“Springsteen’s Rustbelt to the Midwest-Dixie Energy Revival”

If Heartland Rock, like a modern day Hamlin Garland, bemoans the economic downturn of our country’s core, eminent blogger for The American Interest Walter Russell Mead (http://blogs.the-american-interest.com/wrm/2012/07/15/energy-revolution-2-a-post-post-american-post/) forecasts an economic upturn for the Midwest that may vastly alter its cultural and literal landscape.

A recently released GAO report (http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-12-740T) reveals that America’s Middle West very likely contains more oil than the rest of the world combined and may lead to the region producing more oil than Saudi Arabia by 2020.

Mead speaks of a “new geography of power”:

The hollowing out of Middle America has been one of the tragedies of the last generation. Looking at the depopulation of the northern Great Plains, planners began to speculate about returning large chunks of whole states to the wild: the “Buffalo Commons” idea that would have taken up to 20 million acres out of private hands. The buffalo will have to move over now for the oil rigs and the people who work them; North Dakota will not be reverting to the wild anytime soon.
But there are large oil and/or gas reserves in other downtrodden areas. Western New York State and much of Pennsylvania and Ohio appear to have commercial quantities of fossil fuel. The revival of the Rustbelt may be getting under way. And Dixie will not lose out: the US share of the Gulf of Mexico is now believed to have the potential to produce 2 to 3 million more barrels per day than the 1.2 million that it currently pumps.
Overall, the new energy geography points toward a revival of the Mississippi-Ohio-Missouri river system as the axis of American growth. That’s likely among other things to be good for America’s political climate; the Midwest has traditionally been something of a swing region — less liberal than the coastal northeast and less aggressively conservative than Dixie. Middle Westerners have tended to be pragmatic optimists over time, and it would be interesting to see how a revival of this political tendency would work out in our politics today. In any case, we may be looking at a decline in the power of the northeast and (unless California embraces its inner tycoon and begins to exploit its own energy riches) the Pacific, while Dixie continues current rates of growth and the Middle West booms.
…The Middle West’s traditional moderation is going to soften the rough edges a bit; much of the oil is coming to places where people historically have valued community ties and concerned themselves about the well being of the less fortunate. This won’t be the second coming of Ayn Rand.”

Mead speaks of the impact of a “Heartland economy”:

“There are significant economic benefits in having all this prosperity in the heartland. North Dakota and Wyoming are states where shipping costs from China and Japan are high — but Chicago and St. Louis are much better placed to serve them. Put cheap and secure energy in the Middle West, and build large new cities and centers of economic demand in the neighborhood, and the energy revival in a few states will support general economic growth in many more…
…Few places are going to look more secure in the 21st century than America between the Rockies and the Appalachians, between the Gulf of Mexico and the Canadian frontier. Some of the world’s largest energy reserves will be sited next to the world’s most fertile crop land. Geopolitically, few places on earth are as secure from war; politically few can match its record of stable governance; legally, few offer as much protection for property rights and few have as long a record of offering foreign investors the equal protection of the law.”

If Mead is right, the Midwest may regain its spot of cultural, economic, and political preeminence in decades to come. Though his narrative is soaked with the excited buzz of progress, it is partial and ought to be checked with the questions of a keen, skeptical mind.

What will it mean to American culture if the Heartland becomes less of a “Bread Basket” and more of an oil tank? As we well know, we have no Elijah to infinitely replenish the Zarapeth widow’s jug of oil, but will this new Midwestern oil deaden alternative energy research? Economically and environmentally, can we harness the immense advantages of new markets while avoiding their predatory pitfalls?

Not long ago, the railroad likewise stretched across the West and revolutionized American economic, cultural, and political power, surely improving America’s standard of living. But some of our finest realist-naturalist (and Midwestern) citizens—Hamlin Garland, Frank Norris, and Jesse James—told us another side of the Iron Horse’s story.