Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Betting on the Rust Belt

I owe, I think, an apology as well as a few words of explanation to the regular readers of this blog. The weeks I’ve taken off from posting here this summer have not been as innocent as they seemed, and those of you who may have imagined me basking in the mostly theoretical sun on some gray and rainy Oregon beach are about to be sadly disillusioned. Conspiracy fans take note: a plot has been afoot.

Over the last few weeks, my spouse and I have relocated to the other side of North America and are now settling into a new home in Cumberland, an old mill town of 20,000 people tucked away in the north-central Appalachians, up in the panhandle of western Maryland. The Amish country of Pennsylvania begins not that many miles north of us, and West Virginia’s a stone’s throw across the river to the south; the big cities of the east coast are only a few hours away by train, but you wouldn’t guess that from the rural ambience and the dense forest blanketing the hills. It’s a pleasant place, with old brick buildings and pretty scenery, and it’s becoming a regional hub for the arts, with the help of very low rents and the enthusiasm of the local arts council. Still, none of those are the primary reason why we moved here.

Readers of this blog who remember an earlier post, “Rethinking the Rust Belt,” may have already guessed at some of the deeper motives behind the move. Though it flowered earlier than most, Cumberland is a quintessential Rust Belt town. Founded in the 18th century along one of the most important transport routes linking the east coast to the interior, it became by turns a canal center, a railroad hub, and a thriving industrial town where factories powered first by water and then by local coal anchored an economy lively enough to make Cumberland the second largest city in Maryland. From its red brick factories and faux-medieval county courthouse to its distinctive local beers – Queen City Brewery was the big name here until it went under in the Seventies – it’s hard to think of a detail of the old American industrial heartland that wasn’t present and accounted for.

As America’s manufacturing economy ebbed, in turn, Cumberland suffered accordingly, and its population today is little more than half what it was forty years ago. Most of the old mansions on Washington Street have been subdivided, the once fabulously busy C&O Canal that ran from here to Chesapeake Bay has not been used in many decades, the last factories closed long ago, and half a century of struggle for survival has left visible wounds across the city. The railroad still runs through the middle of town, and there’s daily passenger service west to Pittsburgh and east to Washington DC, but the splendid old station that once graced the town was torn down decades ago and replaced with a bleak little cinderblock building about the size of a suburban three-car garage. The tourist brochures call Cumberland scenic and friendly, and not without reason, but not even the most imaginative publicist would think of calling it prosperous.

The conventional wisdom these days holds that towns like Cumberland have a future only if they can find some way to catch the coattails of the booming (well, formerly booming) economies of the two coasts. Cumberland city boosters have done their level best to follow that lead in recent years, with tourism and the arts scene as focal points, and they’ve had modest success so far. If I’m right about the future of America and the rest of the industrial world, though, they might want to consider raising their sights a bit, because the tide of history that left Cumberland and so many towns like it high and dry may just be turning.

I don’t know how many readers of this blog remember, as I do, the headlines that came out of the Rust Belt in the 1970s, when the economic collapse of America’s industrial hinterland first really became visible on the large scale. Anyone who needs a refresher, though, can get one easily enough by reading the equivalent headlines coming right now out of California. The political gridlock, the sclerotic economy, the slumping quality-of-life indices, the special interests clinging to oversized shares of a shrinking pie – it’s all there, made all the more poignant by the anguished yelps of California politicians insisting that the rest of the country can’t just sit by and let the formerly Golden State finish circling the drain. (A hint to Sacramento might be in order here: state governments from Pennsylvania to Illinois tried that gambit repeatedly forty-odd years ago,and it didn’t work then, either.)

The underlying cause is essentially the same, too. The collapse of America’s industrial heartland into the Rust Belt was part of the price, as I’ve pointed out in previous posts, of the economic shift that turned America from an industrial economy that produced most of its own goods and services at home to a global power that imported most of its manufactured goods from overseas. Since so much of the resulting flood of products came from Asia, the great ports of the west coast boomed – for decades now, the Los Angeles-Long Beach complex has been the single busiest port in America – and the resulting flows of wealth turned the entire west coast from a mildly exotic region on the nation’s periphery to one of its core economic hubs.

Yet it’s only in the imaginations of believers in linear progress that such shifts are permanent. America is learning the hard way, as Britain did a century ago and Spain a century and a half before that, that the sheer economic burden of maintaining a global military presence is quite capable of pushing even the richest nation into bankruptcy. The Asian industrial powers that once churned out consumer goods for American stores are calmly retooling, using the billions we send them each year, to produce goods to meet the desires of their own newly prosperous people. Meanwhile the age of cheap abundant energy that made 20th century-style globalism possible in the first place is coming to an end around us. The economic model that built California’s past prosperity, in other words, is done enough to poke with a fork.

As far as I can tell, very few people on the west coast – or anywhere else – have begun to think through the implications of that troubling fact. I wonder, for example, how many states within driving range of California have drawn up plans to deal with the massive influx of economic refugees that will likely follow once California’s relatively lavish entitlement programs are slashed to the bone or shut down completely. I wonder whether any of the other west coast states, for that matter, have faced up to the possibility that the import-driven gravy train they’ve been riding for the last half century may just have run off the rails. If that’s the case – if Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland and Seattle play the same role in coming decades that towns such as Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Buffalo and Gary played in the recent past – some of the most basic assumptions of American social geography are headed for the dumpster.

Sussing out the geography of the future in advance is no easy task, but the constraints bearing down on what’s left of the American economy offer a few hints worth noting. Now that we’re on the downslope of Hubbert’s peak – world production of conventional petroleum peaked in 2005 – energy costs will, on average, take a larger bite out of economies around the world with each passing year. One of the implications is that transport costs will no longer be a negligible part of the cost of goods shipped over long distances. More energy-efficient transport modalities will tend to replace less efficient ones because they, and thus the goods they ship, will be more affordable; equally, diseconomies of distance will tend to outweigh economies of scale and foster the reemergence of regional economies. Among the likely beneficiaries of these changes are the towns that thrived best in an earlier, more regional economy -- those that are well served by rail and water transport, surrounded by farming regions that don’t depend on irrigation, not too far from major markets, and provided with ample and inexpensive real estate for the factories and warehouses of a downscaled and relocalizing industrial economy.

Welcome to the Rust Belt – and, among many other towns, to Cumberland.

