I used to think that the largely fearful view of the world so often evident in Maine was part of the “old” Maine character – the crusty independence and distrust of power inherited from the state’s original settlers.
As Colin Woodard tells the story in his book “The Lobster Coast,” “Maine’s settlers crossed the Atlantic for practical (rather than religious or ideological) reasons.” Many were victims of the enclosure movement in the West Country of England and arrived here with both a fierce determination to make their way on what land, fish and fowl they could get and a deep-seated distrust of higher political power.”
The importance of these traits for Maine’s attitude toward economic development was highlighted by William Knowles in his article for the Winter 2003 Maine Policy Review, when he said, “Maine has a much more highly developed sense of its limitations than of its power.” There is in Maine, he argued, “ a traditional lack of self esteem in the bigger economic arena – as not being leaders, but rather as people who work for the leaders.”
While these observations may explain attitudes rooted in centuries of ethnic continuity, how can they explain their propagation to so many of us “from away?” Are they contagious? Do they emerge spontaneously in anyone who has spent a few years enjoying our vaunted rugged natural beauty? Are they a hitherto unidentified consequence of quality of place?
What other explanation is there for the loud and growing crescendo of noes that rain down on virtually every effort to initiate a major economic development? “No!” to a major mixed-use development in Bayside. “No!” to the public-private development of Congress Square. “No!” to tax reform. “No!” to school consolidation. “No!” to the east-west highway. And these are not the noes of old-timers only. These are noes of youngsters, of people “from away” and, increasingly, of formerly young newcomers who have aged in place. These are not the noes of people unfamiliar with and timid around power, not the noes of people who think to themselves, “Aw shucks, it’s only Maine after all; we can’t expect anything that good.”
Today’s noes are, I believe, those of people with power who are determined to use it to prevent any significant change. Why? Because they are fearful that any change will endanger the not extravagant but comfortable little niches they have carved out from this – compared with much of the rest of the country where they might have lived – economically inhospitable climate. These are the noes of people who don’t want the quaint villages to which they have retired, or the now-chic neighborhoods in which they have prospered, or the small but carefully cultivated businesses they have built, to be threatened in any way.
They are, in short, the noes of people who, perhaps unconsciously, have chosen to believe that the universe is hostile.
And this belief is the fundamental obstacle to Maine’s economic development, to Maine’s turning from the deindustrialization of the past generation to whatever is to come – the information economy, the quality of place economy, the new economy. Why? Because economic transformation is always painful. There can be no future that leaves everything exactly the way it is today. Our first English settlers chose to leave their homeland as their overlords turned them off the land they had farmed for centuries in the rush to produce wool to feed the burgeoning textile factories. Their Franco successors did the same to fill the pirated factories built here in the second step of the global industrialization process.
Today, we face similar choices. I am not arguing that we should say “yes” to every big proposal that comes along. But I am saying that the universal “no!” reflects fear, pessimism and a belief that the universe is hostile. The only way we can escape the demographic/economic death spiral that now threatens us all (however tight we think our grasp on personal security may be) is to abandon the fairy-dust belief that there is some way to solve our problems without having to endure change, that the Legislature will find money “somewhere” to close the budget gap, that Portland will find money “somewhere” to build and maintain a green necklace of parks, that communities whose largest population cohort is over age 65 will “somewhere” find money to keep hospitals open and find workers to staff them. This is the fairy dust-option.
When we turn and run, hollering “no!” over our shoulder, the universe has no choice but hostility. When we step forward, say yes and go, as James Joyce said “to encounter … the reality of experience,” we give the universe a chance to be friendly.
Charles Lawton is chief economist for Planning Decisions, Inc. He can be contacted at: