Last weekend I took my kids to the Tifft Nature Preserve, which lies just south of Buffalo. It’s lovely, but also a bit of an eerie place. It lies along the borders between the once mighty factories of South Buffalo. Before being turned into a preserve, it was an utter wasteland, old barrels, pieces of old pipe, crisscrossed and mismatched pieces of train track. It looked like the aftermath of a battle, between muddy trenches.
Most of that mess is gone. It’s full of life now. Place a few seeds in your hand, like I did with my sons. The birds will emerge to eat right out of your hand –I have pictures to prove it (check my Facebook). The walkways are what I hope Scenic Woods will look like. Just the vacant stone mills and foundries remind us of our industrial past. The stoic remains remind me of the old stone homes and castles that dot Ireland. When the economy crashed, people ran away from the buildings in Buffalo just like they ran away from those places. And also like artifacts in Ireland, the old haunted stones of South Buffalo look quite beautiful now that they’re covered in moss and surrounded by trees.
“What are you talking about Nate! Beautiful ruins??” some might say. “I used to work in those factories. We want those jobs back!” I’d agree that America needs to make things. I’d even agree that fossil fuels remain an important industry. Those jobs provided a lot of stability to a lot of people for a long time. And for a few lucky ones, those jobs still provide a good living. A friend of mine on the Island has done quite well for himself working for an American car manufacturer locally. So well, in fact, that he drives an Italian car. His Ferrari appeared in the Fourth of July Parade with me last year.
But things have changed. And they continue to change. We need to prepare for what’s next.
Work, done well and with joy and purpose, is one of the most rewarding gifts life offers. But we have denied that gift to too many. It’s very difficult to make your way in the world where careers in fast food places and gas stations are your only option. Each of us have young men in our lives (and women, but this phenomenon seems especially relevant to young men) who are part of a wandering class. I say wandering, because you literally see them wandering around Western New York, smoking, listening to their headphones. Their youth and hope fading as fast as their mental and physical well-being.
But be careful what you wish for. Do we really want to go back to the days of traditional smokestacks and assembly lines? Both the left and the right glorify America’s industrial past. Michael Moore mourns the end of the auto industry in Michigan, but by his own admission working on the assembly line was so miserable he could barely last a day. And our President talks about bringing the jobs back, when he spent most of his life sending the jobs away.
I hate to call upon my background in China again, but more than I ever expected, my experience there helps me understand what we are going through here. The solution for America is not getting back all the jobs that China (and India, etc.) took. I’ve seen their factories with the suicide nets. I’ve smelled the hordes of pigs bred to feed the thousands stacked in their factory dorms. And I’ve choked on the smoke pouring from their industrial prisons.
God forbid the day when then the horror factories of Asia return to the United States. Go online and type in “China’s Christmas decoration factories” into Google. Imagine thousands of workers painted green and red, tolling away mercilessly assembling plastic garland and sparkling ornaments. It’s a nightmare. No one should be doing that drudgery, and there’s a reason many of those jobs went overseas. No American would do them.
We need better jobs
Thus, when we talk about the “carnage” of closed factories on the American landscape, we must also consider the carnage that goes along with operating some of those factories, the pollution in our soil and air, the loss of humanity. Instead of yearning for a return to some Dickensian nightmare of conveyor belts, coal mines, and lax labor standards, I’d suggest we consider some other options and the true realities of modern production.
First, part of the reason we lost so many jobs is because more and more manufacturing is done by robots, not humans. Therefore, there is just less work to do. You laugh? Well, have you seen a state of the art assembly line recently? It’s not so much about tools as it is about keyboards. Typically, you have one person manning a robotic line. That highly trained engineer is not using wrenches and greasy fingers to twist widgets. He’s using code.
The reality is that we are experiencing a radical change, a new epoch in human existence. And we haven’t yet worked out how best to handle it. When humans evolved from hunter gatherers into agrarian societies, work changed. Instead of chasing buffalo herds all day, some had the time to make clay pots or even paint pictures of water buffalo. In other words, with new technology came more diversified types of work, and more joy and more purpose.
The promise of the technological advancements of the last 100 or so years was the same. Better technology would help us get work done faster and allow us to do other forms of work, and accordingly create more wealth and even more freedom. But for whatever reason, that promise was never kept. We still haven’t figured out how to keep everyone engaged, happy, and healthy.
Let’s educate our people to become builders and creators.
Frank Lloyd Wright said that, “This thing which we call America goes around the world today. It is chiefly spirit as yet, but that spirit is reality.” In other words, our chief export is ideas. We are a nation of ideas. We always have been. There are many nations who claim to be the workshop of the world. I’d rather be its innovation center. Let’s not compete with China for ignoble labor. And let’s not force our fellow citizens back into the mines and smoke. On Grand Island, I would never advocate for heavy industry. No way. We are surrounded by enough smokestacks already.
There are better ways. For example, the solar industry in America today employees more people than the oil and gas industry combined. And in Silicon Valley, America has created more wealth than Buffalo would have had created in our foundries, even if the foundries had remained in place for 10,000 generations.
Education is the answer. It will allow us to create the next great innovations that will change and improve our lives. Thus, we must invest in our people, wholeheartedly by eliminating obstacles to higher education and tapping and encouraging the development of the myriad of talents our young people possess. Education should not be a great sieve endlessly testing to determine who was predestined to be a ditch digger. It should be an endless polishing where we smooth out rough patches of resistance to reveal glossy levels of mastery. In other words, we must help people do what they are good at, until they are great at it.
If we do this, we will not just make America great again, we will make it greater than it ever has been. Held in the American spirit are the arts and technologies that will, like magic, ward off the taskmasters of humanity who insist we serve as cogs. And please understand, while China took our jobs, they are not stupid enough to want to keep them forever. That’s a nation determined to eventually leave their factories behind through the development of a highly-educated populace. Let’s not get leap frogged folks. And let’s definitely not leap backward.
With highest regards,