by Barry Edelson


It's the Sun Belt, Stupid

It may be warm, but is it civilization?

Another census has come and gone, and with it comes confirmation of a trend that has continued unabated for decades: the U.S. population is steadily shifting from the states of the Northeast and Midwest to those of the South and West. The primary reason for this change, no matter what grand social theories may be propounded to explain it, can be summarized in a single word: weather. The growth of the Sun Belt has coincided almost exactly with the widespread use of air conditioning, enabling people to enjoy the benefits of warm winters in places like Florida and Arizona, but without having to suffer the considerable misery of very long and very hot and/or humid summers.

Does the quest for a lighter wardrobe say something more profound about how our national character has changed, along with our zip codes?

There have been other episodes in our history when large numbers of people moved from one part of the country to another: the California Gold Rush, the Oklahoma Land Rush, the Great Migration from the rural South to the Industrial North in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the dislocations of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. But this is the first time that people are moving en masse not to seek opportunity per se, not because they are poor or because land or jobs are available elsewhere, but because they just don't want to shovel snow any more. Consider the journeys of the early Western settlers in horse-drawn wagons, having to traverse rivers and mountains, beset by storms and confronted by Indians, en route to a final destination about which they knew nothing. Or the dreadful pilgrimage of the Okies, struggling merely to survive the journey to California, made to feel unwelcome in every possible way. Not to mention the trans-Atlantic passage that most of our forebears had to endure, most of them in the filthy, infectious holds of unsteady ships, tossed on the waves for weeks on end, often without a breath of air.

Compare these death-defying travails to the migration of the modern American family, riding the interstate in a minivan equipped with video screens, or better yet, flying on an airplane across the country in just a few hours while a truck hauls the family vehicles, along with the rest of their sundry belongings, on the way to a home and surroundings that have been thoroughly researched on the Internet.

With more than a foot of snow currently on the ground in the New York City metro area from a post-Christmas blizzard, it might seem churlish to dismiss the unpleasantness of living through a Northern winter. For someone with responsibilities who must sprint on the treadmill of daily modern life, having to get up every morning and scrape the ice off the windshield and devote a lot of time and worry to keeping the driveway clear, walking the dog, and getting the kids to school and oneself to work on time, can be a wearying enterprise. There often comes a revelatory moment, more often than not when one has a cold and hasn't slept well, when it dawns on you that you just don't have to live like this anymore. As more people in the last half century had enough disposable income to travel to sunnier climes, for vacations or holiday visits with friends and relatives who had already defected to the Sun Belt, there wasn't a very good answer to the question, Why do we put up with this? The simple pleasure of backing the car out of the driveway 365 days a year without giving a thought to the weather forecast has a strong appeal. True, the West has earthquakes, fires and mudslides, the Gulf Coast has hurricanes, but these are not annual events in every location, and their effects are usually widely scattered. For the beleaguered millions in Chicago and Cleveland and Philadelphia and Boston and a thousand points in between, it is a rare winter that doesn't take its toll on the body and the spirit.

Still, removing oneself to a distant and unfamiliar town just to enjoy a better climate somehow feels like a flimsy reason for upending one's life and abandoning the places of one's youth and family. It is clear that nothing is going to stop this trend, as numerous centers of commerce have emerged to accommodate the employment and interests of tens of millions of transplants to previously under-developed parts of the country. But while it is hard to argue, on an individual basis, against pursuing a more comfortable life, it is perhaps worth asking whether we are sacrificing something collectively in that pursuit. If we think of the desire for warm sunshine as just one manifestation of a general craving for material well-being, is it possible that actually being able to fulfill many aspects of this desire is a detriment to our civilization as a whole? Could the Sun Belt, if not the actual cause of national decline, be a powerful symbol of it?

Arnold Toynbee, in his gargantuan opus A Study of History, advances a theory of human civilization which is dramatically at odds with the one we were taught at school. Remember the "Fertile Crescent" of the Eastern Mediterranean? This concept is deeply misleading, as it suggests that ancient peoples tended to migrate to places where the living was easy. But Toynbee exhaustively demonstrates how the people who achieved the highest levels of civilization lived in places that were not in the least bit hospitable. The Nile Delta was a fetid swamp; the Greek islands were largely barren crags of volcanic rock. Toynbee gives example after example of how people overcame the challenges of a difficult landscape, and in so doing forged the resourcefulness, determination and social organization that is a prerequisite for advanced societies. He explores other societies in conditions so extreme, such as the Arctic region or the Sahara, where resources are scarce, and where the exigencies of daily survival and the difficulty of just getting from one place to another are so acute, that people are unable to advance much beyond mere subsistence. On the other end of the spectrum, he looks at climates and topography that render human survival relatively easier, such as the islands of the South Pacific. Paradoxically, in none of these places did a single advanced civilization arise. Only where people were strongly challenged, and had sufficient resources and population to overcome those challenges, did they develop the fortitude and know-how to do more than just get by.

