"The Nine Nations"

This is Chapter Two  – “The Nine Nations” – of “The Nine Nations of North America” by Joel Garreau, as published by Houghton Mifflin in May, 1981.

“New Stuff” regarding Nine Nations can be found at http://garreau.com/main.cfm?action=book&id=3



FORGET the pious wisdom you've been handed about North America.

Forget about the borders dividing the United States, Canada, and Mexico, those pale barriers so thoroughly porous to money, immigrants, and ideas.

Forget the bilge you were taught in sixth-grade geography about East and West, North and South, faint echoes of glorious pasts that never really existed save in sanitized textbooks.

Forget the maze of state and provincial boundaries, those historical accidents and surveyors' mistakes. The reason no one except the trivia expert can name all fifty of the United States is that they hardly matter.

Forget the political almanacs full of useless data on local elections rendered meaningless by strangely carved districts and precincts.

Consider, instead, the way North America really works. It is Nine Nations. Each has its capital and its distinctive web of power and influence. A few are allies, but many are adversaries. Several have readily acknowledged national poets, and many have characteristic dialects and mannerisms. Some are close to being raw frontiers; others have four centuries of history. Each has a peculiar economy; each commands a certain emotional allegiance from its citizens. These nations look different, feel different, and sound different from each other, and few of their boundaries match the political lines drawn on current maps. Some are clearly divided topographically by mountains, deserts, and rivers.  Others are separated by architecture, music, language, and ways of making a living.  Each nation has its own list of desires.  Each nation knows how it plans to get what it needs from whoever’s got it.

Most important, each nation has a distinct prism through which it views the world.

The Foundry, the declining industrial nation of the Northeast, for example, still tends to see the other eight nations as subservient, as the tribute-paying colonies they once were.  It views itself as the “real” center of power in the continent, shrugging off the inexorable slide of population and ambitions to other places as temporary aberrations susceptible to some quick fix, to some new “program.”

Viewed from the emerging nation of Dixie, however, the Foundry is a different place.  Dixie, which has traded populations and histories with the Northeast for over a century, sees the Foundry as a collection of mistakes to be avoided as wealth flows south.  To Dixie, the Foundry is the smell of the New Jersey Turnpike through Elizabeth; the question of the moment is whether that odor must soon permeate North Carolina and Louisiana, too.

Yet, the northern Pacific Rim nation of Ecotopia views the Foundry in yet another way – as irrelevant.  Even quaint Foundry-like unemployment and recession are simply not overwhelming concerns in the Pacific Northwest, which is developing the industries of the twenty-first century: lightweight alloys, computer chips, and ways to use them that are still in the future.  The Foundry, on the other hand, is tied to Europe and thinks that the rest of the continent should be.  The mistakes Ecotopia fears it may repeat are not those of the Foundry, but those of the boom towns of dry, sunny MexAmerica.  If Ecotopia feels kin to any of the Nine Nations, it is to New England, from which so many of the Pacific Northwest’s original settlers came, and with which so many of its successful social patterns are traded.

Each of these Nine Nations has a different future.  Some are energy self-sufficient or exporting; most are desperate for oil.  Some are chronically damp; to others, water is the primary concern, without which no future is thinkable.  These nations attract different kinds of inhabitants – the assembly line or farm around which one person can build a life, another person may find supremely maddening.

It's valuable to recognize these divergent realities. The layers of unifying flavor and substances that define these nations help explain the major storms and excursions through which our public affairs pass.

Studying them is certainly far more constructive than examining misleading ideas, such as "Colorado."

Colorado is clearly two different places: the eastern half, which is flat, fertile agricultural land, and the western half, which rises dramatically in the suburbs of Denver to become the Rocky Mountains. Back when there were few people to speak of in the territory and it didn't make much difference, "Colorado" was boxed off into a neat, perfect rectangle, and now the idea it represents has been around long enough to become self-perpetuating. People speak and think of Colorado as one identifiable place, despite abundant evidence to the contrary and for little better reason than that their fathers did it that way. That does not, however, make the idea useful.

