No Laughing Matter

This is a story both personal and political. On May 31, the American Planning Association hosted a wonderful retirement party for my last day on the job as Manager of the Hazards Planning Center. I have spent much of the past quarter-century helping to make natural hazards an essential focus of the planner’s job. The reasons are scattered all over dozens of previous blog posts, so I won’t repeat them here. It was a great send-off.

The next day, June 1, I was at home beginning the task of establishing my own enterprises in writing and consulting, including what shortly will be significantly expanded attention to this blog. In the rush to ensure that the transition for the Center would be smooth, I maintained a busy schedule in May, and I am aware this blog was somewhat neglected. Sometimes there is only so much time, and the blog has until now been a spare time project. That is about to change.

I spent much of that Thursday morning downtown. My wife had a dental appointment, and I had some minor issues to attend to. We paid a pleasant visit to Chicago’s Riverwalk and returned home on the CTA Blue Line. As we ate lunch, I watched the news on CNN. It was announced that President Trump would be announcing his decision on U.S. participation in the Paris climate agreement. I waited to see what would happen.

By now, I am sure everyone knows that he announced U.S. withdrawal from the accord. I remember two distinct impressions from the occasion. The first was that I was certain that nearly everything he said was wrong, that he was twisting the truth, and that his reasoning was badly distorted. The second was that, the longer he talked, and he talked for a while, the angrier I became. The sheer moral and political blindness of his position infuriated me. It has taken me three days to decide to write about it because I like to apply a reasonably broad perspective to the issues I address here. In part, I had trouble with that because I had planned a busy agenda in the opening days of my new phase of life to reorganize my home office, inform key contacts of my new e-mail address, and take care of the new business that accompanies “retirement.” (I put it in quotes because, for me, it mostly means self-employment.)

Trump’s announcement on the first day I spent at home felt like a slap in the face. The title of this blog, “Home of the Brave,” is meant to assert some claim to moral courage on behalf of those who are willing to pay homage to the truth. Trump finally had succeeded in embarrassing me as an American citizen. In my view, one of America’s claims to greatness in the world has been its willingness to educate its citizens and embrace honest science, and suddenly I was watching our president embrace brazen ignorance. There has been a tendency in some political circles over the years to glorify ignorance, but that tendency has seldom found its way into the Oval Office.

We join two other nations in the entire world that have not endorsed the Paris agreement. It is not hard to understand the problem in Syria, a nation that is basically at this point one huge battleground with a highly dysfunctional government that is slaughtering thousands of its own citizens. It would seem that Syria might have other priorities than negotiating a climate agreement. As for Nicaragua, what most people do not know is that Nicaragua, which has an abundance of both geothermal resources (also known as volcanoes) and tropical sunshine for solar energy, refused to accept the agreement not because it opposes progress in addressing climate change, but because the accord did not go far enough. That makes the United States of America the only nation taking exception to the very idea of combating climate change.

Trump does this in spite of the fact that American researchers have been leaders in generating the science that has documented the problem. Scientists quickly declared that many of Trump’s “facts” were either bogus or exaggerations of data chosen with an extreme bias toward his point of view. Moreover, in statements by administration spokespersons like Press Secretary Sean Spicer or U.S. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, no one was willing to answer explicitly reporters’ questions about what Trump truly believes about climate science. They talked around it, under it, behind it, and did all manner of verbal contortions to avoid simply saying whether Trump believes in the reality of climate change.

They prefer to stand behind the mistaken assumption that he is somehow protecting American jobs, but his views on this point are almost a half-century behind the times. Most coal jobs disappeared not because of climate regulations but because of automation that began nearly three generations ago. More recently, coal has been threatened economically by a surge of natural gas supplies as a result of fracking. One amazing aspect of this story, which includes the whole fight over pipelines, is that Republicans have tried very hard to have it both ways on the energy front. They have decried the decline of coal even as they themselves have supported fracking in a relentless bid to support all available options for developing American energy supplies. These various energy supplies compete with each other, and more natural gas at cheaper prices inevitably means less coal production and fewer coal jobs, a result that has little to do with environmental standards. It is called free enterprise. It is true that public policy tilts the scales in the energy industry, but public policy ought to do so with the future and the long-term best interest of the public in mind. In fact, a wiser administration might realize that now is an ideal time to begin to develop renewable energy sources in Appalachia to replace jobs that are unlikely ever to come back. Instead, politicians in places like Kentucky and West Virginia choose to play on fears and insecurity rather than offering a new economic vision that might actually improve the lives of workers. Unfortunately, this sort of political cynicism seems to be richly rewarded. That is the only explanation for a truly bizarre CNN interview by Jake Tapper with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) just ahead of Trump’s announcement. Setting up one straw man after another, Paul stated that the earth has undergone much more serious climate change than humans can cause. No one with a modicum of scientific education would not know that there have been wide swings in climate over geologic time (presuming you accept the theory of evolution), but they occurred over tens of thousands of years, not decades. Yes, we know about the Ice Age, Senator. It is not “alarmist” to note that climate change is occurring at a rate faster than nature has historically caused on its own.