One of Toynbee's best known ideas concerns the fall of civilizations. He concludes that competition from neighboring societies, particularly ones that are relatively less developed and therefore on their way up, often coincides with a more advanced society's internal decline, which ultimately spells doom. He writes, "…when a frontier between a more highly and a less highly civilized society ceases to advance, the balance does not settle down to a stable equilibrium but inclines, with the passage of time, in the more backward society's favor." In other words, if we are not moving forward, we will eventually be overtaken by another society that is. Think about America's current relationship with China, and the hand-wringing it is causing in this country. The problem is not just that the Chinese economy is growing while ours is stagnating, at least for the time being. The more fundamental problem is that while we are migrating to Scottsdale and Ft. Lauderdale in pursuit of year-round golf, the Chinese are migrating in vast numbers from rural areas to coastal cities to work in factories and sweatshops. Once a great civilization that declined and fell prey to Western Imperialism, China is now on the rise again as an urban industrial power, its poor agrarian population mirroring the American exodus from the hinterland in centuries past.

This is not the first time in recent memory that Americans have felt existential angst about a rising Asian power. In the 1970s and 80s, it was the omnipresence of Japan's businessmen and tourists that left us wondering if our best days were behind us. Perhaps China will make some costly economic mistakes of its own, while we recover from our current woes to a state of relative economic health. Boom and bust cycles have long been a part of modern economic life, and will no doubt continue. But this roller coaster ride obscures the overall terrain. The question is, each time we rise above the current troubles and find our feet again, are we not in fact on lower ground than we were the last time around? While we attempt to regain our former balance, will China's inevitable economic cycles continually raise it to higher levels? And what of India, and Brazil? Inevitably, these societies will also get bloated and materialistic and decadent, but probably not in sufficient time to make any difference to us.

There's No Going Back

One of the places Toynbee cites as a hostile climate that gave rise to an advanced civilization was colonial New England. Far from the pristine wilderness that was advertised back home in England, early settlers found a poor, rocky soil that had to be cleared stone by stone, with bitter winters that annually killed off a large portion of their communities, and often hostile natives who killed even more. Off the now charming byways of the New England states are the remains of many abandoned homesteads and villages. It was hardly a paradise in Pennsylvania or Virginia, either. And yet, the settlers established a foothold that was firm enough to be the foundation of a nation, strong enough to throw off the yoke of a powerful imperial master. The famed "Yankee ingenuity" was a byproduct of this early struggle, vindicating Toynbee's thesis that great works are accomplished only where there are great obstacles to be overcome. The founders created something much more important than an economic model or even a system of government. Unwittingly, they also built a national character.

True, we still have great universities and centers of ingenuity like Silicon Valley (technically, not really in the Sun Belt). We still win a lot of Nobel Prizes and Olympic medals. There are still millions of young men and women willing, and fit enough, to fill the ranks of our armed forces. For all of our present troubles, more people still want to come to America than to leave it. The persistence of poverty, discrimination, crime and violence is not necessarily evidence of fundamental decline, as even the most advanced civilizations carry such weight on their shoulders. What should concern us is how our expectations have changed. In our present circumstances, we would be happy just to claw our way back up to the standard of living that we used to enjoy, let alone find a way forward to a better way of living. For too many of us, that better way consists mainly of living with abandon: eating what we like, buying whatever strikes our fancy, suing anyone who gets in our way, living wherever the climate is the most pleasing. On the whole, we no longer seem to have sufficient ambition to sustain our desires. The "American Dream" is more a catchphrase that links us to a mythical past than a recipe for going forward. Like many of the civilizations that came before us, we may not realize that we have been overtaken until it has already happened, and many of us will not even acknowledge it even after the signs are obvious. Our politicians are only too keen to proclaim that we have "the best health care system" or "the highest standard of living" in the world, despite all evidence to the contrary.

Oscar Wilde said, "I can resist everything except temptation." He, too, was the denizen of a society that, we see in retrospect, had begun its decline. It is probably too much to ask that we resist temptation, we who, compared to our ancestors, have the riches of the world at our fingertips. There is no shame in being prosperous, in having well-stocked supermarkets, children who are not prey to a hundred infectious diseases, homes that are comfortable and jobs that are not inherently life-threatening. But when survival comes easily, civilization is irrevocably altered. Perhaps, with real unemployment currently between 10 and 20 percent, with genuine hardship the lot of more Americans than at any time in decades, we will experience a critical mass of self-reliance that will propel us to a more solid future. But don't count on it. When the United Farm Workers launched its "Take Our Jobs" campaign last summer, challenging Americans to do the kind of farm labor that only immigrants seem willing to do, their website received more than a million hits, but hardly anyone applied, and fewer than a dozen actually showed up to work. These were the very jobs that the Okies risked their lives for.

Whatever our future may be, it will look different from the agricultural and industrial past that gave rise to our civilization. The outward migration from the Rust Belt to the Sun Belt will go on. Those of us still remaining in the frigid northern regions may continue to see our way of life slowly fade, but in the meantime we will enjoy the extra elbow room. See you on vacation.

December 30, 2010


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