Take the farm protest movement that in the late seventies resulted in thousands of tractors blocking the traffic of downtown Washington, D.C. It was born of a frustration that spoke of parity and adverse farm prices, but it went far deeper. Actually, it was a cry declaring that no one cared about the farmers' problems; no one acknowledged the importance of the farmers' existence; no one was listening. That frustration did not first manifest itself in the heartland of Iowa or Nebraska. The American Agriculture Movement was born in the wheat fields of eastern Colorado. That's not much of a surprise. If any farmer was likely to be mad as hell, it would be he who sent his taxes to Denver, despite that capital's obvious interest in loosening its agrarian ties. Denver's great pride today is its shedding of the label "cowtown." As Denver flourishes (it's been called the nesting place of the forty story crane), it clearly cares less and less about wheat. Denver sees its future in the oil, coal, gas, uranium, copper, molybdenum, and snow to its mountainous, winter scoured west. Denver is the capital of, and the staging area for the assault on, the Empty Quarter - the most mineral-rich of the Nine Nations. The irrigated farm country to its east is rightfully part of a completely different nation - the Breadbasket.

"California" is an even worse idea than Colorado.

The Empty Quarter's attitude toward the Breadbasket is cordial inattention. The two Pacific nations that divide California by contrast, are openly antagonistic. They're as antithetical as sunshine and rain.

The problem is simply stated: the thin strip of the Pacific shore along the Coast and Cascade Mountain ranges from Northern California to southern Alaska is the only place in the West with enough water. Everything else for a thousand miles in any direction is basically desert. It's no wonder that essentially different civilizations have grown up on the Pacific coast as a result.

The metropolises of MexAmerica, for example - adored for their dry, sunny climes - are designed like fragile moon bases. All the essentials to support life - water, power, and even breathable air - are imported from someplace else a long way away. Power for the air conditioners of Los Angeles is sucked in from as far as Utah and Arizona. By buying electricity generated at such great distance, Los Angeles also effectively exports its pollution to these distant outposts, which is a way of importing clean air. For that matter, the smog of the Southern California coast is occasionally scoured by a "gift" of the desert to the east. The hot, violent Santa Ana winds surge over the mountains to make the cities sparkle, at the same time as they shrivel the chaparral to the explosive brush fire stage.

But most important is water. "You can make gasoline out of cow manure if you have to," points out the western grower. "But you can't make water." Every developmental decision here - be it the growth of homes, industry, or agriculture - is based on the availability of water. Tucson is depending on water pumped over the Rocky Mountains and through manmade concrete riverbeds in the sand. San Diego depends on the Colorado River, also pumped over mountains. The unmatchable vegetable harvests of central California's San Joaquin Valley are absolutely dependent on water imported from the north. The whole civilization is based on engineering ingenuity of the first order.

There are several ways of looking at this.

In MexAmerica, such ingenuity is both father and child to a sense of the miraculous. A discussion of "limits" doesn't ring true here. After all, seven million people demonstrably can live in a Los Angeles Basin, which God saw fit to endow with the resources to support only two hundred thousand. If the difference is a man-made miracle, why stop at this point? The only real limits, it would appear, are those imposed by an inability to dream. Look at the wealth here. Look at the abundance and quality of the food. Look at the property values! This is obviously where people want to be and where people will continue to want to be. We've never let nature stand in the way of building canyon bungalows and sowing plains of rutabagas before. Why start now? In fact, there are serious men in these deserts who even propose diverting the waters of the Yukon River to further their sun-ripened visions of a rich tomorrow.

On the other side, of course, are those who think this is all patently insane, if not blasphemous. Chief among them are Northern Californians and other residents of Ecotopia who like their part of the world just fine the way it is. They worship different gods from those of their neighbors. They certainly have no reverence for the dams, channels, and diversions that would seize their assets and dump them into the unquenchable maw to the south. The forests of the Pacific Northwest are sufficiently blessed with resources to inspire thoughts of husbanding what exists, where it exists, in order to make it last forever. The implication is that others should consider doing the same.