Trump’s supposed defense of American jobs collapses in the face of the economic evidence. Renewable energy is producing new jobs as fast or faster than any other sector of the U.S. economy, as noted by people like Jeff Nesbit, who has a bipartisan track record of research on the issue. Trump outrageously claimed that other nations were laughing at us for being taken advantage of in the accord. In fact, they have respected American leadership in this sector, and if they are laughing at anyone, it is surely Trump himself, although I suspect that many are spending more time pulling their hair out in frustration and dismay at the direction he is taking. They are also preparing to move ahead without U.S. involvement, a stance not unlike that being taken by California and other states and cities with a more progressive view of the world’s economic future. My impression was that Trump, in obsessing about our nation being a supposed laughingstock, is revealing personal insecurities for which the nation is paying a high price. What, Mr. President, is the source of this persistent insecurity? You are wealthy enough to afford psychological counseling if you need it. I admit that you tapped into a good deal of voter insecurity, but you are leading your base nowhere. Do us all a favor and find them a vision for the future, instead of a nightmare based on a flawed vision of the past.

Scene from New Orleans in November 2005 after Hurricane Katrina

So let me circle back to what so offended me personally about being confronted with this public policy disaster on my first day after leaving APA. Little more than a decade ago, following Hurricane Katrina and the Indian Ocean tsunami, with many years of planning experience behind me in the disaster arena, I realized that my position at APA afforded me a truly rare opportunity to shape planning history by refocusing the profession’s attention on the numerous ways in which planners could use their skills and positions in local and state government, consulting firms, and academia, among other possibilities, to design communities in ways that would save lives and reduce property damage. I was determined to devote the remainder of my career to helping make that happen, with the help of numerous experts and veteran planners who shared my vision of those opportunities. Uniquely, however, I was in a position to shape the agenda of the American Planning Association on behalf of its nearly 40,000 members to provide the resources, research, and training those planners would need to attack the problem.

By 2007, we had persuaded the Federal Emergency Management Agency, still reeling from perceptions of ineptitude in the response to Hurricane Katrina and other events, to underwrite a study of how planners could better incorporate hazard mitigation as a priority throughout the local planning process. The result, Hazard Mitigation: Incorporating Best Practices into Planning, has had a growing impact on community planning since its release in 2010. It had been truly heartbreaking to see communities so poorly prepared for natural disasters that more than 1,800 Americans lost their lives in Mississippi and Louisiana as a result of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. We could do something to change that. FEMA has since then incorporated this concept of integration into a variety of guidance, and so has the State of Colorado. Things are changing.

Scene on the New Jersey shore after Hurricane Sandy, February 2013

We also in 2010 persuaded FEMA to underwrite another project that would rewrite our 1998 guidance on planning for post-disaster recovery, and the result in late 2014 was not only another Planning Advisory Service Report, Planning for Post-Disaster Recovery: Next Generation, but a substantial collection of online resources to supplement that report. Among the key recommendations for communities was the idea of planning ahead of disasters for major policy decisions that would govern the post-disaster recovery planning process so as to expedite wise decision making. That project has also proven highly influential.

Throughout this all, the growing impact of climate change was making itself evident. This is not just a matter of jobs. It is a matter of whether our President believes in making his own nation, his own citizens, safe in the face of natural disasters that, in many cases, can be made worse by climate change. This is not just a matter of sea level rise increasing the impact of storm surges produced by tropical storms. It is also a matter of increased susceptibility to prolonged drought in many parts of the U.S., and increased susceptibility to wildfire, as well as more extreme high-precipitation events that can exacerbate urban and riverine flooding. That is why APA and the Association of State Floodplain Managers, in a Regional Coastal Resilience grant project supported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is working with pilot communities on both the East Coast and the Great Lakes. The Great Lakes do not experience rising sea levels, but they do experience fluctuating lake levels and greater weather extremes that can raise the costs of natural disasters in coming decades.

