SATURN RETROGRADE

11 12 2006

Things are looking rough down in Spring Hill. The Saturn plant is going retrograde. GM is closing one production line, and moving the other line’s product, an SUV, to Mexico. Company officials say they are looking for another vehicle for the plant, but this may be the equivalent of saying, “let’s stay friends” when you break up with someone. Meanwhile, Spring Hill, which has grown in the last twenty years from a sleepy village of fifteen hundred to a high-pressure suburb of fifteen thousand, is looking at its future and thinking, “Detroit here we come? Oops!” Maybe some other automaker will come along and pick up the pieces, but don’t hold your breath, guys….there’s a lot of abandoned manufacturing capacity in this country, and you, too, can have a big piece of it.

This is the end of what was supposed to be a new era in American automobile manufacturing. The Saturn plant was intended to be GM’s answer to the more efficient production methods and management strategies that have helped Toyota and other foreign-owned car companies take US automakers to the cleaners over the last thirty years. The plant worked well, but the company’s sales plan didn’t. Workers who thought they had a sure thing because they had such good relations with management are getting the boot. That’ll teach ’em! GM is also closing two other plants that have won awards for efficiency and quality. In the corporate world, nothing fails like success.

But, at the dawn of the post-carbon era, how could the manufacture of gas-burning cars be termed a “success”? Maybe they should have been making plug-in hybrids?

Maybe there shouldn’t have been an automobile plant there at all.

Spring Hill was gifted by geology with some of the most fertile soil in the state of Tennessee, Mississippi delta included. You can grow just about anything there. The state of Tennessee has a Spring Hill experimental farm that has demonstrated this, over and over again, to a largely indifferent public. Yeah, I know it’s never been big on organics, but that could change….

Middle Tennessee imports about ninety-nine percent of all the food we eat: fruits and vegetables mostly from California, some from Florida, some from farther afield; meat and grains from god knows where—some beef sold in Nashville comes all the way from Australia and is touted for its “organic certification.” To me, its carbon footprint—and the carbon footprint of just about any organic item grown outside middle Tennessee—outweighs its organic value. “ Buy organic” is only half of what’s important—the other half is, “buy local.” Currently there is enough food grown in the middle Tennessee area to support a few thousand people. This makes me feel very insecure.

It didn’t used to be this way. Back around the turn of the last century, a hundred years ago, Tennessee was one of the top ten fruit and vegetable producing states in the country, with most production coming from small, diverse farms. This was not a bad thing.

If the government of Tennessee had had any sense whatsoever, it would have just said no to Saturn and developed the Spring Hill area as the agricultural hub of dozens, if not hundreds. of small, owner-operated farms that could have provided the bulk of middle Tennessee’s food needs—eggs, apples, grains, greens, oilseeds—you name it—well, OK, we’d still have to bring in citrus and rice.

Instead, the power of the state was used to create a multi-million dollar tax break for GM to come in and pave over prime farmland with roads, schools, and subdivisions–which, now that they’re putting the brakes on, are no longer needed, but will still need to be paid for. Maury County, Williamson County, and the State of Tennessee are being hung out to dry, along with the City of Spring Hill and the thousands of families who moved into the area. Gee, maybe some of them will take up gardening to supplement their unemployment….

They’re going to need to do something innovative, because all those houses come with a whale of a utility bill. Thirty years after Jimmy Carter declared that we ought to make solving America’s exorbitant energy demands “the moral equivalent of war,” the construction industry has done the moral equivalent of nothing to implement this. Every house built in the last thirty years should have been solar paneled, solar-oriented and super-insulated, at the very least. Like the idea of turning Spring Hill into a local food production center, this hasn’t even been on the radar of the business and political leaders of this country. By remaining under the spell of the religion of the short-term bottom line, they have seriously lessened the possibility of a graceful, enjoyable, prosperous future for all of us, including their own grandchildren.

This, to me, is truly criminal negligence, because it is our exorbitant need for energy that has driven us into a war of aggression in Iraq,ands caused the deaths of more Iraqis in a shorter period of time than that dictator we toppled—and let’s not forget, this country supplied him with his weapons of mass destruction and encouraged him to use them, all in the name of securing our oil supply.

I’ve been saying that the US had as much right to invade Iraq as Hitler had to invade Poland, but I think I’m going to start saying that the US showed as much sense invading Iraq as Hitler showed invading Russia, because Baghdad is turning into the Bush Junta’s Stalingrad.

But, I digress….our so-called politicians have pandered to the short-term needs of wealthy corporations, from Spring Hill to Kyoto. The about-face of the last election was a mini-step in the right direction, although you’d scarcely know it by the election results (or major-party candidates) here in Tennessee. Spring Hill has been badly malled by consumer culture and is not likely to become a showplace for small farm-centered Jeffersonian democracy any time soon. But we’ve got to keep trying.

music:  James McMurtry, “We Can’t Make It Here Any More

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