Thus, in MexAmerica, the idea of a freshwater supply flowing unchecked into the sea is considered a crime against nature - a sin. In Ecotopia, leaving a river wild and free is viewed as a blow struck for God's original plan for the land. Along such faiths are divergent social arrangements made. San Francisco and Los Angeles are not just two cities. They represent two value structures. Indeed, they are the capitals of two different nations - Los Angeles the capital of MexAmerica, and San Francisco that of Ecotopia. So viewed, Sacramento becomes less the capital of anything terribly important than it is merely a border town between hostile forces.

So it goes, across the map. State legislators in Virginia correctly perceive any idea conceived north of the Rappahannock River, in the wealthy suburbs of Washington, D.C., as foreign and suspect. Most of Virginia is part of Dixie, where tax money, characteristically, is spent strictly on roads and schools, and sometimes not all that much on schools. Northern Virginians, with their ideas about social services and mass transit, obviously are not part of this tradition. They're Yankees. Northern Virginia is part, not of Dixie, but of the Foundry.

Chicago is not a capital city, because there is no such thing as the "Midwest." Chicago is properly an important border metropolis directing the trade in values and enterprise between the Foundry and the Breadbasket. Its hybrid status explains why it gets along so poorly in a political way with the rest of Illinois.

Canada, which is little save moose, Aleuts, and energy wealth north of the allegedly temperate strip along its border with the United States, has migraines about losing its "identity." It shouldn't. Apart from French-speaking Québec, which is properly a nation unto itself, Canada shares five perfectly respectable and different identities with the northern United States.

Of course, the oil-rich "sheikdom" of Alberta defies Ottawa. Economically and philosophically, Calgary is far more kin to Fairbanks, Salt Lake City, or Denver than it is to Ottawa. It's part of the Empty Quarter. By the same token, the grain belt of the north, centered on Winnipeg, is visibly and temperamentally part of the Breadbasket. The industries of Windsor, Toronto, and Ottawa are part of the Foundry. Vancouver shares far more with Seattle than it does with Halifax, Nova Scotia. And the poor but proud Maritimes are in the same boat as New England.

These realities should come as no more of a shock than that South Florida is not part of any Confederate dream. Miami, after all, is now less a tourist mecca for the pasty-fleshed than it is the trade and intrigue capital of that Caribbean nation, the Islands.

Yet the existence of interstate highways, dense air connections, cheap long-distance rates, ubiquitous television, and the celebrated franchised hamburger has lulled many, incorrectly, into some sense that North America has become utterly homogenized, if not bland.

Granted, some cherished old regional idiosyncrasies have disappeared since World War II - widespread starvation in the South, for example. But focusing on certain absorbed folkways is to ignore what has been dispersed: power. Power, money, thought, talent, information, resources, and population. What's been happening for the past few decades is that North America has been maturing. Houston, Kansas City, and Atlanta, for example, only twenty years ago were crossroads not even their Chambers of Commerce could love. Now they're world-class cities.

Malarial East Texas became a technologically plausible alternative to New York City, for example, only in the 1960s.  Shell Oil didn't dream of leaving Manhattan for Houston until it became thinkable to air-condition an employee's entire life - home, office, automobile, parking garage, shopping center, redneck bar, bedomed baseball stadium. Now, not only is Houston the world headquarters of oil, but the number of foreign banks there rose from six to forty-five in the last six years of the 1970s, with as many as twenty more expected in the very near term.

In 1972, the Soviet Union demonstrated that the North American Breadbasket could have as much strategic world importance as the Middle East by secretly contracting for massive, bargain-priced grain imports. When this happened, Kansas City proved to have better global sources of information and communication than did Washington, D.C. Washington got the first detailed reports on the "great grain robbery" - which rocked the U.S. economy, driving up food prices - by reading Milling and Baking News, the Kansas City weekly that had the scoop.

And Atlanta, in 1976, demonstrated conclusively that it had acquired a critical mass of financial, political, and media expertise. That's the year it propelled a former state governor, more unknown than which few were, into the presidency of the United States.

