Rethinking the Rust Belt

One of the least useful habits of thought fostered by the modern mythology of progress, it seems to me, is the notion that historical change can only move in one direction – the direction in which it seems to be going at the present. Those of us who suggest that today’s industrial societies are headed for a process of decline and fall, not that different from the ones that ended civilizations of the past, run up against this insistence constantly. The truism that time only goes one way gets distorted into the claim that since the last three hundred years have seen a great deal of expansion and technical development, the future must follow the same trajectory.

A hundred years ago, exactly that same logic was applied by people who insisted that war between civilized nations was a thing of the past. Wars between the nations of Europe had, in fact, become steadily less frequent over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries, and a great many Europeans managed to convince themselves that this process could only continue in the 20th, leading to universal peace. As you may have noticed, they were quite mistaken – a detail that has not prevented the same logic from being deployed with equal enthusiasm more recently.

Consider the chorus of derision that rose up a couple of years ago when James Kunstler, in his book The Long Emergency, warned that piracy would likely revive around the Pacific rim as the industrial age comes to its end. I don’t recall a single reviewer of the book who took that prediction seriously, and a great many of Kunstler’s critics leapt on it with gleeful cries – though one should note that these cries became curiously muted once the recent spate of pirate raids off the coast of Somalia hit the news. Of course Kunstler is quite correct; piracy was already a serious problem in several parts of the world when he wrote, it has become worse since then, and once fuel shortages begin to limit the reach of modern navies and economic crises add to the roster of failed states, it may become a serious factor affecting the future of maritime trade. Only the delusion that piracy belongs to the past, and therefore can’t be part of the future, keeps this ugly reality from being recognized.

It’s impossible to make sense of the present, much less the future, from within the tunnel vision of a view of history that sees the world moving through some fixed sequence of development. When pundits say that contemporary hunter-gatherers are “still in the Stone Age,” or that members of some nonindustrial societies are “living in the Middle Ages,” while only the world’s industrial cultures have “entered the 21st century,” they are talking nonsense. It’s a very popular kind of nonsense; people in the industrial world love to think of themselves as the top rung of history’s ladder, with every other culture as a now-outmoded stage in the ascent to ranch houses and SUVs; but it’s still nonsense.

Biologists studying the evolution of life forms have gradually been forced to discard the notion that evolution has a fixed agenda, and have realized instead that the interplay of genetic diversity and natural selection can move in any direction – simplifying here, adding complexity there, leading one species into a highly specialized niche while another becomes a generalist capable of moving between many ecological roles. Notions that the biosphere as a whole has moved toward greater complexity over Earth’s long history – very nearly the last holdout of the old fantasy of linear evolution – have had to be discarded, because the evidence simply won’t support them; the last fifteen million years, for example, have seen a steady loss of complexity across the Earth’s biosphere as the planetary climate cooled in the run-up to the most recent round of ice ages, and the rich ecosystems of the Mesozoic, the age of dinosaurs, were far more complex than most of those that have succeeded them.

It’s long past time to apply the same thinking to history, and recognize that forcing human societies onto a linear model of progress serves the purposes of ideology rather than clear thinking. Human societies, like biological species, adapt to make the most of their environments with the inherited resources they have to hand. Sometimes those adaptations move in the direction of greater complexity and some form of technological development, while in other cases they move toward greater simplicity and shed technologies that are no longer useful. Those societies with a long cultural memory can even cycle back and forth between simpler and more complex levels of organization and technology – the long history of imperial China offers an excellent example of just this process at work.

The rise and approaching fall of the industrial age, it may be worth suggesting, may turn into the same process on steroids. In ecological terms, the torrent of fossil fuel energy that created the modern world can be seen as a massive disruption to established patterns of human social ecology. Those patterns stretched like silly putty, or broke apart entirely and were replaced, as a new economy of abundance evolved and expanded. That economy, however, was ultimately a product of ever-expanding supplies of fossil fuels, and once production bumped against the hard ceiling of geological limits, it began to break apart. The economic convulsions of the last few decades mark the crest of the wave, and the beginning of its long retreat.

