The Nine Nations of North America by Joel Garreau

 

 

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.

 

A Small American City

A Small American City

 

A Small American City is a new podcast from James Howard Kunstler’s protege Duncan Crary.  Accord to the website, the project “aims to re-acquaint listeners with small city life in North America through the voices, stories, history and urban fabric of his home city of Troy, New York.”

For those of you that aren’t familiar with Kunstler, his angle is that we’re approaching a period of oil and capital scarcity that will make our current suburban-centric living arrangement impractical.   He doesn’t believe that we’ll have some miracle Star Trek technology that will save the day.   A lot of his writing has to do with urban planning and he’s really in to the idea of smaller cities and villages with walkable communities with natural features like good farmland in the surrounding area and navigable rivers.  I highly recommend checking out some of his books for his take on what he believes is in store for us.   He has some fiction books like A World Made By Hand that give some insight into the consequences of some of the problems we face right now.   I have several of his books in the Amazon store under “politics/society”.   A lot of what he has to say isn’t pleasant, but he’s raising a lot of questions that need to be addressed.  Crary comes from a similar mindset as Kunstler and believes that Troy, NY is well-positioned for the future as a small city on the Hudson River with classic architecture from a period when buildings were made to last and designed for pedestrians, not automobiles.

No offense to Troy, but I’ve never thought much of it.   I wouldn’t expect the average Trojan to have put much thought into Des Moines, either.    I wouldn’t listen to a podcast from the Troy Chamber of Commerce telling me the selling points of the city every week, but Crary’s podcast uses Troy as a template to discuss broader issues of sustainability, urban planning, community life and localism.    Right now most of us live in a world where we go to work for a large corporation to earn money to buy things from China and pay bankers in New York, come home to a home in a neighborhood that looks like every other home in every other neighborhood all around the country, eat food from halfway across the world, get on the internet and argue with some guy in Florida about what they’re doing in Washington then entertain ourselves with TV shows from Los Angeles or sports in some far away city.   Then we wonder why so many people feel disconnected from reality and alienated from everyone around them.   Would there be so many mental health problems in the country if people had vibrant communities that they felt connected to around them instead of holing up to consume mass-marketed media and entertainment?

So far I think it’s entertaining.   There’s been a couple of guests so far with ancedotes about their experiences around the city and although the show sounds well-polished, it does have the aura of sitting around a barstool and listening to two dudes talking.   He said he’s going to have some interviews with inland sailors, which I think will be interesting.  Kunstler believes that someday in the near future our inland waterways will become important again due to oil scarcity and rust-belt places like Troy on the Hudson and the Great Lakes region could become more desirable.   I used to go to Duluth, MN (largest inland port in the US) and I always thought the nautical culture there was pretty cool and watching the barges come in Lake Superior.

The idea of the show really got me thinking about Des Moines, where I live.   I like it here and I think Des Moines has a lot going for it.   It’s bigger than Troy (about 200,000 to Troy’s 60,000) but it’s definitely geared towards automobiles.   There aren’t many parts of the city that would be ideal for pedestrians as things are right now.

Culturally, people from Des Moines always seem to be comparing our city to our neighbors (Minneapolis, Omaha, KC) and throwing around the “for a city this size…” qualifier.   On the “Shit People From Des Moines Say” video I got a chuckle out of the frequent use of “per capita”.  It’s true.    We’re kind of awkward size – not really big enough to be a big city but not small enough to settle for small city status.   It leads to a chip-on-the-shoulder mentality, but sometimes that makes this city ambitious.   I’ll admit that I have that mentality and throw around per capita’s and for-a-city-this-sizes with the rest of them.    When it comes down to it, it seems like as a city we’re more interested in trying to be a scaled down version of somewhere else instead of just existing as we are and letting things take their course.    We’re probably better off focusing on what we like to do, who we are, what we produce and what comes naturally to us as a city instead of wanting a bunch of those cool, unique fusion resturants with one word names just like they have everywhere else in the developed world.    Hell, they even designated a part of town to be an entertainment/pedestrian shopping district and called it the “East Village” instead of something truly indigenous to the area.

I know I’m guilty of tuning out my surroundings in order to partake in something global/national.   It’s Friday night and I’m blogging about a podcast about a city halfway across the country.   I’d like to see a larger trend towards localism and regionalism and I suppose if I want to see that, I should start with myself and do more around here.

Anyways, I recommend at least checking out the first episode which is a little more broad in subject matter if you’re not interested in hearing the in’s and out’s of life in Troy.   I would like to see Crary maybe branch out and interview some people that live in other similar cities around the country.

“Banking Backlash Fashion” in Iceland

Today on my way home from the gym I heard a clip on NPR’s rebroadcasting of the day’s BBC Newshour (3/29/12) concerning Iceland that I found interesting.   The segment on Iceland begins at about 15:00:

BBC Newshour

 

They interviewed a few Icelanders about their thoughts on the trial of former Prime Minister Geir H. Haarde and a few anecdotes on the aftermath of Iceland’s 2008 economic crisis.    What I found particularly interesting was that they mentioned that it is now common to see young Icelanders donning fisherman’s clothing, traditional Icelandic wool sweaters and beards.   The fashion statement is in part due to practicality – many people are turning to the traditional fishing industry and thus the apparel associated with it instead of jobs in the finance industry.   According the one gentleman interviewed in the segment, the style is also a rejection of the styles common to the foreign bankers and a show of local solidarity.

This is something that gives me some hope for the future.   When modern hyper-consumerism fails to deliver, people are looking backwards and internally for inspiration.   The increase in interest in the founding fathers in the United States as we lose personal liberties and decline economically is an example of this same phenomena happening here.   I’m optimistic that as we continue to decline, many people in the US will begin to look to some of the things that were important to our forebearers and things like gardening, urban farming, food preservation, family, heritage, thinking locally, craftsmanship and basic skills while rejecting some of the things that caused our woes in the first place.    I’m not suggesting that we’ll return to some magical and quaint Little House on the Prairie days (nor would I want that!), but I think that many people (unfortunately not all) will look to these things and that gives me some hope for our future.     I think this case in Iceland is a good example of people realizing what kinds of things are real in their lives and what kinds of things aren’t.

I visited Iceland in 2007.  Beautiful country.   One thing that did strike me was how “cosmopolitan” most of the inhabitants looked, often adopting emo/indie fashions and slick haircuts.   I’m not sure what I actually expected to see from the descendents of the mighty Vikings (and kidnapped Irish women), but they had a very effeminate style to them, at least by my North American outlook.    I guess I expected them to resemble pillaging and plundering warriors instead of rail-thin dudes with swoop haircuts and iPods.   I’d say that Iceland has the most beautiful women on the planet, at least from the small segment I’ve seen of it.   It’s a very health-conscious country and everyone appears healthy and pleasant (but reserved).

There are some things to be gained from globalism.  There’s a lot we can gain, learn and experience from all the peoples of the world but that doesn’t mean that we should all morph into a single transnational culture and lose our identities in the pursuit of wealth.   Good for the Icelanders for rejecting the idea that they should to abandon their culture and get with the globalists’ program.

 

Here is a photo of two young girls wearing the type of sweaters mentioned.   I can’t say that they’re exactly my style, but they make a lot of sense in Iceland with all the abundant wool and consistently cool temperatures.   It beats importing textiles from China.   I suppose if you’re into them and/or want to show solidarity with Iceland, you can purchase them here.

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Here’s me in 2007 at Gullfoss waterfall in Iceland.