The significance of the evolution of these cities is that their regions and peoples are gaining sophistication, too. Twenty years ago, if you were young, smart, ambitious, and from Des Moines, you fled to the bright lights of Chicago, if not New York, at your earliest opportunity. Getting out was of prime importance. The action was elsewhere; the opportunities to test your mettle were in some more glamorous site.

Today, abandoning Iowa at a tender age is not an indefensible action, but it's no longer an inevitable one. As one farmer put it, "In the old days, if you weren't smart enough to get a job in the city, you could always farm. Today, if you're not smart enough to farm, you can always get a job in the city."

In Sioux City, which is proud of the fact that it recently got the stockyards to move the block-long hill of manure that used to dominate the view of the city from the south, I chatted with two young men who had seen the light. Both had left Iowa in their teens, vowing never to return. But each came to the conclusion that the action was back home. The twenty-six-year-old was a commodities futures speculator who'd plowed some of his gains into a full-sized luxury sedan with a tiltable steering wheel in which he looked a little odd - as if both the car and the job would fit him better if he had either thirty pounds more paunch or thirty more years of age. A similar sense of the incongruous was offered by his friend, the corporate officer in a grain-trading outfit. He was twenty-five.

This new maturity is more obvious to regions flexing their new-found muscle than it is to older power centers reluctant to think of the rest of the continent as anything but a collection of branch offices.

"The [rest of the United States] is lagging so far behind us," says Walter Hoadley, chief economist of the Bank of America, the major financial institution of the West. "We're backing into a tremendous period of growth in the nineteen eighties out here. The West has a lot of potential resources and a dynamism which simply doesn't exist back east."

Similarly, the 1980s will be the decade in which majority control of the U.S. House of Representatives will pass out of the hands of New England, the Foundry, and the Breadbasket. Massive losses of population in old Foundry cities such as the Bronx will see New York state alone lose five seats, while Dixie, MexAmerica, Ecotopia, the Empty Quarter, and the Islands gain seventeen.

When the site of what is now Washington, D.C., was selected for the capital of the fledgling Republic in 1790, it was virtually on top of the United States population center, then just east of Baltimore. In the 1980s, the population center of the United States will move west of the Mississippi River for the first time. There are three major results of these changes.

  • The more self-assured each of these Nine Nations becomes, the less willing it is to be dictated to by outsiders who show no interest in sharing - or even understanding - local values. This hinders a search for continentwide answers to political questions.
  • As resources and opportunities are dispersed, each nation, at least theoretically, becomes increasingly capable of solving its own problems at its own level, although habit and institutions often do not cooperate.
  • Increased sophistication may lead to the decline of marginal continental differences. (The classic southern drawl is on the wane, for example.) But it emphasizes the real, enduring, and basic economic and social differences of each region, manifested in attitudes toward everything from nuclear power to unions to abortion. Recent public policy is replete with propositions that were paralyzed by their initiators' ignorance of these new implications about power.

Jimmy Carter's political weakness in the West, for an obvious example, was made permanent in the first hundred days of his administration, when he promulgated his "hit list" of water projects that he did not feel to be cost-effective. As chief of staff Hamilton Jordan was later to admit candidly, in Dixie, "Water is just another word." It's something that floods your basement every spring, not the linchpin of your agricultural, industrial, or urban survival.

Foreign policy is affected, too. An ill-fated flap over an alleged Soviet combat brigade in Cuba was stirred up in 1979 by a scholarly Idaho senator, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Frank Church. He was desperately and unsuccessfully trying to counter a vigorous conservative re-election challenge that centered on one charge: that he had succumbed to the pressures of the eastern seaboard and had become "soft" and "liberal."

The new diversity affects financial thinking. Recently the "multi-tier" theory of industrial performance has gained popularity. It demonstrates, for example, that recessions hurt the creators of expensive durable goods, like automobiles or steel, worse than they do the purveyors of energy, electronics, services, food, and ideas. This was a much-needed explanation of how the Foundry can be failing at the same time that the Breadbasket can expect continued stability, and MexAmerica, strong growth.

