calmly retooling, using the billions we send them each year, to produce goods to meet the desires of their own newly prosperous people. Meanwhile the age of cheap abundant energy that made 20th century-style globalism possible in the first place is coming to an end around us. The economic model that built California’s past prosperity, in other words, is done enough to poke with a fork.

As far as I can tell, very few people on the west coast – or anywhere else – have begun to think through the implications of that troubling fact. I wonder, for example, how many states within driving range of California have drawn up plans to deal with the massive influx of economic refugees that will likely follow once California’s relatively lavish entitlement programs are slashed to the bone or shut down completely. I wonder whether any of the other west coast states, for that matter, have faced up to the possibility that the import-driven gravy train they’ve been riding for the last half century may just have run off the rails. If that’s the case – if Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland and Seattle play the same role in coming decades that towns such as Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Buffalo and Gary played in the recent past – some of the most basic assumptions of American social geography are headed for the dumpster.

Sussing out the geography of the future in advance is no easy task, but the constraints bearing down on what’s left of the American economy offer a few hints worth noting. Now that we’re on the downslope of Hubbert’s peak – world production of conventional petroleum peaked in 2005 – energy costs will, on average, take a larger bite out of economies around the world with each passing year. One of the implications is that transport costs will no longer be a negligible part of the cost of goods shipped over long distances. More energy-efficient transport modalities will tend to replace less efficient ones because they, and thus the goods they ship, will be more affordable; equally, diseconomies of distance will tend to outweigh economies of scale and foster the reemergence of regional economies. Among the likely beneficiaries of these changes are the towns that thrived best in an earlier, more regional economy -- those that are well served by rail and water transport, surrounded by farming regions that don’t depend on irrigation, not too far from major markets, and provided with ample and inexpensive real estate for the factories and warehouses of a downscaled and relocalizing industrial economy.

Welcome to the Rust Belt – and, among many other towns, to Cumberland.

Now of course our move here is a gamble, and a distinctly contrarian gamble at that. According to the conventional wisdom, we’re nuts. If the believers in perpetual progress are right, and America leaps out of the current Great Recession into some glossy future full of even higher high tech gimcracks than we have today, Sara and I have consigned ourselves to a dying economic backwater that will survive, if at all, only by whoring itself out to some futuristic tourist trade. If the believers in imminent apocalypse are right, equally, those starving mobs who are supposed to pour out of the big cities on cue to provide target practice for survivalists could very well head this way. Still, my guess is that neither of these very popular tropes about the future is at all likely to reflect what will actually happen – and in most other possible futures, including those I consider most likely, Cumberland and places like it are likely to do at least as well as anywhere else in this country, and quite probably better than most. One way or another, though, we’re betting on the Rust Belt.


Over the last few weeks, while I’ve been packing and unpacking boxes and waiting to get my internet access up and running again, I’ve set some projects in motion. A couple of them may be of interest to this blog’s readers.

First, I finally have something to offer those of you who wrote hoping for more of my fictional explorations of the deindustrial future. I’ve begun work on an online novel titled Star’s Reach; you’ll find it just a click away at It’s set in Dark Age America about five hundred years from now; longtime readers will likely recognize the setting as the latter years of the salvage society phase I’ve discussed in past posts. I expect to add a new section to the tale every couple of weeks, but we’ll see.

Second, I’ve begun laying the groundwork for a nonprofit organization to help bring about what I’m convinced will be one of the most crucial initiatives of the next few decades. The Cultural Conservers Foundation will support the hard but vital work of preserving the legacies of the past and present into the future. It will be nonpartisan, nonpolitical, nondenominational, and as independent of any other source of unhelpful interference as I can manage. Expect further posts on this project as it comes together.