As that retreat proceeds, the more complex and resource-intensive technologies and social habits of recent years will likely be among the early casualties, and some of the less complex and resource-intensive technologies and social habits of the recent past may well get fished out of the trash heap and pressed back into service, because they are better suited to the new environment of resource constraints than their more extravagant replacements. This will have sweeping impacts on the new economies that take shape in the wake of the current Great Recession, paralleling the impacts the original shifts had in their time – but in the other direction. Any number of examples could be named, but the ones I want to discuss now are geographical.

The economic and human geography of North America during the 20th century went through sweeping changes with results that are still echoing around us today. Technology played some role in driving those changes, but another factor was at least as powerful: the transformation of the United States from a manufacturing economy, producing goods and services at home, to a tribute economy propped up by the labor and resources of client states overseas. (This is what actually underlies the recent rhetoric about “globalization;” there was similar talk during the heyday of the British Empire, too.) Since most of the real wealth circulating in the American economy of the late 20th century came from overseas, the seaports of the east and west coasts came to dominate the economy, while the old economic heartland of the Midwest turned into a “Rust Belt” of half-empty cities and crumbling smokestacks.

The idea that these same cities might be on the brink of economic revival may seem about as likely as, say, a revival of piracy did to Kunstler’s critics a few years ago. Those who believe in the continuation of business as usual are unlikely to be able to imagine Pittsburgh or Peoria at the crest of the future’s wave; those who believe in the equally improbable scenario of overnight collapse into a dark age or worse can’t imagine an economic revival at all. Still, all history is ultimately local; it’s easy to say, for example, that “Rome’s economy declined in the last two centuries of the Empire,” and as a generalization this is true, but it masks a huge amount of temporal and regional variation, including periods and regions in which the economic climate improved noticeably.

Thus the possibility of a Rust Belt renaissance in the coming decades should not be dismissed out of hand. America’s overseas empire is already coming apart at the seams, as the costs of maintaining it overtake its economic benefits – the common fate of empires throughout history – and rival powers turn our imperial overreach to their advantage. In the foreseeable future, the United States will again have to produce most of the goods and services it uses at home – and as that happens, the regions most likely to profit by it are those inland areas whose central position gives them easier access to markets nationwide, and whose access to the old arteries of waterborne transport will make them much more viable as centers of production and distribution in future where energy will be in short supply.

More generally, the best resource for thinking about the economic map of 2050, say, may just be an economic map of 1880. When railroads and waterways once again become the primary means of transport, the places that were major economic hubs will likely become major hubs again, because they will make the same economic sense in the future that they did when railroads and waterways were last in vogue. The economic map of 2100, in turn, may have more in common with that of 1830 or thereabouts, since continuing depletion of remaining fossil fuel supplies will likely have made railroads uneconomical for most uses, leaving waterborne transport the only cost-effective alternative to local production. Add in the impact of population contraction driven by economic decline and failing public health – essentially the same mix that’s driving a similar contraction in the former Soviet Union – and the parallels may be even more exact.

This way of looking at the future has any number of potential implications, not least for those who hope to weather the current round of economic contraction and social turmoil with some level of grace. My guess is that both these factors will be concentrated in the coastal regions, as the wealth flows generated by the declining import economy give way to economic stagnation and contraction, and in regions such as the Southwest where political borders are increasingly out of step with demographic reality. Isolated regions throughout the West, already marginal at best, are likely to slip into permanent poverty as the tourist economy breaks down and climate shifts already under way make crippling droughts more common. On the other hand, agricultural regions outside the drought belt will likely thrive as the price of food rises, and the old Rust Belt cities – many of which shed half or more of their population over the last fifty years, relieving the population pressure and many of the social problems that made headlines not too many decades ago – may weather the current wave of crises tolerably well.

There will be other waves of crisis further down the road; history reminds us that the downside of a civilization’s history is a very uneven process, and it’s anyone’s guess which areas will be favored by the patterns of change that take shape later in the course of the decline. Suggesting a renaissance in the Rust Belt and the agricultural Midwest also flies in the face of a great many contemporary assumptions, driven as they are by the intellectual fashions of a mostly coastal intelligentsia used to dismissing the inland reaches of this continent as “flyover states.” Still, history seems to take a perverse delight in overturning such assumptions, and those who can get outside the delusion that historical change is a one-way street may find unexpected possibilities opening up before them.