Now of course our move here is a gamble, and a distinctly contrarian gamble at that. According to the conventional wisdom, we’re nuts. If the believers in perpetual progress are right, and America leaps out of the current Great Recession into some glossy future full of even higher high tech gimcracks than we have today, Sara and I have consigned ourselves to a dying economic backwater that will survive, if at all, only by whoring itself out to some futuristic tourist trade. If the believers in imminent apocalypse are right, equally, those starving mobs who are supposed to pour out of the big cities on cue to provide target practice for survivalists could very well head this way. Still, my guess is that neither of these very popular tropes about the future is at all likely to reflect what will actually happen – and in most other possible futures, including those I consider most likely, Cumberland and places like it are likely to do at least as well as anywhere else in this country, and quite probably better than most. One way or another, though, we’re betting on the Rust Belt.


Over the last few weeks, while I’ve been packing and unpacking boxes and waiting to get my internet access up and running again, I’ve set some projects in motion. A couple of them may be of interest to this blog’s readers.

First, I finally have something to offer those of you who wrote hoping for more of my fictional explorations of the deindustrial future. I’ve begun work on an online novel titled Star’s Reach; you’ll find it just a click away at It’s set in Dark Age America about five hundred years from now; longtime readers will likely recognize the setting as the latter years of the salvage society phase I’ve discussed in past posts. I expect to add a new section to the tale every couple of weeks, but we’ll see.

Second, I’ve begun laying the groundwork for a nonprofit organization to help bring about what I’m convinced will be one of the most crucial initiatives of the next few decades. The Cultural Conservers Foundation will support the hard but vital work of preserving the legacies of the past and present into the future. It will be nonpartisan, nonpolitical, nondenominational, and as independent of any other source of unhelpful interference as I can manage. Expect further posts on this project as it comes together.


ladybug said...

Wow! That's a big change...but it seems you are enjoying it, which is the most important thing in any case. You have other changes in the works as well, and I"m looking forward to seeing more of your work on the web!

Rick said...

First of all, congratulations on your willingness to "put your money where your mouth is," as they say, and relocate to a place that fits with your vision of the future. Whether Cumberland will meet all the sustainability requirements of the post-petroleum era, only time will tell, but I think you make a compelling case. Whether or not and when to relocate is a decision that many of us will have to make. In my case, the question is a bit more complicated because I also have to decide which country to relocate to (currently I'm living in Chile.) I've convinced my family that, at a minimum, very soon inter-continental airline travel will not be feasible for the bulk of humanity (I'd bet on 2012 and beyond). As a result, the biggest mental challenge for those of us who have taken international travel for granted is to come to grips with the fact that we need to choose wisely where we're going to live because in all likelihood it will be a place where we'll have to stay put for the rest of our lives.

Archmage said...

The Cultural Conservers Foundation sound very interesting for someone like me who has a strong memory for those subjects that interest me.

How would it be possible to start something like it in the other side of the world?

I was thinking how important will Role-Playing Games will be in the future, as the most advanced form of storytelling yet and oil-free hobby I believe it's going to become one of the most important forms of entertaining of the futue.

BrightSpark said...

Wow. That's seriously putting principles into action. Maybe I'm mistaken, but I detect a certain similarity to the location in Jim Kunstler's "World Made By Hand". But still, its sad in many ways to watch the decline of California from afar here in New Zealand. Whatever the reasons, it's never nice to see people suffer.

Thanks to your blog and philosophy, I often find myself asking similar questions about the best place to live in my own neck of the woods - New Zealand. We're blessed enough with a benign climate and good latitude range for any shifts, as well as a renewable electricity supply. But on the other hand, we have a road transport system completely reliant on largely imported fossil fuels and a government in deep denial. A few big unsustainable cities too...

Lots of challenges before we can create an ecotechnic future here, but it's a goal I intend to pursue.intet

FernWise said...

Well, heck, now you're LOCAL .... relatively speaking, at least. There a nest of Greek Reconstructionists in the Hagarstown area. Nearest 'occult' bookstore is in Leesburg, VA. Plenty of places for organic/pastured meats in the area.


Fern, down near Annapolis.

Mark said...

Welcome to the rust belt, as an inhabitant, that is.

I think you're correct with your prediction for the future. The present boom-towns aren't equipped for an energy descent future (technically present)due to overpopulation, pollution, ecological degradation and a serious lack of biodiversity. But, we have models such as the cities you've mentioned... Detroit, Baltimore, Milwaukee, Indianapolis, Flint, etc. There are people on the ground and producing in these cities -- food, water and community, for what it's worth. And the suburbs and towns as you mention, are prime for regeneration; with access to water and land.

I'd be fascinated to hear what sort of legacies you are interested in preserving.

Laurie said...

Welcome to wild western Maryland! Plenty of local color here. You'll enjoy the fall display of leaf colors. There's a restaurant in Hancock, a neighboring town, that has fabulous wild berry pies. I can't think of its name, but just ask around. It's on the main drag. I'm a suburban Marylander, but I get up to that neck of the woods periodically for work.

RLT said...

Welcome to the Other Coast! I am so very happy to know that, finally, we here on this side of the country may have a better oportunity to attend a lecture, workshop or celebrate a High Day Ritual with you!

I too am a west coast transplant, and like you, settled into a small town, complete with an active rail line, although no passenger service yet, but the possibility is there, surrounded by farm land and not too terrible far from the mid-sized city of Roanoke, VA. We run a small family farm, with one off farm income currently, were we have learned, from the ground up, how to feed ourselves, and how to work harder than we ever thought possible, and to love it.

Welcome! Rebecca Terrill

DIYer said...

Ahh, the gap.

Sort of like positioning yourself at the Khyber Pass if you lived in Asia. ;-)

byzantium said...

Well hey then, welcome to Maryland! We like it here.

Bill Pulliam said...

WOW! I didn't see that one coming at all! Hey, we're almost sort of not-really-but kinda culturally neighbors now. At least we're now in regions with much more ecological similarity.

One major factor that landed us here (in middle TN) was the suitability of the landscape for non-irrigated agriculture as well. I figure even if the area reverts to subsistence poverty in the worst-case scenario, history has shown that this is in fact a sustainable process here. Plus, on beyond all the grander concerns, it is nice to have the possibility of taking charge of your own food chain and get your own drinking water to whatever extent you desire.

