Recommended Reading: Natural Experiments of History

I try to never miss an opportunity to listen to or read anything put together by Jared Diamond. He has written two of the books I consider essential for anyone looking to work in the planning profession: Guns, Germs and Steel: the Fates of Human Societies and Collapse: How Societies choose to Fail or Succeed. Diamond has done more to open my mind to the physical world than just about any author.

Last month I ran across a book edited by Diamond titled Natural Experiments of History. The book is divided into chapters, each an essay that examines a "gift" from history - a situation where natural occurring events have given us a chance to test different outcomes from the same starting point. It is a fascinating read with a lot of lessons.

The second chapter, an essay by James Belich titled Exploding Wests: Boom and Bust in Nineteenth-Century Settler Societies, looks worldwide at the phenomenon of boom towns. I found it chilling, especially in light of what we have experienced in our small towns and exurbs over the past two decades. Here is how Belich begins to describe the earlier boom.

The remarkable nineteenth-century explosive settlement was not a matter of steady expansion. Instead, it has a three-step rhythm of boom, bust and "export rescue." A huge boom lasting five to fifteen years at least doubled the population of a large frontier area in a single decade. Booming frontiers were net importers, not exporters, of both goods and capital. The markets were dynamic and highly commercialized, but local - last year's settlers made their money by supplying this year's settlers, and by preparing for next year's settlers.

One of the great lines from the video we posted last week in our posting on Small Town Values was how it seemed like every other driveway had a contractor's vehicle. "Last year's settlers made their money by supplying this year's settlers...." It was then as it is now: a Ponzi scheme of growth that ultimately can't sustain itself. Belich describes the familiar end to the growth phase.

A dramatic bust, "crash," or "panic", decimating growth rates and bankrupting about half of the boom-time farms and businesses.

Sound familiar? Painfully so, but unlike the boom towns of the west, our bust cycle is being turned into a long, slow decline by continued reliance on the unsustainable Mechanisms of Growth. The desire to prop up what we have in hopes of a recovery is understandable, if futile. It is also frustrating, because after the bust is the recovery.

In the third step, which can be called "export rescue," a new socioeconomy was painfully created from the shards of the old, oriented to the mass export of staple products such as wheat, cotton, or timber to a distant metropolis. The economy recovered and continued to develop but at a much slower pace...

This is classic Jane Jacobs, and it points the way to economic recovery for our towns (or at least transformation to a healthy, local economy) through an approach of increasing exports while focusing on import-replacement strategies. We have written about this here on a couple of occasions, most recently last November in a post titled Rethinking Economic Development. The towns that figure this out first will be the ones that prosper in the coming years.

If you would like some more Jared Diamond, this video is a lecture he gave on the book Collapse. 


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