Sustainability: Iron Range style

This is my weekly column for the Sunday, Oct. 19, 2008 Hibbing Daily Tribune. A shorter version of this piece aired as an essay on KAXE’s “Between You and Me” last month. I will be reading a longer version of this piece for the Nov. 5 Northeast Higher Education District Sustainability Conference at Hibbing Community College. For a modest fee, I will read it at your house, to your dog or elderly relative.

Sustainability: Iron Range style
By Aaron J. Brown

I’ve been behind both lines of the culture wars. Lo! I have grown up in a trailer house on an Iron Range junkyard. Yea, though I have also slept in the suburbs and seen a shiny crucifix dangling from the rear view mirror of a $40,000 SUV. Lo! I have attended parties dedicated entirely to drinking and burning down outbuildings. Yea, though I have also attended parties where talk has turned to the waste of our society, the arrogance of our leaders and how all of this is somehow related to hemp. Legalize hemp!

The story that unites these warring worldviews is simple: Keep on keepin’ on. One way of thinking about the future is to wonder how much MORE we can get. And another is to think of how we can do without all that. In other words, all we really need are the basic elements of life. But, it bears mentioning, some people define high def satellite TV as “basic.” And this brings us to all the talk of sustainability you hear in some social circles.

Where I’m from, on the Iron Range of northern Minnesota, “sustainability” is part of the culture, but, all due respect, none of this commune stuff. We eat gas station food and drink the cheap coffee from the really unpleasant South American nations. That wouldn’t fly at many of the sustainability conferences you see advertised in the back pages of “Mother Jones.” But we look at sustainability more practically. See, there’s something about Iron Rangers that makes us hard to knock down. You can close our mines, lay off our workers and send our jobs overseas, but people here will still endure. If there is no money for steak, there will be hamburger. If there is no money for hamburger, there will be venison. If you tell us that it’s much more efficient to eat a plant-based diet because of the cost of feeding livestock, we will only agree if our wallets and chest freezers are empty. We’ll eat plants, too. And nuts, and other things we find. We’ll raise animals for their eggs and meat, barter for food and supplies. We’ll fix our own stuff, build what doesn’t exist or can’t be afforded. But if we can afford gas, we’re going to be trying to burn it in one of many internal combustion engines kept in our garage. That’s what we do here. At the root of this is a cultural connection to a place. It’s not necessarily the prettiest place, but a pretty good place that is entirely ours.

This is where sustainability gets hard for me, though, and anyone else whose life is deeply connected to modern amenities. Fact is, my job cannot be done with a shovel or a strong back. I am tied to computers, the internet, cars and cell phones. This stuff all costs money and when it breaks I am left scrambling to find or (gulp) hire someone to fix it.

This does not fit with the Iron Range way, in fact, I … we need to do something about it. For when we are at the mercy of the machine we will be told where to live, what to do and, eventually, how to think. Sustainability is really just a commitment to independence. We may not agree about how to achieve it, but we’ll just see who’s left standing next week, next year and next generation.

Pass the jerky. I’m in it for the long haul.

Aaron J. Brown is a columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune. Contact him or read more at his blog, His new book “Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range” is out now (see right menu bar for ordering information).

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