Change can happen fast in "rural backwaters;" when we moved here 7 years ago this was pretty much a conventional hillbilly town with dying industries and collapsing local retail; now there is a steady influx of greenies, three wineries have opened, the city and county councils have voted for designation as a transition town (whatever that means), an "eco-industrial park" has just opened (whatever that means), and the tech college is starting a "green business" curriculum (whatever that means). Not sure what I think of some of those initiatives, and in some ways I appreciate the hillbilly side of the culture more than the greenie side (I am extremely wary of "greenwashing), but I expect in the future something constructive will form itself out of the pieces. One of the wineries was founded by a traditional moonshining family that decided to "go legit" -- so cultural fusion is happening!

Anyway, welcome to Appalachia! Better get used to understanding the correct use of "you" versus "y'all" and make sure you learn the proper seasons for land fish, ramps, and sang.

John Michael Greer said...

Ladybug, thanks for the encouragement!

Rick, I suspect some forms of international travel will stay in existence for a long time, possibly indefinitely -- for example, maritime trade along the more lucrative sea lanes -- but it won't be quick or safe for much longer. Now's a good time to make some choices.

Archmage, the CCF will be using the internet extensively while it still exists, so input from the other side of the world would be welcome.

BrightSpark, I don't know enough about New Zealand to have an educated opinion, but there ought to be good options.

Fernwise, thanks for the welcome!

Mark, the goal of the foundation is to help put together networks and toolkits to assist people to preserve whatever they think is valuable. Nobody today knows what will or won't be useful in the deindustrial future, so the strategy of dissensus -- that is, encouraging people to chase their own visions rather than trying to force (and enforce) a uniform consensus -- is the logical way to go.

Laurie, thanks for the welcome, and the tip about the pies!

Rebecca, one of the other factors driving the move is that most of the membership of the Druid order I head is east of the Mississippi. (We've got more members in Tennessee than we have in California.) Here in western Maryland, I can get to most of our really active groups by train, and to events all over the east coast, midwest, and south the same way. It ought to be entertaining.

DIYer, nah, the Cumberland Gap is actually well south of us here. That name got spread about a bit.

Byzantium, thank you!

Bill, I'm hoping to have a chance to try a sip or two of moonshine before all the 'shiners start producing chardonnay instead. For that matter, I've been mulling over plans for a solar still -- though you'd probably have to call the product "sunshine" instead! Thanks for the welcome, and I hope to get over to Tennessee a bit more often in the future.

Tracey said...

That is an interesting move and being from the Midwest I maybe should decide to look a little closer to home. Oregon is so beautiful and is well known for its farms, it would seem that it would be an ideal location. The Rust Belt states always had superior railroad lines that had been taken for granted in the airline age.

Red Neck Girl said...

Here I moved next door, (well next city really), to you so I could get a chance to attend a lecture or two of yours and you moved away! Shucks and other comments!

I'd be interested in what you saw coming here in the Pacific north west in the immediate future that you thought would be less comfortable to survive in. If you have previously posted that please point the way to me.

It looks like if I want a piece of the stimulus package I'd better get my business proposal done and bank refused and go for my grant. YESTERDAY! I'm counting on the optimists.

At any rate I hope your move will make you comfortable in the time to come. I'd appreciate it if you'd wish me luck as well.

Bill Pulliam said...

Cumberland: region of northern Britain, derived from Cymru, Welsh name for Wales (also root of Cambria, Cambrian, and Cumbria). Name came to to America via the Duke of Cumberland. Cumberland Plateau -- large dissected sedimentary plateau extending from West Virginia to Alabama, southern extension of the Allegheny Plateau, with extensive coal fields in which the immigrants from Cymru felt right at home. Cumberland River -- major tributary to the Tennessee, joining it just before the Ohio Confluence, a primary shipping corridor connecting the mid-south to the world; former route of vast exports of whiskey and tobacco, Nashville is situated upon. Cumberland Gap -- low spot at the triple meeting point of KY, TN, and VA, major portal of European colonization and trade between the interior and the Atlantic coast.

Cumberland WV is situated in or near none of these, interestingly.

hardhead said...

Another welcome! from the Greater Appalachian bioregion. Though technically I'm not living in the Appalachians (I'm on the far western slope, about 250 miles WSW as the crow flies from where you are - in Kentucky - boy, you're smack dab in the middle, ain't cha?), and though I'm not a religious person, when I go to church it's on some backcountry trail in my beloved Appalachians. Good to meet ya, neighbor!

And do keep us posted on the CCF - a most interesting-sounding initiative.

Karel said...

Congratulations, JMG! So, "Du mußt dein Leben ändern" ;-). It seems to me that population in Cumberland peaked in forties and actually is experiencing stabilization period. In a town this size you can still meet most people face to face... Just like Archmage, I`ll be interested in Cultural Conservers Foundation "in the other side of the world".

Gene Shinai said...

You got a mention in this article:


Undertecknad said...

A Foundation to preserve culture and technology through the coming barbaric dark ages, now where have I come across that before?
You have read Asimov I trust.

Dan Treecraft said...


No one seems, yet, to have called you a rascal. We might as well get to it. You Rascal!

As a jilted West-World-Druid-group-pee, I'm astonished at the low, sneaking, way you left not only the town, or even the state, but - Hell! - the region. Who is there to visit - now - in Ashland?
Even in Oregon?

I'm actually a little ashamed to admit that I WAS thinking you was one of Us. Now, here, you're one of Them.

Goes to show, you just can't trust Clever People. I thought all the Clever People (who were in on the Military-Industrial-Financial Complexity) ran themselves full-out-smack! into the clothesline. Now we see, there was a Clever Person among our own priesthood,
Who knew?!!

Now we're going to get "The Word According to The Archdude - From the Cumberland Gapperspective".
What's that going to be like?

It's a good lesson for all us ArchGroupies. While those of us with "fast-crash" tendencies might need to remember the Dr. dude's admonition that, globally, the crash will not likely be sudden and total; there will be sudden local shocks, here and there, from time to time. As the film now winds backward, and we see the Future going Back to the World (Earth), we must be ready for surprises. Some things will change in a twinkling. Fractals hell! This is pure chaos, still!

I'm sure I'll eventually get over my own private jilting, and will come around, again, to reading the Dr.'s newest ravings, but for now, I'm taking a week - maybe more - to nurse my personal hurt in an undisclosed location until I can bring myself around to some sort of reconciliation. ( Does anybody know where Ran Prieur's "Land" is? )

It looks like no line can go straight forever, after all. After awhile, any credible line has to wiggle.

