Saturday, January 14, 2017

Blacksmiths and Artisanal Coal

Click for photo credit.
The electric blue arc light spiked the January sky as I watched it from the dining room in our small home in rural Wisconsin in the late 1960's. A block away, men working in a metal working shop were busy welding farm equipment. The shop also had a small blacksmith business and I could hear the ping ping ping in the cold December evening as the men worked. The sound reminded me of the sound we made as we used a heavy metal spike to break holes in deep layers of ice on nearby lakes for ice fishing.

The welders repaired farm equipment and the smithies turned rods of metal into useful tools and ornaments. The shop seemed in place in the mid 1960's but was gone by the 1970's as farm tools and supplies became consumer goods. We didn't repair as many things as *stuff* took over our lives.

Click for photo credit.
Looking down lists of professions by decade in the 1900's, it is easy to demonstrate that blacksmiths were much more common just a handful of decades ago. Many high schools had blacksmith lessons in shop classes. Like cell phone stores or the video rental stores before them, blacksmiths were found everywhere. People needed smithies to fashion tools, nails, farm equipment, and horse shoes. We were much less likely to throw away things since it was much harder and expensive to make things back then. We fixed things. If we wanted a tool repaired, we went to a blacksmith. Look around your town. Where were your blacksmiths? In New York City, there were dozens and dozens of them before the advent of the car--and the car changed everything.

A Model T in South Carolina. Click for photo credit.
When the car started to gain popularity in the early 1900's many labor and industry groups protested. Carriage makers, urban stable workers, and blacksmiths all fought against the use of cars in cities and on roads. They were rightly worried about their jobs and the future of their industries. We know how that story ended.

To many, the newfangled vehicles were seen as an elitist form of transport that did tremendous damage to the landscape. Many rural communities plowed roads to try to prevent them from penetrating into their domain. Yet, the car persisted. The American landscape changed as roads snaked across the continent.

As the roads intruded with the advent of the Fordist mass production of cars, the blacksmiths disappeared because of the loss of the horse as a the major energy force of transportation. Once industrialists recognized that cars could be mass produced, soon everything was made inexpensively using assembly line technology. Blacksmiths were a thing of the past.

Sort of.

Click for photo credit.
There are still blacksmiths in our midst. They are artisans who carry on traditions and who make tools and decorative objects using techniques that developed over generations. Our great grandparents might not have looked at their local blacksmiths as artisans, but we do since the craft is seen as a hobby or an artistic enterprise.

Click for photo credit.
Today, like blacksmiths a few generations ago, workers in coal are worried about their jobs and their industries as we transition to renewable and cleaner forms of energy. I am truly sympathetic to their situation. However, the coal industry over the last 20 years has employed fewer and fewer people. Extracting coal has become more mechanized. The industry has changed. At the same time the popularity of coal is waning. As a result, there is a social and employment crisis in coal producing areas. It seems as if the future is dim in coal and coal regions. The situation, except for its geographic distinctiveness, is somewhat similar to what happened to the blacksmith trade. 

Coal will always have a place in the energy portfolio of the United States. We have great reserves of it. We could use it for decades and never run out. Yet we are quickly going though a technological revolution that is moving us to much cleaner energy sources. Right now, coal regions need a new economic model that isn't reliant solely on extractive activities. We are approaching a time when coal production will be seen as a quaint artisanal activity of the past. The sooner we come to terms with this situation, the better off we will be.

No comments: