Thursday, January 26, 2006

Modernity Inevitable?

Since the Iceland trip, I have been thinking about modernity. The Icelanders are closer to their roots than we Americans are. Some holdouts lived in turf homes as late as the 1930s. They also live in a marginal environment. It is beautiful, but they are isolated, and rural, and the land is not productive like the Midwest here.

They actively court modernity, taking every idea that might work and giving it a shot. From tourism to almunium smelting to the original fish the Icelanders are willing to give development a chance. In Akureyri where the study was, there has been much consternation over the 'decline of industry' and associated jobs. While they seem to be moving into the service economy (the whole point of the study), there is no guarantee of that. There are towns up there that are losing everything as their last bit of fishing quota is sold off. North Iceland and the American Midwest are facing similar issues.

Anyone who has lived outside the major cities and loved their land over the last 30 years has watched with sadness the ever progressing sprawl, malls, subdivisions. It seems unstoppable, but if that was your dad's farm, and you couldn't pay what the developers would, then it was toast. I bring this up not to complain about development, but to show that there is a certain felt inevitability about it. You can't stop the WalMarts, you can only move farther away, and watch the land get chewed through.

But this inevitability might be an illusion, resulting from the local economic conditions. As industrial captialism moves through its waves of boom bust and first second third sector economies some local places suffer the opposite of that inevitable development. Some face seemingly inevitable decline.

Look at Detroit. As recently as the 50s and 60s this was a new center for Black culture, a mighty economic engine that powered mid century America. What's good for GM is good for America.

So it goes. Detroit is now the poster child for scary urban chaos in movies like Eminem's 8-mile. "I've spent my whole life in the steel mills down in Gary, with my father before me I helped build this land" sings John Mellencamp. South Chicago, Buffalo, East St. Louis. All the industrial rust belt cities decline because the manufacturing wave of industrial capitalism washed past them, while nothing took its place. Lots of places here in the US are places where it could be said, modernism has abondoned, or declined, or whatever we might say it does.

And looking around the world, we find whole camps of ppl who suggest fixing the world's problems by bringing modernism to the natives. But since there's no guarantee of modernism working equally well here at home, it might seem wishful thinking to think modernism is going to work equally well out there. Some places out there are going to do great. But not all, and probably not most. At times, the natives don't even want it, but just because they do, doesn't mean it's going to happen.

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