Way to wiggle, Dr.!

A Bronx Bravo to the ArchDude.

From the hinter-flat-lands of Eastern Washington:

( Then again, a dark little corner of my mind wonders if The ArchDude is really, after all, getting set up nice, for the Post-industrial Industrial Revolution. Here we go again? ! ! )


The North Coast said...

I'm looking forward to taking part in and contributing to the Cultural Conservers Foundation.

You make a case for the future of the Rust Belt that is very compelling to this Midwesterner. My native city, St.Louis, is a poster child for the decimation of the Midwestern Rust Belt and so is Detroit, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and to some extent, Chicago, where I located 20-odd years ago and whose former industrial economy was replaced with FIRE industries.

I have always been convinced that were it not for government policies that rewarded companies for locating their manufacturing off shore and that diverted tax money from these formerly prosperous Midwestern cities to building pharaonic water diversion projects in the Sand States, that these cities would still be populated and prosperous. They are favorably located on major waterways with access to the gulf or to the Atlantic ocean and they are surrounded by fertile farmland, much of which has been destroyed to build the suburbs, yet another government-sponsored diversion of wealth and resources via the interstate highway system and the various housing affordability programs that sucked the population out of the cities and redlined their intact neighborhoods, to build suburbs on cornfields and cities with 4M people in the middle of the most arid regions on Earth.

Now that all has to reverse itself. We will no longer have the fuel to make life possible in the middle of places like Nevada and Arizona or for 50% of the population to commute 50 miles each direction every day.

Rick said...

Just a follow-up clarification of my earlier post. Your comment about the continued future availability of maritime and other "slower" forms of global travel is well-taken. What I intended to say, but omitted, was that currently U.S. and other "first-world" ex-patriots take for granted that they can fly home in a moment's notice, whether it be it for vacation, work, a friend's wedding or the death of a loved, etc. When those options disappear and you realize that living 10,000 miles away means you will not be able to fly home for your father's funeral, for example, it concentrates the mind on what our true priorities are. I may be wrong but I suspect the post-petroleum world will lead many who have the economic means to permanently move back to their home countries.

Ponter said...

I, too, moved from CA to the east coast, To Maine in my case. So far it's been very worthwhile. I still get nostalgic as my family had been in No. CA for generations and I spent a good part of my adult life there.

So, you did a bit of CA bashing, but you lived in OR, albeit just over the border. And as another poster asked, what was wrong with OR? Was it the concern about the teeming (and spoiled) hordes from CA? Or was there some lack of viable community in Ashland? Inquiring minds would like to know, since we once thought better of OR.

William said...

I'm introducing myself. I've been reading this blog for a couple months now and really enjoy Mr. Greer's posts. I like his clear, sober writing style and learned, compassionate reflections. While keeping up with his weekly postings, I'm also trying to catch up on some of the old ones as well.

Before I came across this site, I had read a couple of Mr. Greer's books on hermetic topics, and I'm finding his ideas about peak oil and our unsustainable civilization are quite compelling (and unsettling) as well.

As far as the move from Oregon to the East, I used to live in Portland and have always viewed that area as an ideal place to live. I know you mentioned a few factors spurring your move in your post, but I'm curious to know more about why you think the Pacific NW might not be well-positioned for the great transitions ahead.

I live in Minneapolis now, but am from Milwaukee, and am intrigued by the idea of a regenerated Rust Belt. I have always been fascinated by Lake Michigan, and like others, have speculated that it and the other Great Lakes are important resources that may prove indispensable in upcoming decades.

RudolfC said...

So while I was on the Capitol Limited passing through Cumberland, you were unpacking somewhere within walking distance? Wow! indeed. Incidentally, if you take Amtrak west toward Pittsburgh you'll see yet another reason Cumberland is a wise choice: an extensive wind farm which should keep you in electricity for at least the next few decades. Best of luck.

goingnowhereslowly said...

Welcome to the neighborhood! I live in DC. Cumberland is indeed beautiful and I hope you and Sara are very happy there.

I am delighted to hear of the Cultural Conservers project as well. My husband and I are highly educated and practically useless. (I can cook, and I'm learning to knit, and we're both good with animals, but that's it.) This sounds like something we could actually help with.

Best wishes!

Danby said...

Red Neck Girl,
I believe I can answer you question about survivability in the Pacific NW. I live here and think about these things on a daily basis. I have yet to come to an agreeable solution for myself and my family.

To start off, I should say we have many things going for us. Virtually all of our power is generated at hydroelectric dams which with proper maintenance are good for another century or two. People are generally tolerant and well-educated. The soil is fertile and the forests and streams are abundant in their produce.

That said, there are also many downsides in a world of declining energy supplies. Our agriculture is extremely dependent on irrigation. Essentially no rain falls after the 4th of July until almost the end of September. Any crop that ripens after mid July absolutely requires irrigation. Without irrigation, that pretty much limits commercial crops to grains (wheat, oats, barley) and early vegetable crops (peas, spring cabbage, lettuce). Because of our mild winters and wet springs, it is notoriously difficult to make decent hay on the west side of the Cascades. This year's crop was delayed until mid-July and is of breathtakingly bad quality. Without irrigation, most of the East side is frankly desert. On some of the higher tablelands, a good crop of wheat can readily be grown, and some 80% of the US lentil crop is grown without irrigation in the Palouse country, but that pretty much covers it.

Transportation is a serious difficulty, with no significant canals, and only one navigable river system. There are three rail lines in the entire region, the north-south main line from BC to California, one railroad over Stevens Pass NE of Seattle to Wenatchee and thence to Richland, and one line which follows the Columbia/Snake from Portland to Lewiston, ID. In the event of a lack of diesel fuel, it is almost impossible to get goods from any one place to any other except by muscle power.

The mountains of Southern Oregon are some of the most vertical and isolated terrain in the country. Once, when driving to visit family in California, I kept track of the ups and downs between Eugene and Red Bluff. It's the equivalent of driving over a mountain higher than Mt Shasta. And that's the GOOD road.

Ashland, for all it's charms, is a town that subsists on government expenditures, situated in the high desert in the middle of a forbidding mountain range. It has no industry, and little capacity to supply it's own needs for either goods or food.

timekeepr said...

