The Limits of Art
Reading the recent Pioneer Press article about the problems Marshall, MN is having finding adequate water to support its industrial economic base reminded me that I probably need to circle back to one of the core questions I outlined in my post explaining what I want to accomplish this semester. One of the things I said I was interested in exploring was the following:
Is is possible to shift away from extractive industries such as industrial farming, mining, and logging in rural areas and focus more on environmentally sustainable alternatives?
I phrased the question poorly. As written, my answer would be that I believe it’s possible to some extent to shift away from the prevailing model of rural economic development towards more sustainable economies, but that it’s going to be very difficult without a tremendous amount of support, and I just don’t see that happening right now.
I think a more useful way to approach this question is to instead ask
How might we shift away from extractive industries as the core economic base of rural economies and instead focus on more sustainable alternatives?
The answer to this question is that we need to completely rethink how we approach rural economic development. The state’s signature rural-development program of the last decade, JOBZ, primarily subsidized manufacturing businesses through tax breaks (and, incidentally, an audit by the Office of the Legislative Auditor showed the program wasn’t very effective at assisting economically distressed areas in Greater Minnesota plus had major problems in how it was administered).
Unfortunately, government seems to be very reluctant to shift away from the conventional approaches to shoring up rural economies. In Caught in the Middle, Longworth writes that:
[S]tate officials know perfectly well that globalization will swallow their traditional industries. But they’re stuck. Workers vote, and a worker who has just lost his job will be an angry voter. When a plant is threatened, the local legislators hear about it constantly—from workers worried about their jobs, from cities worried about tax money. When an old factory closes, governors get blamed. When a new factory opens, governors get to cut ribbons. (p. 35).
Thomas Frank touched on the lack of political solutions in his Baffler article when he wrote that:
It is time to acknowledge the truth: that our leaders have nothing to say, really, about any of this. They have nothing to suggest, really, to Cairo, Illinois, or St. Joseph, Missouri. They have no comment to make, really, about the depopulation of the countryside or the deindustrialization of the Midwest. They have nothing to offer, really, but the same suggestions as before, gussied up with a new set of clichés. They have no idea what to do for places or people that aren’t already successful or that have no prospects of ever becoming cool.
He’s scathing, but he’s correct.
I bring this up because one of the four rules of thumb I outlined in terms of doing creative rural development was to think about things from a systemic perspective. And in doing that, I have to admit that the larger context is that our systems of government are doing next to nothing to plan for how we—all of us, American and Minnesotans, urban and rural—can transition away from economies that simply are not sustainable in the long run. The results, I fear, are going to be rather unpleasant. I don’t subscribe to the school of thinking that theorizes we’re going to have an all-out societal collapse as the result of dwindling fossil fuel resources; rather I think we’re going to see things like significantly reduced standards of living related to energy and food costs, continued economic uncertainty and political paralysis, and a lot of angry and scared people.
Which leads us to the elephant in the room: art cannot fix all these problems. If the Archers Daniel Midland plant closes in Marshall, it is not realistic to think that the arts can fill the economic hole left by such an eventuality. Hell, I’m not sure anything can—the truth is that a lot of rural areas are going to sustain severe economic injuries in the coming decade or two and that a distressingly high number of these fiscal wounds are going to prove fatal for small towns. The Iron Range is a prime example of what happens to communities when the main industry is no longer able to support the number of workers it used to.
Nevertheless, art still has a role to play. I think the arts can be one of many approaches used by rural communities to diversify their economies and equip themselves to best weather the changes that are coming. Experimenting with and employing a variety of strategies is going to be key. Fifteen years ago, Minnesota had a roundtable produce sustainable principles of development for the state, and the arts fit nicely into the five approaches outlined by the roundtable. It’s not a silver bullet, but it’s a start.