Driven to the Past: History in a Changing Climate
Keynote address at "With Power for All: Energy and Social Change in Massachusetts"
Mass. History Conference
June 8, 2009
College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, MA
PART I: BEEPING
PART II: DRIVING IN TWO DIRECTIONS AT ONCE
PART III: IMPLICATIONS
These contradictions have a long history in modern culture, particularly in America. We like to go forward, and to imagine ourselves always moving toward a better life. We don't like to go backward, especially if we feel we're being forced backward. At the same time, we know perfectly well that these changes usually entail at least as many losses as gains, and that we have a long track record of embracing technologies and policies without necessarily thinking as hard as we might about their long-term consequences. That was certainly the case with the automobile, which started out largely as a rich man's toy but which was quickly seen as an answer to many social needs. Much of the infrastructure of automobility has its roots in well-meaning attempts to make life better for someone. For example, Henry Ford and the first builders of long-distance highways were ironically trying to keep more people on their farms, which they thought could be done by overcoming some of the isolation of rural life and making it easier for farmers to bring their goods to markets.
There have always been voices of caution and acts of resistance against car culture--for example, Albert Clough, editor of an early car magazine, wrote a prescient article in 1910 about the short-sightedness of adopting gasoline as the primary fuel for cars. Clough noted, "There is a large number of conscientious people who have a horror of waste who are pained to see any of the natural resources which are a part of the birthright of the race carelessly thrown away, and who are willing to take pains that posterity not be robbed by their carelessness." But those conscientious people, and others who have protested the continual expansion of automotive infrastructure, have always struggled, first against the seductive novelty of cars and then against the fact that most of our world is now set up to accommodate and encourage them.
Most of all, of course, they were struggling against the appeal of automobility. A hundred years after the first Model Ts came off Henry Ford's assembly line, we're still having the same debates and trying to reconcile the same tensions between our love of technological fixes and our belief in progress on the one hand and, on the other, our awareness that the life we've created for ourselves is unsustainable at best, if not outright suicidal. In this case, it may not be the long-term consequences of the new or green technologies that we ought to be worried about, but rather, the rush to embrace them without also doing the much harder hard work of changing the everyday habits and patterns that have led to the need for those cleaner technologies in the first place.
Americans have a long history of attempting to have it both ways. Early advertisements and labels from New England's textile industry frequently showed the marvels of manufacturing, but always in such a way that the machine and the garden didn't appear to be incompatible.  It's a theme that has continually reappeared in American advertising, as recently as Toyota's newest Prius ad campaign, which promises more power for the driver along with "Harmony between man, nature and machine," all under the tag line, "Moving forward." And it isn't just ads that try to reconcile the two sides of this equation. In important ways, this is exactly what our historic sites and projects do as well.
The Sharon Welcome Center is a particularly striking instance of a place that's trying to be clean, green, and resonant with cultural and historical meanings without in any way challenging the automobility on which the state's tourism economy depends. But essentially the same thing happens, in more subtle ways, in many more traditional historical projects. Many of us--as visitors, volunteers, and workers--are driven to the past in search of a space for reflection or respite from the fast pace and demands of everyday contemporary life. But most of us drive there--literally, and conveniently--in our cars. We don't deeply alter our everyday patterns of doing things even when we're spending our time in historic environments. And that means that these contemplative or reflective places are tightly embedded in the networks of automobility and petroleum consumption that permeate our culture. We can see this at a place like Henry Ford's Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan, which lovingly preserved a way of living that Ford's own products were helping to change so drastically. Like most historic sites, The Henry Ford (as the complex is now known) does not envision that its visitors will be arriving in any other way except by car. Its maps and directions all relate to the web of Interstates that surround Dearborn. And this leads me to one possibility for using historic sites to challenge automobility even in a minor way. What if your website and brochure included not only driving directions, but also how to reach the site by foot, bicycle, and public transportation? It's a small thing, but it makes a statement that we don't just take car travel for granted and that we wish there were other, less inconvenient alternatives.
I'm always particularly struck by the car/non-car relationship at Minute Man National Historic Park, where the National Park Service has been working for decades to "restore" a landscape reminiscent of 1775 along a five-mile stretch of Lincoln and Lexington. This "Battle Road" segment of the park is now a wonderfully peaceful landscape with farmers' fields, colonial-era buildings, and dirt paths where you can walk or bike away from the traffic of nearby Route 2A. It's peaceful, that is, until you get to the far eastern end of the Battle Road, where the restored landscape dead-ends against the eight lanes of Route 128.