Welcome to the area. I live about 50 miles east of Cumberland, near Hagerstown off the Old National Pike (one of the original roads going west). Soils are ok in some places, lots of rocks in others, like ours :(. We manage to plant a decent garden every year.

Cumberland is coal country. Lots of strip mines to the south in WV. They are trying to add more power lines going towards DC -- burning coal in WV and shipping the power to the DC area.

There are several linked repeaters in the Cumberland area:


b said...

Congratulations and welcome to Maryland. We moved to the Free State last year due to job opportunities. We live in a small town, surrounded by farming, but also close to the "big city." Many aware observers see what is coming, but are hesitating to act. Sticking your neck out, or dipping your toe in the water is really scary when your livelihood is on the line. It is a whole lot easier to sit back and hope "it doesn't happen on my watch."
Good Luck!

Jan Suzukawa said...

As a Californian who intends to stay put in this state, I'm betting that we (my fellow Golden Staters and I) will get creative and invent a regional economy that works for us. ;) On your (surprising) move - congratulations, and the best of luck to you and your wife. I will look forward to your reports on your new life there, and hope it turns out to be everything you wished for.

tristan said...

Ahhhh! Most heinous betrayal! A vile and under handed maneuver! Those of us in the magnificent, beautiful, scenic, enchanting (with all permutations of the definition of that last word meant) Pacific Northwest take umbrage at your despicable abandonment of our fruited (fruity?) plains! Those who who are not part of the solution are part of the party that part from our shores (or something like that).

Oh but we shall have our revenge. The day shall come when you will want to feel the pacific Ocean on your toes (and miss out on the Chinese pirates). You will ache for the loss of our majestic (and volcanic) mountains. You will cry out "where oh where can I get a double expresso soy mocha latte with whip and cinnamon sprinkles"??

As you are battling the Zombie hordes from the cities remember us on the left coast. We will be battling Zombie hordes from California. But at least some of our Zombie hordes will have overly coiffed hair and immaculate tans.


gaias daughter said...

I've been considering a move myself -- debating between Portland, OR and the mountains of North Carolina. My head said Portland (in part because my son and daughter-in-law have settled there), but my heart kept saying the mountains of NC. After reading your blog, I'm leaning even more towards the second option. My son and his wife would be on the other side of the country, but if things got rough, we would have a safe haven to offer, another place to go.

Don said...

Here in Ohio, we were taught in public school Ohio History classes that Cumberland, Maryland, was Mile 0 on the old National Highway, currently US Route 40, at least where it wasn't absorbed into Interstate 70 (as is true in two or three places in eastern Ohio). The National Highway ran northwest from Cumberland through Uniontown and Washington, PA, then west to Wheeling on the Ohio River, continuing west across Ohio and Indiana to its original destination of Vandalia, Illinois. (It was later extended to St. Louis.)This early land route became Main Street for many cities and towns here in central Ohio, including Columbus. So welcome to our part of the world!

I'm curious, though, as to your rationale for thinking perhaps this rust belt region might have a more positive future than western Oregon, given its fertile Willamette Valley and the eco-conscious and deliberately low sprawl city of Portland. Are you worried, perhaps, that Oregon will be overwhelmed by hordes of California refugees when economic troubles really do hit the fan there? Couldn't much the same thing happen here as expat Midwesterners begin migrating back from the unsustainable, sprawling cities of the "sun belt"?

Again, welcome to the region!

Ruben said...


Well, I am disappointed; I have an uncle in Ashland and friend in Eugene, and I hoped to meet you one train trip.

On other notes, I have some questions that I feel embarrassed to ask on the comments board--sort of airing my thoughts out for everyone to see. They may be useful eventually, but if you would email me, I would appreciate your thoughts.

Mike said...

I'll be sending money....

seanthedruid said...

Wow, you certainly will be missed out here. I always enjoyed being able to hook up with you a couple times a year with realtive ease. I hope you still make it out here now and again. Peace! Peace! Peace!

john said...

One of the commenters said you got a mention on Alternet,I noticed this week that you got a mention in the (British) Guardian in a debate between George Monbiot(who I'm sure you know of)and somebody else.It's a good article called,'Is industrial society worth saving?'...I think.

Joseph said...

Choosing a good place to live will become increasingly important in the "localized" world of the future and you make a good case for the place you have chosen. I am fortunate enough to have been born in Nova Scotia which, in the age of sail, was one of the most prosperous areas in North America and with considerable local resources and the benefit of the ever-near Atlantic ocean (nowhere in the Province is more than 40 miles from it) is well-positioned to meet the coming years of change.

Karim said...

Wish you well on your relocation moves and on your project of a Cultural Conservers Foundation which I think might be an inspiration for many around this planet.

nutty professor said...

I am so glad to read you again. I hope to meet you in person since you are a hop and a jump away now. Shout out if you need any help unpacking!

You were missed!

Ekkar said...

not that you owe me anything, or even have the slightest idea who in the hell I am. I do however feel a bit of surprise (and strangely enough disappointment)that you have left Oregon. Our ranks have surley taken a loss. Oh well, we all must do what we feel is best for our families. I wish you and your family the best.

John Michael Greer said...

Tracey, farms are important but they're not the only issue. For the next century, transport will be at least as critical.

Girl, well, the post suggested that the west coast (which includes the Pacific Northwest, last I checked) is facing a far more severe downturn than the rest of the country, due to the end of the import economy on which west coast ports have battened. That might have something to do with it.

Bill, the Duke of Cumberland was a popular guy in the late 18th century; it was only a century later that the Stuarts, whose attempts to reclaim the British throne he ended once and for all at Culloden, became romantic. Thus the profusion of Cumberland toponyms in America.

Hardhead, thank you for the welcome!

Karel, thank you also. I'll post more as details come together.

Gene, saw it! Many thanks.

Undertecknad, I first read the Foundation trilogy getting on for forty years ago. More importantly, though, I get my ideas from the same place Asimov did -- history. He admitted in one of his essays that the whole first volume of the trilogy was based on the fall of Rome, with the Foundation playing the part of the Irish monks.

John Michael Greer said...

Dan, I've been called a rascal, and much worse. I've even been called, to my face, an evil space lizard. (The person who called me that was a David Icke fan and believed that all Freemasons are evil space lizards.) Thank you!

North Coast, my guess is that St. Louis will be a thriving city when Phoenix and Las Vegas are abandoned ruins full of drifting sand. By all means consider moving home.

