posted on September 28, 2010 11:42
By Mary Lee Stotler
Michigan Main Street Center
Michigan State Housing Development Authority
As Joe Borgstrom mentioned in his last post, the keynote at the Michigan Downtown Conference this year was James Howard Kunstler, a dynamic speaker and visionary whose speech painted a grim picture of the changes he sees coming. Joe’s right when he says that “it isn’t what you say, but how you say it.” I think Kunstler had the right vision, but he delivered only the bad news. His message was intended as a wake-up call, but his dark delivery risked alienating the very folks he hopes will take action.
This is an amazing time in history, if we could stand back and see it from a bigger perspective. Just as the Industrial Revolution shifted the U.S. economy from agriculture to manufacturing – a process powered by an abundance of fossil fuels – we are currently in the midst of a shift from an industrial economy to one based upon technology, service and information. And while manufacturing is still being shipped overseas, even there it will become increasingly automated and less reliant on human production.
The previous shift transformed the economy and generated an era of unimagined wealth and power. Though we’re in the doldrums now, the new economy hints at even more if we have the intestinal fortitude to reach for its promise.
Maybe I’m crazy, but let’s tackle one problem at a time.
Robert Heinlein once said, “Progress isn't made by early risers. It's made by lazy men trying to find easier ways to do something.” Ain’t it the truth? Unlike Kunstler, I don’t believe people will give up the luxuries they now take for granted. Like my friend Gordon, who has a Ph.D. in finance but instead chooses to work on inventing ways to make welding technology more effective, imaginative entrepreneurs and cottage industries will grab the opportunities available to make our future brighter than we can now envision.
With the advent of the automobile and the explosion in manufacturing, the people of the U.S. moved outward to expand our horizons. But in the process, we lost the sense of community that made us whole, and our small towns suffered. The world is even bigger now.
Because we’re no longer locked in a box that tells us what the economy is supposed to look like, we have the opportunity, individually and collectively, to choose the direction our future will take. Yes, many of the huge conglomerates that consume massive amounts of energy will splinter into smaller, localized industries. But decentralization results in more local control, more localized prosperity and less polarization of wealth. Yet we will still be connected to the global marketplace; we’ll have the best of all worlds.
Painful as this recession is, we will grow richer and stronger and cleaner through the innovative solutions we generate in response to our challenges. Pundits are floating a lot of theories about how to fix the current economic crisis but the truth is that most of the jobs we’ve lost will probably never return. This isn’t a political platform folks, it’s a fact. There’s no going back, even if we wanted to.
The way to restructure the economy is at the grassroots level. That’s why Main Street is so important right now. It’s self-help. It is based upon the premise that no one knows you better than you know yourself. Just like a self-help book, the Main Street approach can help guide communities through the process of reinventing themselves for a new economy. And by reinvigorating our traditional downtowns, we can live and work in places that nurture our deepest sense of who we are. No one can guarantee results; you get out of any self-help program exactly what you put into it. But just making the effort can move us further than we ever imagined we could go.