Sunday, October 3, 2010

Technology's Impact on the Land

We just returned from a week's trip to the Maine coast. This morning, we drove down the Hudson River Valley from Fishkill, New York, past the Manhattan skyline, and down the New Jersey Turnpike (it's always best to do this on a Sunday morning).

Coincidentally, I have been reading T.J. Stiles' recent biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt, "The First Tycoon."  Vanderbilt made his first fortune in steamboats and his second in railroads.  Vanderbilt first operated ferries that plied the waters between his home on Staten Island and the docks of Manhattan.  To say he led a colorful life would be an understatement.

When young Vanderbilt lived in the same environs that we drove through today, New York City had a rapidly-growing population of 40,000 people.  Staten Island was a farming community that sent produce to market across the river to New York City.  Getting from Manhattan to Philadelphia was an arduous journey that required a steam ferry, a long stagecoach ride across New Jersey, and a second steamboat trip down the Delaware. It took 12 hours... on a good day.

As I looked at the acres of freeways, the towering skeletons of ship gantries on the shores of Staten Island, the smokestacks of chemical plants and oil refineries, and the miles of dilapidated housing, I couldn't help wondering if the rise of technology has been worth it?  Have we lost our way somewhere and raced right past the Point of No Return as we built our cities and industries?

What would Vanderbilt have thought if he could see his old haunts today?  I'm not sure. Maybe he would have been fine with it.  He was first and foremost a ruthless businessman.  Vanderbilt had no problem spoiling the natural beauty and resources of his own day to make a buck.   But I wonder if the sheer scale of the change would set even Commodore Vanderbilt back a bit?  Would he see this as some scene out of a future run amok, even for someone as rapacious as he was himself?

Cornelius Vanderbilt
T.J. Stiles relates a very interesting moment in Vanderbilt's life. When Vanderbilt was middle-aged, he became desperately ill with what was thought was either pneumonia or pleurisy.  His doctor told him point blank that he should get his affairs in order because he wouldn't survive.  Vanderbilt called his family together and spoke to them from what he thought was his death bed.  One of his family later recalled his words:  "Don't be too anxious to make money, there is enough for all of you."  When the chips were down, Vanderbilt could see that the pursuit of wealth was not the most important thing even in his life.

Miraculously, Vanderbilt recovered from his pneumonia. Deathbed insights don't always stick.  He went on to become an even more hardened and calloused tycoon who took the greatest pleasure in crushing all who stood in his path.    Vanderbilt's world, the world centered on New York City, was changing forever.  It keeps on changing, of course.  Maybe the changes that come in the future will actually be more positive because there is nothing left to build on unless the old and the ugly is torn down first.  I hope that the result is not only functional and profitable, but also something that doesn't deaden the soul to look upon.

Vanderbilt lived in the days when most Americans believed in unlimited natural resources.  Thomas Jefferson thought it would take centuries to exploit all the riches of the continent. Instead, it took just over one.  We seem to learn most lessons, even the lesson of blighting the land, the hard way.  I would like to think we are at least gaining a little wisdom as we continue to mature as a nation.

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