Rick, thanks for the clarification. You're dead on, of course, and it also may not help that the US dollar is likely to lose most or all of its value in the tolerably near future, leaving a great many of today's privileged ex-pats with very little of their current wealth. It could get very messy indeed.

Ponter, as I commented in my post, the whole west coast is dependent on an unsustainable import economy, and bids fair to turn into a new rust belt as that goes away. There are other factors as well, but that's a major one.

William, welcome to the list! The Great Lakes are a huge asset, as are the remaining canals that link them to the Atlantic and the Mississippi watershed. My guess is that much of the future history of this continent will be played out along those axes.

Rudolf, yes, I saw the wind farm on the way into town. Next time you pass through on the Capitol Limited, wave!

Going, thank you! I'll post updates here, and once things are a little further along I'll be looking for people willing to volunteer some time and effort.

John Michael Greer said...

Dan, exactly. One correction: Ashland is more dependent on the tourist industry than government, but that's hardly comforting -- subtract tourist dollars from the local economy, which peak oil will do, and the whole region's economy collapses.

Timekeepr, thanks for the welcome! I'm used to gardening on bad soil, so whatever turns up under the overgrown back yard ought to be fine.

B, granted, it's easier to sit and hope that things will get better. Frogs get boiled alive that way.

Jan, good. I'd be delighted to be proved wrong -- but you have your work cut out for you.

Tristan, my wife and I were ridden out of Seattle on a rail because neither of us likes those ghastly sticky-sweet coffee-flavored milkshakes Seattle inflicted on the world. As for zombies, I prefer mine pallid and unkempt!

Gaia's Daughter, everybody needs to weigh a choice like that for themselves. In your place I'd be singing James Taylor's "Going to Carolina," but I'm not in your place.

Don, the local bus driver here in Cumberland pointed out the old toll booth on the National Road as he drove past it, so your schoolteachers seem to have known what they were talking about. As for Oregon, I've covered that already -- it'll be worth seeing how much of Portland's green consciousness remains in place when the bottom drops out of the import economy and the unemployment rate hits 30%.

Ruben, your email doesn't come through when you post. An email sent to info (at) aoda (dot) org will get to me promptly.

Mike, I'll take you up on that.

Sean, I'll be back to visit as time and transport links permit -- I have a lot of friends on the left coast, you know!

John, saw it! Thanks.

Joseph, Nova Scotia strikes me as an excellent choice, especially if you have roots there. How are your sailing skills?

Karim, thank you!

Professor, thanks! Drop me an email sometime by way of info (at) aoda (dot) org -- ought to be somewhere we can get together and talk.

Ekkar, thank you.

Glenn said...

Everyone makes her or his own choices JMG, but I'll take my chances here on the Olympic Peninsula.
We own our 8 acres outright, without a mortgage; 7 acres of it is trees and wild berries and we have an organic garden; we're self sufficient for firewood, and close on produce.
We live on the shores of the Salish Sea (waters from Olympia to Juneau); water transport has historically worked well here, the San Juan Islands used to feed Seattle.
We have a small wooden daysailor.
Last, but not least. We like it here and are in a really good community of boat hippies and organic gardeners. I can't list all the people with useful skills I know here, from hunters and fishers to blacksmiths and bronze casters.

Amy said...

Just when we were considering moving to Ashland....welcome to the east! You also didn't mention the great location of Cumberland vis a vis biking: a mere 140 miles down the trail from my city of Pittsburgh (another great place to live and getting better all the time) and another 185 miles farther on the trail you'll be in Washington DC. Check out:

I'm glad to know you're nearby and hope to meet you soon.

Dwig said...

John Michael,

Best wishes for success in your new digs! A few reactions:

A thought: maybe you could put together a movement to put the old canal back in service, initially as a tourist draw, later evolving into a viable means of transportation.

The California you write about is mostly along the coast, in the large cities. A lot of the State is left out of that focus, and the dynamics are somewhat different. Not that the near future is going to be a picnic for Fresno, Bakersfield, San Bernardino, or the northern counties, but it may play out in different ways.

As for the coming economic decline based on the failure of globalization: at least we have some good exemplars in the rust belt cities, and might be able to learn from the experiences of Detroit, Pittsburgh, etc., and may even be able to avoid the worst consequences. (Somewhat related: check out Food Among the Ruins for a look at the current state of Detroit and some attempts to create a new future for the place.)

I've subscribed to the RSS feed for Star's Reach -- looking forward to following it. (Another sudden thought: maybe start, in parallel, a few stories featuring the ancestors of the protagonist in this one, sort of filling in the gaps.)

Finally: The Cultural Conservers Foundation will support the hard but vital work of preserving the legacies of the past and present into the future. That got my attention! As you may remember, I've been collecting many of the comments from your CC posts, with the intention of doing a topical organization and starting what I'd envisioned to be a Wikipedia-like evolving knowledge base cum living document cum social network. Your announcement triggered me to pile together what I've got so far and put it on a web page where you can review it and decide what, if anything, you can make of it. I'm definitely willing to help in getting the Foundation started, including technical assistance if you want or need it.

Note to other members of this little community: you may find excerpts or quotes from your comments on the page. If there's anything there that you'd like to have changed or deleted, let me know. Contact me at don at dondwiggins, top level domain "net".

Bill Pulliam said...

JMG --

I'm sure I don't need to remind you of this, and it'll probably be a recurring theme in many of your forthcoming posts until the end of the useful lifetime of either you or the blogosphere (which ever comes first)...

Transport has been a major factor in the structure, function, and evolution of human societies for many millenia, long before industrialization, and it will remain so for far longer than just the next century. I remember in my long-haul trucking days, I always got one of those almost metaphysical senses of historical connection when I drove down I-84 (I think it was) in eastern Oregon. At some points along that highway, as you roll down the freeway in your diesel rig, you are paralleling the railroad tracks, and passing the historical markers indicating the route of the Oregon Trail. The same thing happens on I-80 when you slip through the Delaware Water Gap, following in the literal and metaphorical footsteps of many generations of westward-bound settlers and hundreds of years of freight.

Rick said...

Dear Archdruid,

Congratulations on your move. I'm on the road from Maryland to a permaculture training in South Dakota. Now, I guess, I have to turn around in order to meet you.

