Monday, October 3, 2011
New York had a long connection with the Industrial Revolution. Upstate cities from Schenectady to Buffalo, and all along the southern tier, were participants in the industrial economy that expanded through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The relationship wasn’t always an easy one, as industrial production sewed the seeds of labor unrest and environmental degradation.
But it also fostered diversity, as immigrants, both internal and external to the U.S., moved into industrial cities. It created economic opportunities for millions of people, and a degree of economic stability. Without industrialization, New York would be virtually devoid of large cities, other than New York City itself. The collapse of the industrial economy has been hard on upstate New York. Most of the cities that provided its supports have not recovered from the shifts of capital and labor that resulted from deindustrialization.
Now state political leaders, like Andrew Cuomo, are promising that gas mining and extraction will provide a substitute for the moribund post-industrial upstate economy. This will mean a major shift upstate from an industrial to a mining economy. Mining economies are different than industrial economies, and those that tout the economic benefits of gas drilling ought to think about those differences very carefully.
Pennyslvania, our neighbor to the south, has an historically much cosier relationship with extraction. The first oil well was drilled in Titusville, and there is a long history of gas and oil production in northwestern Pennsylvania. Southwestern and eastern Pennsylvania had (and still have) coal mines. I think this partly accounts for the early embrace of new forms of gas drilling which are being more actively resisted in New York. Mining fosters a different cultural relationship to the physical environment, and, I would assert, one that is less respectful of it.
But, beyond that, the extraction economy is distinct from the industrial economy in other ways. Whereas industrial production organized around cities, and often created them, mining is a more rural pursuit; it’s more dispersed. The result is that it has a much wider physical impact on the landscape. Moreover the infrastructures built to support it are meant to be abandoned.
Industrial production concentrated populations, and while it generated an array of toxics that we are still coping with, it also allowed for flourishing agriculture and the preservation of forests. It left spaces for escape and for tourism. Moreover, while all capitalist economies are unstable, mining economies are particularly susceptible to the boom and bust cycles. Commodity prices rise and fall drastically over short periods of time. And once the resource is extracted, nothing of value remains. The economic benefit entirely disappears. (It now appears that it gas production will disappear much sooner than was originally predicted by its advocates.)
I lived in West Virginia for four years, and while it is an attractive place in many ways, it has long been one of the poorest states in the U.S. It also has a long history of labor violence, fostered because the hardships of mining, and ruthless exploitation by mine owners. Somehow the benefits of the state’s vast coal reserves never translated into prosperity for the large majority of West Virginians. Parts of West Virginia are scarred beyond recognition and will never return to their original beauty.
So my advice to those that believe increased gas production is an economic godsend for upstate New York, is to please look to places where extraction is has been the dominant economic activity. My guess is that you won’t like what you see.