The more pressing the continental concern, the more abundant the regional complications. Energy is the classic example. Long have the pundits deplored the seeming inability of North America to come up with an energy program. Unstinting was the derision heaped on Jimmy Carter's declaration of the "moral equivalent of war." Brief was the reign of Canadian prime minister Joe Clark, who called for austerity and a tax on gasoline of eighteen cents a gallon.

Yet the problem has not been a lack of energy plans. The problem has been their abundance. North America has nine energy programs up and functioning right now, each tailored to the demands of a particular nation.

New England, for example, is dedicated to austerity and conservation, which is appropriate for a nation marked by compact geography, good public transportation, and extremely limited resources.

By contrast, Québec's hydroelectric potential is so vast as to be inexhaustible. Québec is actively seeking out heavy energy demands, such as the manufacturing of aluminum products.

Dixie is more reliant on nuclear power plants than any other nation, which is a logical outgrowth of few choices coupled with an unquestioning commitment to growth.

Ecotopia, on the other hand, with abundant renewable-energy options and a jaundiced view of development, sees atomic energy as the poisoned fruit of a technology gone berserk.

The Empty Quarter, which is in the catbird's seat in terms of energy reserves, and is marked by enormous distances between everything, views conservation in the form of a fifty-five-mile-per-hour speed limit in the same light as Ecotopia views nukes - as self-evidently crazy.

MexAmerica, like the Empty Quarter in having significant energy deposits, is like the Foundry in having intractable pollution problems. Unlike any of the others, its growth is fueled by refugees who flee from the cost of heating a home through a northern winter.

The nation of the Islands is similarly filled with "snowbirds" escaping the chill, but unlike people in MexAmerica, few are asking, yet, where the energy to drive the air conditioners will come from.

Meanwhile, the Breadbasket carries on a lonely love affair with gasohol - a fuel partly distilled from grain - a course that every other nation is convinced will drive up food prices.

In this light, it's far less mysterious why, for example, there's a continental inability to agree on a plan so basic as standby gasoline rationing. It is difficult to imagine how, in the face of such diverse interests, coupons could be distributed in a fashion that would fairly distribute hardship.

More critically, unlike during World War II, it's impossible to imagine how a plan aimed at benefiting the industrial Northeast could be rammed down the throat of the rest of the continent.

"Partly, I think, our problems are insoluble unless we change the way we do things," says Jeff Faux, a Maine economist who has studied the plight of New England closely, but who, as codirector of the National Center for Economic Alternatives, a Washington, D.C., think tank, sees broader implications to the current federal system.

"Take Dickey-Lincoln, for example."

(Dickey-Lincoln is the name of a proposal by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to dam a river in northern Maine to generate hydroelectricity. Opponents claim it would ruin a pristine wilderness in order to produce an insignificant amount of energy at an astronomical cost.)

There've been analyses - and assume for a moment that they're right - that the environmentalists have put forward, that say if you take the eight hundred million or billion dollars they propose to put into Dickey-Lincoln, and used that in a series of alternative energy projects - low-head hydro, small things, solar, wood burning, insulation, the whole gamut of what we know - you would produce more energy than with Dickey-Lincoln, more of it would be baseload rather than peak power, you'd have less environmental damage, and you'd create more jobs.

Just assume for a moment - assume - that that is right. The problem is that we don't have that choice. The way the system comes down to the state of Maine, and to New England, is that you've got a program that the Corps of Engineers has, and it's willing to put a billion dollars into this. Yes or no. A billion dollars this way, or nothing.

Now there's an obvious problem there. The region cannot make a rational decision on that basis. My point is that we're going to have public spending, no matter what happens in the future. We ought to be thinking about this public investment. Probably not just in energy alone, but in roads and in transportation and all the other major decisions, in a way that provides a region with the flexibility to make the choices between Dickey-Lincoln and nuclear power and an alternative. We need a framework of, okay, what are the region's needs for the next twenty years, how are we going to supply those needs?