All that brings us back to the President’s admittedly alliterative statement that he was putting Pittsburgh ahead of Paris. That’s a nice sound bite, but it makes no sense. For one thing, Pittsburgh voters no longer look to coal and steel mills to secure their economic future. For the past 30 years, Pittsburgh has moved ahead with a new economic vision based on industries of the future. Almost surely, that was the reason Hillary Clinton won 75 percent of the vote in Pittsburgh last year, although Trump won Pennsylvania by a narrow margin, racking up most of his victory in rural areas. Pittsburgh’s economic growth model may not be perfect (what big city is?), but it is better than most. And it certainly is not tied to President Trump’s retreat from progress on climate change.

Nowhere in the administration message did I hear any acknowledgment of the job growth that is tied to our leadership on climate change, and the opportunities that may be sacrificed to the President’s flawed analysis of who is supposedly laughing at us. Technological and scientific leadership have been the lifeblood of America’s prosperity. We are now retreating from that prospect at what may be a high cost in the future unless we turn this ship around again. Nowhere did I hear any acknowledgment of the cost to communities in lost life and property safety as a result of ignoring warnings about the impacts of climate change.

On one level, the priorities for which I have worked for the last 25 years may not matter much in terms of my resentment at seeing so much of this work seemingly undone on the day after my retirement from APA. Trump also may ultimately have far less impact on the subject than he intends. But on another level, I was just one more contributor to a great push by millions of Americans toward that safer, more prosperous future that remains possible despite this grand presidential blunder. Maybe the Nicaraguans, who are not part of the Paris accord, are right—we should do far more, not less. But we certainly should not be following the lead of President Trump. He has dramatically gotten it all wrong, and we must all say so as forcefully as we can.


Jim Schwab

Steel and Modern America

DSCF3007Let’s cut to the chase. If you have a relative on your gift list who loves the nooks and crannies of history, particularly those less well-known details behind the reality of the modern world, may I offer a suggestion? This suggestion emanates in part from the simple fact that I am a lover of history, an avid scholar of the factors that have influenced the shape and size of modern American cities—I am, after all, an urban planner—and the fact that I simply love good writing. I am, after all, also a trained professional journalist. Steel, a wonderful book by Brooke C. Stoddard, a veteran writer and former editor at Time/Life and National Geographic Books, has the kind of grand scope and vision that can fascinate the reader in your family who has an endless curiosity about the world.

Or maybe that person is you. In that case I am either helping you figure out what to ask someone else to give you, or you can just go get it. And while I think e-books are wonderful, this is one case where I highly recommend getting the hardcover, in part so that you can sit back with that tactile feel of a real book in your hands and admire the copious color illustrations that accompany some splendid writing. Stoddard is a marvelous story-teller, but the photographs do the text more than ample justice.

Steel production was part of my own background growing up in suburban Cleveland. My father was a truck mechanic in a chemical factory, and I spent three summers there working my way through college. Chemical production fed other industries, including steel, in numerous ways. Antimony, for instance, is used in electroplating, which bonds paint to the steel frames of cars, and Cleveland grew on both steel and auto manufacturing, and there was a powerful symbiosis between all of them in an industrial ecosystem that employed tens of thousands. Steel was at the core of the growth of many Midwestern and eastern cities from Baltimore to Pittsburgh to Cleveland to Chicago. My story is at most tangential, but I learned what rough work it could all be. I even broke an ankle that first summer before starting college when the dome of an antimony kiln tipped over and trapped my leg. Such places were not necessarily for the faint of heart. I recovered, of course, and learned.

But learning from such immediacy to industry and taking in the grand sweep of its growth over time are two very different things. Writing industrial history can also be a labor of love, the financial rewards from book sales not always seeming to equal the toil involved in assembling detailed stories spanning centuries. I have read a few of these books in the past: for example, Uncommon Grounds by Mark Pendergrast, about the coffee industry, also a fine book. These are really stories to some extent about the evolution of human society in modern times, and how particular products changed our cities and whole nations. But few are as central to who we are today, and what our cities have become, than the steel industry. In more ways than almost any other industry, steel has been the game changer of human history.

And like most, it started from small things that turned into larger things that eventually turned into huge things. Stoddard takes us all the way back to the Stone Age and the descent from space of iron meteorites to explain the origins of the human relationship with the element that is the basis of steel before engagingly slow-walking us through human discoveries of the various alloys and their relative strengths and advantages for both peaceful and military uses over the first few millennia of human civilization. Empires like that of the Hittites grew, for example, on the advantage of iron over bronze, and of better ways of making steel instead of cast or wrought iron. The Romans gained iron works in Iberia from the Carthaginians and then added the refinement of tempering to improve the quality of the metals they used. Just as in modern times, military success was often fed by industrial success, which also meant that a nation of inventors gained huge advantages over its neighbors and competitors. And that’s all in the first chapter.