You will certainly want to check out Four Quarters Interfaith Sanctuary of Earth Religions, just over the line from Hancock, MD ( I'm sure you will be most welcome at their stone circle.

And you're now within a day's drive of Great Serpent Mound and other important spiritual centers in Ohio.

I've often thought that Cumberland was beautifully situated, and prime for a revival. Best wishes to you and Sara for health, happiness and success there. I hope to catch up with you soon.


dZed said...

How about that. Despite the fact I have your book, and have been reading your blog for three years now, you've remained an abstraction. A once-a-week-blog-writing abstraction, sure, but an abstraction. Cumberland, however, is the mid-point on my new route back to West Virginia to see my family, as my (new) wife and I just moved well outside of State College, PA so that she can go to school. My best friend, in fact, live in La Vale, MD, which is just around the bend from you. It wasn't until he moved there that I had ever thought of Cumberland as anything more than an oddly busy part of I-70. But, you're right, it has all manner of wonderful things going for it, especially if one counts proximity to West Virginia as a bonus, and as a native of the finest state in the Union, I surely do.

I don't know the town well, and have increasing odd pictures of it from the stories my friend and his wife (a high school teacher) tell me. The recent racial unrest at that school, for instance, which I understand made the national news. That's one thing that part of Maryland, and the corresponding West Virginia panhandle have been adjusting to in the last few years, an influx of people from the urban areas into what was traditionally much more rural. Cumberland, of course, hasn't been specifically rural in quite some time. Still, NEW people, whether they're a different color or a different socio-economic background in either direction, tend to stir things up a bit in Appalachia, and I've been interested to see how that all shakes out in your neck of the woods. It's not ALL arts councils and decaying buildings, in other words.

Welcome to Appalachia just the same. Always good to have a strong, reasoned voice in the area. Any lectures lined up at Frostburg State yet?

John Michael Greer said...

Glenn, no one option is suited for everybody, and it's only with a couple of centuries of hindsight (which none of us alive today will get) that we'll know whose choices were best. Best of luck on the Olympic Peninsula -- as a Seattle native who did a lot of hiking there, it's a place I love.

Amy, thanks for the welcome! I plan on looking into the possibility of events in Pittsburgh once things get a little less chaotic here. If you know of any likely prospects, please don't hesitate to let me know; an email to info (at) aoda (dot) org will get to me.

Dwig, things are already moving toward a reopening of the canal as a tourist draw -- a bunch of locks will have to be rebuilt, but one step at a time. There's also a local steam railway for the tourists, which means we've got people locally who know how to run and repair a steam locomotive -- not a small asset, that.

Bill, no question about that. One of the reasons I stressed transport as a near-term issue is precisely that so many people in the peak oil scene, having adopted the very sensible scheme of relocalization, forget that the hundred-mile diet is going to be an affectation or an ideological choice, and nothing more, for many years to come.

Burne, many thanks! I'll certainly check it out.

dZed, thanks for the welcome, and you're certainly welcome to drop by sometime when you're on your way through. Send me a note offlist sometime via info (at) aoda (dot) org.

OregonJayhawk said...

I must admit that over the years reading your blog and books-- I have let you become my spiritual and philosophical mentor of sorts.

I must admit a tinge of disappointed you've decided to leave Oregon. I do remain confident that my consciously chosen locale of Portland will survive the Long Descent better than most places on the west coast.

I am doing my part to make sure that happens. I continue my work on the Board of Directors of a non-profit called Growing Gardens that teaches low income people how to grow a portion of their own food. After taking the OSU Master Gardener courses, I do community outreach helping staff a gardening hotline for the Extension Service. I have a high profile media job in town and walk the talk of living without a car among my other efforts to educate those around me.

While you attest that trade affects much of the west coast economy, I also can see manufacturing jobs are returning here. Portland now is manufacturing the electric streetcars that ride not only on our streets-- but will soon in cities around the country. Gunderson makes rail cars here too.

We all must live consciously and be hyper aware of the consequences of life decisions we're making in this transition period that we're embarking upon. I wish you the world of luck and happiness in your journey. I will continue to be a huge fan.


Portland, Oregon

Lance Michael Foster said...

John, you sly fox. Well, good luck, blessings, and happiness to you guys in your new home. I look forward to hearing more about your Cultural Conservers project. That sounds absolutely splendid!

swchenkinphd said...

Surprise! I thought I was going to have to move to Oregon to become one of your groupies. Does this mean you are going to hold Druid Rites in Md?

Ekkar said...

Perhaps the Pacific Northwest will be hit hard economically. Perhaps it will go through "hard times." But run away? Not for me. I'm staying right here with the Big leaf maples, giant Douglas fir, and majestic elk. Once one starts running it's hard to stop. Since "we are all beings on our way to dying" running from anything seems a detriment to real spiritual growth. What is happening is a cleansing by fire. As the phoenix we must rise after the flames, washed away of all our superfluous baggage, all our cancerous filth. PUNCTUATED EVOLUTION!
This is not an attack on you Mr.Greer, it is more a excercising of the idea of escape.

Cat Rioux said...

Wow I don't mind saying that the Arch Druid bugging out of Oregon worries me a bit.. The good news is that some of my friends and I got to hear you speak last year at Panthacon. It defiantly put us on our toes and started us taking stock of our skills. We figured we have enough skill to withstand what's to come. among us are spinner/weavers, herbalists, hunters and wood workers about the only thing we are missing is a good smithy I'm sure one of us can figure it out. We will miss you here and we will do our best to hold the fort. Bright blessings and good luck!

Karel said...

Ekkar, please:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.

yooper said...

Hello John! Heh! Got to remember, by rubbing two sticks together just about anywhere in the world, will produce fire. Just some places, it happens sooner rather than later. Good luck! with the move!

Thanks, yooper

p-roc's mom said...

Wow. As someone whose goal in life is to some day have a library (and who happens to have not one, not two, but four friends who are librarians) I'm looking forward to hearing more about the Cultural Conservers Foundation... Keep us posted!

zapoteca said...

JMG, courageous move, welcome to the area.

Joel said...

Have you considered partnering with someone in the floor tile business?

A lot of writing can be buried for a very long time on the back side of them. They'll be the first thing buried in most cases, and aren't too likely to be pried up by anyone but the curious.

It's just a matter of figuring out how to add the text. Some of them need texture on their backs anyhow, others might benefit from mineral pigment before firing.

gaias daughter said...

