…These days, when I drive out Route 55, also known as the Olsen Highway, most of the buildings I see were built since I stayed in that run down little motel, which by the way was long ago torn down and replaced with new development. Nothing about that drive is familiar now, except for the Rainbow which had just been built when I stayed there, and an old beat up strip mall from the mid 20th century. There was once wilderness, a few farms, the usual lakes. Then, Boom! Building everywhere.
And the funny thing is that today, many of those buildings are for sale, vacant, for lease. There are even buildings built in the last ten years that are at risk of deterioration through misuse. And that isn’t a particularly depressed part of town.
It seems that civilization, and its economy, are like the proverbial river that you can’t step into twice: It is always there, but never is it the same. This has been true since the Industrial Revolution: Cheap hydroelectric power harnessed by modern turbines under emerging brick mills filled with rural transplants, mostly women and children, losing the occasions finger or hand to the machinery but driving a brave new economy with the production of cloth or flour. But the water allowed only a certain amount of growth, so it was supplemented with coal-powered steam engines running the mill’s machines. Then the coal became the main form of energy. Homes lit by burning tallow and whale oil became brighter with the introduction of gas lines and lamps, and the streets glowed at night in London and New York and Minneapolis, and eventually liquid petroleum found its use to drive more industrial engines, and eventually cars, and eventually furnaces in our homes, and eventually along side coal power stations that produced the electricity that made our homes even brighter….
That is part of an essay I wrote for Financial Engagement, a Public Thing. It is published (in print) as part of a newspaper project. There is a PDF version of the while shebang, which you can get to here.