For more than 150 years, Maine’s economic prosperity was based on an ever-growing supply of hard-working people turning an abundant supply of natural resources into products that sold all over the world.

People and water power produced woolen and cotton fabrics, people and the ocean produced fish products, people and the forests produced lumber, wood products and paper, people and frozen rivers produced ice that went as far as Brazil. People and hemlock bark tanned leather and shod generations with Bass Weejuns and L.L. Bean boots. People and phone lines answered questions and sold products worldwide.

While the specific products rose and fell with technology and taste, the process seemed endless: a good day’s work for a good day’s pay was the path to prosperity here in the Pine Tree State.

Sometime over the past generation, this process of evolving industrialization slowed and has failed to maintain the steady pace of growth needed to maintain the level of prosperity we have come to expect. And this trend has been particularly acute in the rural areas where natural resource utilization has always been highest.

As this process of deindustrialization and its self-reinforcing demographic and fiscal impacts have become more widely understood and accepted as inevitable – and as these impacts have been accelerated with each successive recession – there has been a natural tendency to turn inward, to say bleep the world and its cheap labor, anti-Maine trends and attitudes. Let’s take our destiny into our own hands, pick ourselves up by our own bootstraps. Let’s grow our own food, make our own clothes, take our offices home and work for our out-of-state bosses remotely. Let’s start our own businesses and create and innovate ourselves to prosperity.

Part of this “let’s make do” mentality is admirable, bespeaking the “good day’s work” part of our industrial heritage. But another part is dangerous because it takes our collective eye off the ball. The idea that if we all just get together here in Maine we can reverse or offset the trends of deindustrialization that have so beset us these past 30 years is folly. Nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, we all have to get together. But that collective resolution should be to drop our dysfunctional fixation on internal bickering about taxes and welfare. Those are symptoms of problems, not their causes.

Our coming together should, instead, be about turning around and focusing our gaze outside of Maine. To prosper here, we must understand clearly what is going on out there. We must identify ways those trends and activities can be exploited for our benefit.

Individually, that is now being done by every company in Maine seeking to expand its markets outside the state by better understanding the needs of its customers, the strategies of its competitors and the implications of emerging technologies. These are the policies that will lead to increased prosperity in Maine. And, ironically, they all depend on combining a fierce desire to remain here as a place to live and work with an equally fierce determination to understand what’s going on “out there” beyond our borders.

Charles Lawton is chief economist for Planning Decisions Inc. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]