James Howard Kunstler: Where Have We Been? Where Are We Going?

Saturday in mid-July in my corner of the country, when everyone else is cavorting on Million Dollar Beach at Lake George, or plying the aisles of the home Depot, or riding their motorcycles in faux-outlaw hordes, I like to slip away to the...

July 12, 2010 | Source: Truthout | by James Howard Kunstler

Saturday in mid-July in my corner of the country, when everyone else is cavorting on Million Dollar Beach at Lake George, or plying the aisles of the home Depot, or riding their motorcycles in faux-outlaw hordes, I like to slip away to the neglected places where nobody goes. I seek out the places of industrial ruin – there are many around here in the upper Hudson Valley, and they are mostly right along the river itself, because there are many spots where the water tumbles and falls in a way that human beings could capture that power and direct it to useful work.

I always bring my French easel, a wooden contraption ingeniously designed to fold up into a box, to which I have bolted on backpack straps. To me, these ruins of America’s industrial past are as compelling as the ruins of ancient Rome were to Thomas Cole and his painter-contemporaries, who took refuge in history at the exact moment that their own new nation began racing into its industrial future.

I’ve been haunting this particular site in Hudson Falls, New York, all summer so far. Originally called Bakers Falls, it evolved over a hundred-odd years into an extremely complex set of dams, spillways, intakes, revetments, channels, gangways, and hydroelectric bric-a-brac all worked into the crumbly shale that forms the original cliff. From a vantage on the west side of the river, you can clearly read the layered history of industry as though it was a section of sedimentary rock from the Mesozoic.

One thing above all amazes me about these American industrial ruins: they’re not really very old. My grandfather was already reading law and drinking beer when some of this stuff was brand-new (or not even here yet!). Unlike Rome’s long, dawdling descent from greatness, America’s industrial fall seems to have happened in the space of a handclap. I suppose it was in the nature of the fossil fuel fiesta that these activities could only last as long as the basic energy resource was so cheap you hardly needed to figure it into the cost of doing business. Which is not to say that the human element didn’t change, too, since obviously it did – as America went from a cheap labor nation of immigrants eager to join in the security of factory regimentation, to adversarial relations between unionized workers and business owners, and finally to game over, as off-shoring and out-sourcing savaged American manufacturing.

These factories at what was first called Bakers Falls began in 1858 as an iron machine works, intended to produce the frames for water wheels. Soon they quit that in favor of making replacement parts for the growing paper-making industry that made use of the pulpwood from the Adirondack Mountains. Activities related to this went on clear through the 1960s, about a century in all, until things fell apart in the upper Hudson Valley and business mysteriously went elsewhere.

I’m sure it was a mystery to many of the people around here who got a living from these factories, who felt strong, willing, and able to trade their labor for a decent paycheck. How could the world not need them anymore? American political leadership explained it rather poorly to them. This was a new economy, they said. From now on making a living in America would be all about being clever at cooking up “innovations” that the rest of the people in the world could use in order to churn things out for us at twenty cents an hour. America’s young people, they said, should go to college, even if it meant taking on a lifetime of loan obligations. Or enroll at the local community college to learn “computer technology,” the coming thing.

What really happened to places like Hudson Falls is now painfully visible on-the-ground, in the streets, and in the shopfront windows, which are either vacant or occupied by the most marginal businesses – martial arts studios (training for what? Gang war? Insurrection? Afghanistan?), second-hand shops, and the ubiquitous pizza joints for a cheese-hungry populace. The once dignified business blocks at the small center of town – itself perched on a bluff with a panoramic view west – are vacant and falling into gross disrepair. The owner class of citizen, still inveighed against in progressive radio circles, are so gone that their ghosts seem to have packed up and left, too. But then so is every other class of people above the nether-class – that is, people engaged in something other than subsidized idleness and crime, people who’s only obligation in life is waking up in the morning.