Between the 1930s and the 1950s, Route 128 was expanded into a limited-access Interstate highway and and quickly became a hub for the region's emerging high-tech economy. In the same period, preservationists successfully lobbied for the creation of a national park, not only to commemorate the beginning of the American Revolution but also to act as a kind of firewall against development pressures largely spurred by the expansion of the highway. The bucolic park and the busy Interstate appear to be polar opposites, but I see them more as twins separated at birth. Route 128 went from being a small regional road to a space of pure automobility, while the park is a space entirely reclaimed from automobile traffic. In terms of their origins and functions, though, they are two sides of the same coin. The people and towns that (mostly) welcomed the creation of the park as a way to keep growth in check are anything but separate from the region's "new economy"; they use the highways and airports, work in the universities and technology companies, and live the suburban lifestyle that characterizes the area around the city. When they use the park, they often arrive by automobile. Like the Sharon Welcome Center, the restored landscape of the Battle Road is a way to keep the noisy realities of hyper-mobile world at a distance without actually challenging it directly.
Now that I've started really noticing everyday car use in relation to historic sites and practices, I see it everywhere. For instance, a couple of weeks ago I attended a meeting of the Blackstone River Valley Heritage Corridor Commission in Upton, Mass. at which there was lengthy discussion about progress on the bike path that's supposed to run along the length of the corridor from Worcester to Providence. Bike paths are of course one of the ways that people do try to counter the dominance of the automobile, but we're a long way from having them integrated fully into the way we do business. After the heritage corridor meeting, I watched commissioner after commissioner getting into their individual cars and driving away; no one (including me) was actually riding a bicycle, and I suspect that this pattern holds true for most of us at this meeting today as well.
I saw the same thing in myself only yesterday, when I drove 20 miles to Greenfield and back to go to an open house at the new home of the Museum of Our Industrial Heritage. I assuaged my conscience somewhat by combining it with a shopping trip and by burning vegetable oil as fuel most of the way there and back. But if I hadn't been working on this talk, I probably wouldn't have noticed that I never seriously stopped to question whether I should go or not. I still take my own automobility largely for granted, even after all the time I've spent thinking about it. And that tells me something about myself and about the real difficulty of moving away from these deeply-ingrained everyday habits that intersect with our experiences of historic sites on so many levels.
All of this leaves me with more questions than answers at this point, so I want to finish just by posing a few of them. When we use historic sites to talk about energy technologies, how can we avoid the "gee-whiz" response that just replicates our patterns of trusting technological fixes to get us out of every difficulty? How might we model and reward other modes of transportation besides the car? Can we find ways to talk about how our taken-for-granted expectations got to be so taken-for-granted? And perhaps most crucial, what can we do to help people come to terms in a positive way with the idea that in order to make real social change around our habits of energy use, we are simply going to have to use and consume less? Can we frame it not as going backward--or being driven to the past unwillingly--but rather as what some people have called a "controlled energy descent," or "powering down" from our present energy-intensive habits? Doing that will mean talking about what might be gained as well as what will inevitably be lost in changing our habits on a fundamental level, and being forthright about how hard it often is to do.
When I think about this question of whether we're going forward or backward--or both--I keep finding myself reminded of Walter Benjamin's vision of the angel of history.  Benjamin pictured this angel facing back toward the past while being blown forward into the future with its wings stretched out, looking down at the wreckage piling up at its feet from what we think of as "progress." Lately I've been imagining this angel beeping as it's blowing backwards. Amazingly, it looks as though the actual beeping in my neighborhood may be almost over. The construction crews came and paved the street and rebuilt the sidewalks last week, and there are signs that the whole project may be finished by the time it gets warm enough that I have to open my windows. But I'm trying to hold their presence in my mind, because it reminds me of what is ordinarily paved over, and of all those everyday things we're going to need to change--or at the very least, to become much more aware of--if we're really going to reinvent our petroleum-dependent society. Unless we can somehow come to terms with automobility and everything that goes along with it, we haven't really made social change or challenged the underlying patterns that have gotten us to where we are now, with a warming planet and an alarm sounding outside all our windows.
PART I: BEEPING
PART II: DRIVING IN TWO DIRECTIONS AT ONCE
 Lewis, Tom, Divided Highways: Building the Interstate Highways, Transforming American Life (New York: Viking, 1997), p. 8; McCarthy, Auto Mania, p. 31. (Return to text)
 McCarthy, Auto Mania, p. 204.(Return to text)
 For a discussion of this, see Wright, Helena A., "Selling an Image: Views of Lowell 1825-1876" in Robert Weible and Francis R. Walsh, eds., The Popular Perception of Industrial History (Lanham, MD: American Association for State and Local History, 1989), pp. 141-63. The notion of "the machine in the garden" comes from Leo Marx (The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America [New York: Oxford University Press, 1964]). (Return to text)
 Benjamin, Walter, Thesis IX, "Theses on the Philosphy of History" (1940). (Return to text)