• Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.


A city of firsts

Last week, Springfield, Massachusetts got hit by a tornado. Four people were killed.

June 6, 2011

Last week, Springfield, Massachusetts got hit by a tornado. Four people were killed.

As natural disasters go, it may not have been much. Certainly, it was nothing compared to recent tornadoes in North Carolina and Missouri, flooding all over the midwest, fires rampaging in the southwest, or earthquakes and the tsunami in Japan. On the commonly-used Fujita scale (which runs from 1 to 5), it was an F-3. Figure winds of 150 mph.

But it hit in the heart of the Knowledge Corridor -- home to 31 colleges and universities. And it was a tornado in an area that traditionally gets very few tornadoes. And four people were killed.

Springfield has been going through quite a resurgence recently. It's one of the more successful examples of "Eds and Meds" -- a regional economy based on educational and health care services. It needed to resurge, because its previous incarnation as a manufacturing center had completely crashed and burned.

That manufacturing identity started when George Washington declared it the site of the first US national armory and musket factory. Later development made Springfield arguably the first site of mass production and assembly-line processing. The first American gasoline-powered cars came from Springfied, which was also home to the first commercially successful motorcycle maker. Rolls-Royce produced cars in Springfield up until the Great Depression. The first commercial radio station was in Springfield, as was the first UHF television station. Even basketball was invented in Springfield, MA.

But, as weaponry set the stage for, and continued through, Springfield's industrial age (think various "Springfield" rifles, as well as the Garand M-1 rifle and M-1 carbine), so weaponry signaled the end of the road. In 1968, the Springfield Armory was shut down. Forty years of decline followed.

One of the things that I find interesting is that, before the establishment of the Armory, Springfield was most known as an agricultural area. Indeed, the land on the banks of the Connecticut River was probably the best farmland in Massachusetts. In colonial days, Springfield was a regional commercial center, anchoring the western half of the state.

Massachusetts was distinct among the now-US northern colonies, in that while its coastal area was overwhelmingly capitalist -- largely centered on trade among Europe, Africa and the West Indies -- the majority of the population was engaged in effectively pre-capitalist subsistence agriculture. Massachusetts had a larger share of its population residing outside of cities than most other colonies. Puritan culture combined with a subsistence economy to nurture what's variously known as "Yankee ingenuity", self-sufficiency, independence, and "Yankee cussedness". A good share of what's now thought of as American identity arguably originated on Puritan farms in western Massachusetts. When these subsistence agriculturalists united with Boston capitalists in response to the onerous acts of the King and his Parliament, a revolution resulted. Later, when the first American government after that revolution was shown to be ineffective, Springfield was the target of Shays' Rebellion; the result was the Constitution of the United States.

Now, I have to admit that my personal vision of a sustainable society has its roots in western Massachusetts Puritan subsistence farming. For what it's worth, I don't see "subsistence" as a bad word. It's pretty much synonymous with "livelihood", and if every person on the planet were able to achieve a sustainable livelihood, the world would be a much better place. I know that Puritan-style subsistence is compatible with American values -- hell, it's the father and mother of American values. And in my dreams, the tornado in Springfield might provide an opportunity to shape a regional -- if not a national -- subsistence-based response to climate change.

No, that particular weather event can't be inextricably linked to global warming (no individual weather event can), but its likelihood was greatly increased as a result of climate change. Yes, New England has had tornadoes before; they've been historically rare but increasing in frequency. And no, four people killed outright is not a lot. But only three people were killed outright at the Boston Massacre, and look what that led to.

In my dreams, Springfield may have yet another opportunity to be first.


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