Christopher Briem writes: Donald Trump’s announcement that the United States is withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accords was framed as his obligation to “represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris.” The line conjures an image that a reindustrialized Pittsburgh will return to its smokestack roots, becoming once again the center of the nation’s steel production, fueled by Appalachian coal, and delivering raw material to vastly expanded American manufacturing industries. And it seems to suggest that this blessed future awaits not just Pittsburgh, but virtually all of the American Rust Belt, once crippling environmental regulations have been vanquished.
But Pittsburgh is not muddling through a post-industrial funk. In fact, it is a leading example of a city, and a region, that has rebuilt itself to compete in the post-industrial 21st century economy. Much of that transformation has only been possible because of the concerted efforts to clean the land, air and waterways damaged by virtually unregulated industrial use for over a century. Yet Pittsburgh has been able to generate new jobs, attract new workers and successfully compete against the world.
This truth got lost in the 2016 election which radically oversimplified the debate about how to strengthen America’s manufacturing industries and declining regions. Somewhere along the way, Joe Magarac, Pittsburgh’s mythical patron of steelworkers, has replaced the Jeffersonian agrarian ideal as the bedrock of the American economy. But an idealized view of the past overlooks not only the many reasons steel production declined in Pittsburgh, but the concerted effort both the city and region of Pittsburgh have made to build a postindustrial competitiveness. [Continue reading…]