I mean, I am a person who feels that, yes, there is a position that says we ought to have nuclear power in New England. I don't think Central Maine Power has made the case for it, but clearly, given New England's situation, it is not an unreasonable position. The case for Dickey-Lincoln, I think, is a reasonable case. And the case that the environmentalists make, to say now wait a minute, if you did it this way you could have more jobs and all that, is a reasonable position.

The problem is that there is no forum for the region in which we say, all right, add up all the social costs and the social benefits, and recognize that the public sector is going to put money into whatever it is - nuclear power doesn't stand on its own any more than Dickey-Lincoln or some of these other things. Okay, what is the best decision we can make?

But what we have is the Corps saying, hey, you want this program? Yes or no. I mean, a billion dollars. Well hell, in a poor state . . .

This sense of regional frustration is hardly limited to old New England. Utah, with its immense coal reserves, is not a poor state. And Kent Briggs, the administrative assistant to the governor of Utah, and the son of an Idaho reclamation farmer, is by no means either a bleeding-heart environmentalist or an opponent of industrialization. Yet he, too, feels chafed by shortsighted federal policies devised far away that block local control over the majority of Utah's land.

"We see the Yankees putting restrictions on our development and continuing colonial shackles," he says. "My vision is that we might need a new western nation from the Mackenzie River to the Rio Grande."

Whether or not Briggs is correct about what his part of the continent should, in the future, do, the fact is that the various portions of the continent are, right now, bringing a new sense of sovereignty to the way they view the world. The ultimate demonstration is that most North Americans, at some level of consciousness, feel a dual citizenship. While their passports may say "United States" or "Mexico" or "Canada," they are also bound to another nation - the heartland of the Breadbasket or the row houses of the Foundry.

The power of these ties to the Nine Nations is confirmed by what would appear to be a contradiction: the extraordinary mobility of citizens who move from one nation to another. These migrants retain some of their old trappings, but they push to embrace the styles and attitudes of their new nation.

The standard amusement among MexAmerican Anglos is watching newcomers turn "mellow" - beguiled by the relentless sun despite their vows never to succumb.

Carolina developers become almost a little apologetic about the deep partisanship for Dixie displayed by European industrialists transferred there. It's hardly uncommon to hear stories of their later reluctance to accept a posting to other parts of North America, or even back to the home office.

With never-ceasing amazement do natives of Idaho or Wyoming watch how quickly a newcomer picks up the habit of referring, with suspicion, to all nonresidents of the region as "them."

To New Englanders, it's tiresomely obvious that one of the region's employment problems stems from the many outlanders who first come to the region just to get four years of college, but then stay - even accepting starvation wages - because they can no longer conceive of living somewhere less "civilized."

The Rand McNally Road Atlas is not a perennial paperback best seller because North Americans think they are all the same. Travel is the great North American pastime because of our enduring diversity. We look forward to picking up our belongings and taking a new job in a different region out of a sense of adventure. It allows us to try on different values, different senses of the pace at which life should be lived, different attitudes about art, food, and ethnic origin, different relationships to nature. It allows us to discover, with some perspective, what empty place there is that only Georgia, say, can fill.

A newspaper reporter told me of the time he gave up the prestige of being a Washington correspondent in order to return to the quieter life of the medium-sized western paper from which he had originally come.

The drive across the continent for him was a long and silent one. As he drove through Pennsylvania, Illinois, Nebraska, he hardly noticed his surroundings, wondering whether the choice he had made was right.

He told me he remembered with great clarity finally losing his indecision on Interstate 80, not far from Cheyenne, Wyoming, as the flatlands gave way to the mountains and their small towns.

It was there, he said, that suddenly a knot disappeared from his stomach, a knot he hadn't known was there. It was there that he discovered a feeling of familiarity with the colors, the horizon, the names of the towns.

Every North American knows a place like that, a place where, on your way back from your wanderings, surroundings stop feeling threatening, confusing, or strange.

Ultimately, that's the reason we are Nine Nations. When you're from one, and you're in it, you know you're home. 

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