Ouch, Ekkar, that had a bite to it! I can't speak for JMG, but not all change of scenery deserves a 'running away' classification. If you have something that's working for you, stay. If, like me, the odds are stacked against you, it seems logical, practical, and therefore smart-as-hell to change your circumstances while you still can. I see it as seeking out a lifeboat before the Titanic goes glug, glug, glug.

PS You may already be aboard your lifeboat and all you need do is hang on tight!

John Michael Greer said...

Tim, I certainly wish you and Portland all the best. As far as I'm concerned, any city that has a used book store filling a whole city block deserves to survive.

Lance, you'll be among the first to know -- if you keep reading this blog, at least! ;-)

Swchenkinphd, Druid rites were being celebrated in Maryland long before I moved here. The Druid Revival got under way in the 18th century -- it was in large part a reaction to the spiritual impact of the industrial revolution -- and it's had a presence here in MD since the early 19th century. But yes, I'll certainly be celebrating the holy days here.

Ekkar, I've noticed that those who talk of what's coming in terms of a purification by fire seem to think that they're flameproof. You might want to reconsider that assumption. The fall of a civilization is like a forest fire; it plays no favorites, and the fact that the forest may be healthier afterwards is probably not much consolation to those who get burnt to death.

Cat, no one choice is suitable for everybody, and if you're in a good position to deal with what's coming, excellent -- stick with it.

Karel, thank you! I ought to recognize the quote -- what's it from?

Yooper, many thanks!

P-roc's Mom, there's going to be a lot of work for volunteer librarians in the years to come. While you're waiting for me to slog through the organizational details, you might want to ask yourself what books you'd value enough to copy out by hand, if it came to that.

Zapoteca, thank you.

Joel, living traditions are more sturdy than tiles, and easier to reproduce in low-tech conditions.

Gaia's Daughter, nicely put.

Richard said...

In my circle of friends, there are many that are now undertaking moves, some due to a job loss or loss of their home, and some for both reasons, and some because of reasons they cannot articulate. They just feel the need to move. It isn't necessarily that they want to move, they need to move.

I started feeling the relocation bug back in 2005. I had seen the writing on the wall, but because of obligations and promises made, I could not do it until now. I will be relocating to the big island of Hawaii in November with a couple other friends following close behind me. A couple other friends have already made the move to the island, and I expect at least one more will be there within a year. We will end up with a close circle of friends, and I know that is going to be very important in the not to distant future.

Karel said...

JMG, its "Anthem" of Leonard Cohen;

(But in fact, its Isaac Luria...)

Theo said...

I'm surprised someone like yourself would leave uncrowded Oregon for very crowded Maryland.

Even though Oregon is VERY huge in a geographical sense, the tiny state of Maryland actually has a larger population than Oregon!

Joel said...

>living traditions are more sturdy than tiles, and easier to reproduce in low-tech conditions.

True, but text written in a dead language is sturdier than a dead oral tradition.

It does make sense to focus on keeping traditions alive. My thought was for a contingency plan in case such work is not completed, but I respect your judgement that that would be a distraction.

Danby said...

Population density is always local. Nobody lives in all of Oregon. They live in a town, or in a neighborhood in a town. The populated part of Oregon (the Portland metro area and the north and middle Willamette Valley are quite a bit more populated than Western MD. Yes, Malheur County OR has 3 people per square mile. That's about twice what it could support ecologically. That really has no effect whatsoever on someone living in Ashland.

JMG's new home in Allegany county, MD has 176 people per square mile, about twice that of his former home in Jackson County, OR. Ashland has over 3000 people per square mile. Cumberland has just over 2000. That makes his new home much less densely populated than his former one, with more people (and hence more farms) in the exurban hinterlands nearby.

The post-peak-oil future is local.

Gene Shinai said...


The wisdom of you choice would appear to be well founded, see map:

Ekkar said...

Perhaps I've come on a bit too strong without explanation. Perhaps I am just in a sense defending Oregon and my OWN calculations. Calculations that put the Pacific Northwest as one of the better places in the future. Rivers, lakes, forest, good farm land. Perhaps it had more to do with southern Oregon?
I'm not sure exactly the context in which Mr. Greer is judging the northwest or the rust belt for that matter. When it comes to mass migrations of people, no one quite knows where the rabbit will pop out (so to speak.)
I also have to admit I am new to Mr. Greer. I have not read any of his books, but will be purchasing his new one. I first caught him on Peak moment and then James Howard Kunstler dropped his name on one of his podcast.
Now is there a blog you have written Mr. Greer that explains your position in more depth, pertaining to the Pacific Northwest? And would you be so kind as to direct my attention towards it? Thank you.

Papa said...

I wish you perfect happiness in your move together with my hopes that it brings all you wish it to for yourself, your loved ones and the collective as well. I do see that all will be well for you. Blessings.

Robin said...

Welcome to Western Maryland. My husband and I moved to the area near New Germany State Park, about 20 miles from Cumberland, in 1999. I am the only doctor in Grantsville, a town of 800. I care for all sorts of people: farmers, Amish, college professors, etc.

We first learned of Post Peak concerns from my brother, Jon Bosak and his wife, Bethany Schroeder. They are working with relocalization efforts in Tompkins County New York ( Jon came to speak at public event sponsored by our church in Cumberland a couple of years ago.

Thanks for the very gratifying support of our move up here. We have grown fond of the area and are always learning more about it.
Perhaps we could meet sometime to expand your local contacts and share info about living here.

Lisa said...

We're leaving Ashland too next week, though we are staying in Oregon, just moving to a rainer, more down to earth area. I always wondered what I was missing when JMG, who sees so much so clearly, seemed to think Ashland would work out when it looked so impossible to me. Dunno where we'd would have moved to, if not tied to jobs and family in Oregon, but I feel a bit more vindicated about leaving Ashland now, in spite of all the charm and "greenness".

Patz said...

Pardon me if this is flip, but the reason economists fail is the same reason alchemists failed: It can't be done---especially if the application is modelling.

GeoWend said...

Greetings...I figured I would drop you a line to welcome you to the area (yes, a bit has been busy)...Orion Foxwood wanted me to let you know he sends his greetings as well (I was visiting him a week or so ago, and I am hopefully having him out here in the reasonably near future...)

I am still in the process of moving out to the Berkeley Springs area, myself...I hope you are finding the area quite nice.