April 28, 2007

Upstate: twenty years ahead

I keep reflecting on something NYCO wrote a while ago:

Some will say that upstate’s golden age was in the early 20th century when all sorts of technical innovation and manufacturing was going on; I disagree. Its golden age was really the couple of decades before the Civil War, when the aim here — on all sorts of levels — was to create a world that had never existed before, whether it was physically, socially or spiritually. Upstate New York stood out sharply against the dominant culture of its day 150 years ago and was twenty years ahead of everyone else. What America eventually became, as impressive as it did become, is just a pale shadow compared to what was envisioned here back then....

I say we here in upstate New York put out a call for people who don’t need to be constantly entertained, and who are skeptical about the 21st-century American dream and can imagine a better one; who recognize that upstate New York never was, is not, and will not be just like the rest of the country; that it is situated in a historical time zone that — in both good times and bad — is a few decades in the future from the rest of America.

As Balogh points out, our local leaders seem all too willing to make bad or clumsy decisions in making this false choice between “keeping up” and “being left behind.” The real crux of the problem is not in our being left behind, but in not seizing the historical moment to lead. We are actually living in America’s future right at this moment. However, this isn’t without precedent in the region - there’s nothing in a past reading of upstate’s technical, social and cultural innovations to indicate that we had particularly bright and progressive political leaders, although there were a few. The leadership came from bold people with big, radical voices (and occasionally, with big money), and because they were so passionate about what they believed in, and such good communicators, they won enough hearts and minds to make a difference and to encourage others to stand out against the dominant way of doing things, to the point where dramatic things actually took place. (Bold emphasis mine; italic emphasis hers.)

Most of upstate - with a significant exception in Tompkins County - has stable but aging populations, or declining populations. We've seen jobs move from upstate to the Sun Belt to Mexico to China. Manufacturing jobs in particular have left, even in Tompkins County, as employers demonstrate more loyalty to the bottom line than to places or employees. If this is the future for America in twenty years - and it's pretty easy to see how it might well be - then America has some hard thinking to do about how it wants to deal with those prospects.

It was in this kind of mood that I stumbled across Bill McKibben's hard question: How Would You Know if The Economy Was Working?. There's a lot there to think about, much of it questioning the value of our current system, and reminding us of forms of 'capital' - community and ecological - that we seem to burn through quickly on our way to accumulate cold hard cash and the many things it buys.

His next piece, Local economy and making a community, looks at ways to improve the situation, often by focusing at the local level. Rebuilding community, distributing power generation, and localizing food production all have huge benefits for places that are now, well, kind of without purpose. (These kinds of possibilities help explain why I run this site and work on TC Local.)

The conclusion of that piece recognizes some hard costs to pay, though:

All of these plans may, or may not, sacrifice some measure of growth for other goals: durability, satisfaction, and so on. They obviously imply big change. I have no utopian endpoint (utopians are those who think the whole world will converge on the American middle class), only the desire for a new trajectory, one which places more emphasis on belonging and less on belongings. Given that we're not going to stop global warming entirely, and indeed may be facing a significantly less benign world in the future, this strikes me mostly to the good.

I know we in Tompkins County enjoy thinking of ourselves as an oasis of growth, but it's worth pausing to think about how we'll deal with each other and our place if perpetual growth turns out not to be perpetual.

Posted by simon at April 28, 2007 2:52 PM in
Note on photos