Do not ask the past about the future

I have more thoughts on my post from last night about Gogebic Taconite ending its plans to open an iron mine and processing plant in northern Wisconsin. Before any of that happened, I planned to write about this letter in the Wisconsin State Journal.

A letter-writer had asked people who support mining in northern Wisconsin to “ask the people in Hibbing, Minnesota” what they thought about mining before proceeding. The suggestion being that the people here would be weary of the booms and busts and environmental damage caused by mining.

Well, a Wisconsin resident who was born and raised in Hibbing penned this response, arguing the obvious point: that people in Hibbing depend on mining jobs and the economic activity they bring. Without mining, the immigrants would not have come and the Iron Range as we know it would not have existed.

Ask the people in Hibbing what they think? I know what most would say (“we support mining”) but I don’t think people in a town like Hibbing can properly answer such a question. Not really. I certainly can’t. Mining came to Hibbing with a surge of American economic expansion that has no modern parallel.

If I could go back to the late 1800s and early 1900s to relieve people of the pain from mining accidents, terrible working conditions and economic hardship, would I? If I could relieve my friends and their families of the layoffs and alcoholism and displacement of the 1980s would I?

Sure I would.

But doing so would also send many back to Europe to die at the hands of Stalin and Hitler. Doing so would drain America of its ability to win WWII and prosper, relegating the United States to some form of mediocrity that we cannot properly conceive of in retrospect. Doing so is simply impossible.

The Iron Range of today bears no resemblance to the sacred site protected by the Dakota and Anishinabe before. A great change has taken place. One could argue this change is like a cancer, but it goes back to a theme I’ve written on before. If you were a cancer cell, would you ask for a cure to cancer?

Cancer cells don’t think that way, nor should they. Only God or fate or the future (however you prefer to call it) knows with certainty. That does not mean accepting mining or not mining as the one true way. It only means that we must act on the future, using the past as a parable — not an instruction manual.


  1. You have provided some very thoughtful points. I am slightly familiar with this area of Wis I have
    relatives west of there and roots east of there, so I’ve been through the area many times. I can see why there would be a push for economic development; the whole area seems quite dependent on tourism and summer residents. My sister tells me about low wages, as they haven’t had the union wages our area has, which tend to lift all wages. With a lower than the Iron Range, there is less variety of everything.

    But a mine should be built only if there is a current need for the ore. If the driving force is only economic development, why not do something cheaper and less invasive to the land? Our Range already has competition from other countries as well as from recycled iron. How could a new mine ever compete?

  2. Nothing in life is perfect….but it seems woefully misguided, on the wrong side of neutral, to compare the history of the Iron Range to cancer. Just sayin’

  3. Iron is a finite resource beneath the earth. People make a living extracting it. One day it will be gone, but that’s not something people here and now are very worried about. Do you have a better metaphor?

    I understand that “cancer” has negative connotations. It was not my intention to speak negatively of the Iron Range. Rather, I needed to use that term to make the above point. I’m not neutral on this issue; I’m conflicted.

  4. EVERYTHING is finite Aaron, including iron ore, including life. Accepting that, I have a choice.

    I can wake up every morning with a negative (or conflicted) outlook and say – “damn, I’ve got one day less to live and I sure don’t like where I’ve been and what the future holds”.

    Or, I can wake up and say – “this is a day the Lord has made, I will rejoice and be glad in it”.

    The latter choice makes life worth living and much more enjoyable, regardless of what maladies’ I might have, even cancer.

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