I post a lot about topics like regionalism, devolution, localism and secession and I think this is a very important book that inadvertently covers these topics. At the very least it’s a good book to help understand the United States and how un-monolithic it really is.
This book was written in 1981 (which was the same year I was born) and is amazingly relevant, despite how much has happened since then. It covers topics like the uncertainty of the sun belt’s future, the decline of the rust belt, ethanol subsidies in the Midwest, the growth of cottage industries in New England, some American cities being important Latin American cities and many other little things that have come to pass or are coming to pass now. Being a geography aficionado and having known of this book for a while, I can’t believe I hadn’t read it up until now.
When we look at the world around us, we tend to look at it in terms of political units like states and countries. Even regions are usually thought of as a grouping of states. Garreau’s book completely ignores political boundaries and looks at culture, economic activity and the environment to define regions. These are the things that really make where we live what they are.
Take Illinois for example… Sure it’s one political unit, but there are more or less three different regions within the state. Chicago is in “the foundry”, which is an area defined by heavy manufacturing, being urban and high concentration of non-WASPs. The central part of the state is part of the “breadbasket”, defined by agriculture being the dominant business, mild-mannered culture and being mostly rural. The southern part of the state (along with Southern Indiana) is considered part of Dixie, where people tend to be culturally, economically and politically intertwined with the South. I remember a guy I went to boot camp with from somewhere way down south in Illinois who had a very thick southern accent and we all thought it was funny he was from the same state as Chicago. If you look at a map, the southern tip of Illinois really isn’t far from Mississippi as the crow flies.
The book kept my attention, but some parts of it seemed unnecessary and almost like an uninspiring travel write-up. I’ll admit I skimmed through some of these parts to get to the meat and potatoes. I understood some of the anecdotal stories as being representative of the regions, but some really did seem disconnected from the book
Another interesting aspect of the book is that he doesn’t stop at international borders. Canada is just as disjointed as we are and the author points out that someone in say, Hamilton, Ontario probably has more in common with someone in Erie, PA than they do with a fellow Canadian in Ville de Quebec, St. John’s, Vancouver or Saskatoon. I know that occasionally Canadians like to pretend that they come from a completely different planet as the United States, but there are a lot of close regional connections between our two countries. I know I’ve met people from Ontario while in Europe there’s kind of an unspecified acknowledgement that we both come from the same kind of place.
In a way the book was actually kind of optimistic in the way it recognized the regions’ strengths. New England may be poor, but it’s completely bought and paid for and well-suited for an energy crisis. The Islands and MexAmerica are very important economic hubs for all of Latin America. The Breadbasket feeds the world. Ecotopia is well-suited for trade with the Pacific Rim and ahead of the game on environmental/urban planning issues. I forgot what he said was promising about Dixie or the Foundry, but I guess I can come up with a few things from my own thinking.
At any rate, this book (or at least just looking at the idea of the book) is a good one for seeing the world a little differently than most people do. When you understand the idea that political borders are often arbitrary, some things become a little more clear in the world.