Stoddard’s second chapter pulls us into the industrial age, starting with British refinements in the use of coal to improve steel alloys, which depend on the right proportion of carbon to harden the iron in steel to produce the metals we rely upon today. German industrialists added their own refinements, but American steel makers like Andrew Carnegie burst onto the scene in the late 1800s to create enormous gains in the scale of production, coupled with the ready access of iron ore discovered in the Iron Range of northern Minnesota. In a matter of decades, the United States moved into a steelmaking category that dwarfed all others. It is, as most know, a history of ruthless men, but also of the uniquely philanthropic aspirations of a few like Carnegie. Labor and industry were often locked in mortal combat. For all his hard-bitten ambition, Stoddard notes, the U.S. could have done far worse than to have its industry transformed by a man who ultimately gave away more than 90 percent of his wealth to support charities like community libraries and concert halls rather than creating one massive family dynasty.

Here I must veer off on a small tangent. Carnegie helped nurture the career of a protégé named Charles Schwab, who first helped engineer the sale of Carnegie’s business to form the dominant U.S. Steel Corp., and later became the president of the competing Bethlehem Steel, which built the huge Sparrow Works in Baltimore. More than a quarter-century younger than Carnegie, Schwab, who functioned into the 1920s, was far more prone to flaunt his wealth, building a huge mansion in Manhattan that he later found nearly impossible to sell during hard times. Stoddard reveals that Schwab, despite his German ancestry, made a fortune providing steel for submarines and other military purposes to the United Kingdom in World War I well before American entry into the war, even at times when the official American position was neutrality. One favorite tactic was to ship the parts to Canada, where they could easily be assembled into submarines before being transferred to the British Navy.

My father, born in 1917 during that war and coming of age in the 1930s, tried after Pearl Harbor to join the U.S. armed forces, but was rejected for medical reasons. It turned out he suffered from appendicitis, which was remedied through surgery by a civilian doctor, and he spent the war years in New York City working in the steel mills.

His name was Charles Schwab. He used to joke that some people who did not know him thought that perhaps he was a close relative of the big guy and was learning the business from the bottom up. Nothing could have been farther from the truth. He was simply another blue-collar working stiff. He did have a rich uncle who sold uniforms to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, but that is another story, one that never benefited him directly. Curiously, that was not his only brush with fame, for later in life he had to contend with Charles Schwab the broker. Well into retirement, tired of taking phone calls from misguided investors, he and my mother put the household phone in her name, and the errant calls ceased to find him. He was not related to that Charles Schwab, either. But when asked, I can at least say with a straight face that Charles Schwab was my father.

But back to the book. Without drilling down into all the magnificent details that Stoddard provides, the second part paints a portrait of what makes the steel industry function as a whole, starting with vivid descriptions of the iron ore barges that sail the Great Lakes, some of which are larger than the Titanic and the Queen Mary, yet get far less attention because they do not cross the oceans. After visiting the Iron Range, he boards one of those freighters in Superior, Wisconsin, and stays aboard across Lake Superior, the volatile lake whose nasty storm in 1975 swallowed the Edmund Fitzgerald, the subject of a doleful hit folk song a year later by Gordon Lightfoot. He stays with the crew as they transit Lake Huron and Lake Erie to Cleveland, where they finally unload their cargo of thousands of tons of iron ore pellets. Along the way, we learn about the modern amenities aboard such ships, and the challenges both they and their crews face, including fitting such huge vessels through narrow locks between the lakes or braving lake effect storms. It is a world few of us imagine or even try to think about. But it is a world that makes our world possible. Without steel, we have no modern skyscrapers creating the skyline of cities like New York and Chicago. Without steel, many of our modern appliances and conveniences simply are not possible. Without steel, our cities look like very different places. Just take a look at photos and drawings of American and European cities in the mid-19th century. Just imagine building railroads and mass transit without steel.

And so the book presses on—I won’t ruin the anticipation, except to say that eventually, as he must, Stoddard leads us to the decline of the monsters of steel on the American industrial scene, due more to lack of innovation than lack of resources. Former giants of urban steel making disappeared from older industrial cities like Pittsburgh and Cleveland. Other, more nimble, firms like Arcelor Mittal have moved to the forefront in recent decades, and Stoddard tells us why in a closing chapter titled, “Exeunt the American Gods.” The changes that have been wrought in our major cities are not for the faint of heart. Once again, in the cycle of history, steel manufacturing has changed, and the old days will not return. But steel will continue to change our lives.

Steel: From Mine to Mill, the Metal that Made America. Brooke C. Stoddard. Zenith Press. 304 pp.


Jim Schwab