At its peak, during and after the Second World War, American manufacturing was much like the country as a whole: full of can-do spirit and open to most anyone willing to jump in and work hard, with plentiful rewards for all. Most of this work took place in what we now call the Rust Belt—the area spanning the Great Lakes and Upper Midwest—and the entire U.S. saw the benefits of their labor. When the party ended decades later, it left behind abandoned cities, polluted land and water, poverty and bitterness. But there are seedlings of renewal being planted as you read this, in the hopes that the economy can be revived and, this time, built to last. Nothin’ But Blue Skies traces that history and looks at what possibilities the future holds.
Author Edward McClelland (Young Mr. Obama: Chicago and the Making of a Black President) spends time in Chicago; Cleveland; Flint, Michigan; and other sites where industry once ruled. He kayaks a length of the Cuyahoga River, which famously caught fire as a result of industrial pollution. A look at Michael Moore’s propagandist journalism shows how it brought attention to the auto plant shutdowns in Michigan while skirting the truth, which helped Moore far more than any auto workers. He’s not to blame for their troubles, though. McClelland writes that by the time General Motors began its decline, “GM engineers were trying to design an autoworker who earned $2 an hour, never got sick, and died on retirement day.”
There are plenty of places to point fingers in this history. Every innovation that streamlines production ultimately leads to lower workforce requirements. Unions in some cases went from fighting for fairness on the job to forcing companies to pay amounts that couldn’t be sustained over time. Environmental regulations cramped the style of some factory owners, leading to an exodus of jobs overseas.
We’re living in the aftermath of all this right now, and while it’s far from ideal, Nothin' But Blue Skies does find a few signs of hope. Detroit is notable for creating urban farms in the midst of a “food desert,” an area unserved by anything but convenience stores. And American auto manufacturing is slowly adapting to our new environmental reality and building more fuel-efficient vehicles. Nothin’ But Blue Skies at times offers a grim take on our history, but it falls to us to write the next chapter.