The world changed and it’s not changing back

PHOTO: Brian Jeffrey Beggerly, Flickr CC-BY
Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Mesabi Tribune.

The iron mines run hot. Houses sell fast. Cars and trucks fly off the dealership lots, to the point where some customers must wait to buy one at all. Anyone raised amid the booms and busts of the Mesabi Iron Range would recognize this as a boom.

And yet, dissatisfaction oozes from local dialogue. The labor market seems out of whack. Small businesses and big chains alike cannot find enough low wage workers. Despite what armchair pundits say, the reasons for this are more complicated than just COVID-era unemployment checks. 

The personal and economic trauma of the pandemic reoriented the way so-called “front line” workers approach work. Meantime, we’ve ramped up our dependence on box stores, fast food and gas stations. As a result, the equation is now about more than money. 

People grow tired of being cogs in a system that serves people unequally. Living in the service sector of our economy feels like trudging though a bog with a backpack full of stones. So workers are staying out of the bog. They’re putting down the pack. They’re finding other ways. Different jobs. Doing with less.

Then there is the fact that people aren’t very nice these days. In fact, we’ve become a cruel society that abuses its weakest and most honorable members alike, that devalues the lives of people because of how they are identified. There are few true innocents in this regard. 

No, it’s not that people won’t work. Some approach a mental health crisis while others won’t give up the last of their dignity.

Friends, the world changed. The next few years will establish the true worth of our nation’s institutions, values, and future. And what’s true of the macro will be true of the micro as well. Northern Minnesota is shedding old skin to become something new. It’s not about whether it’s happening, or whether it’s good or bad. It’s happening. What are we going to do about it?

In Washington, leaders seek an infrastructure bill. President Biden and many in Congress wanted to expand the scope of American infrastructure to include rural broadband, climate change mitigation, and other adjustments to this changing world. But Republicans in Congress, including our U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber, insist on a narrow definition of infrastructure — roads and bridges, mostly. 

Stauber, like many Republicans, spent time on the U.S. southern border this year complaining about refugees fleeing Latin America. He’s not alone in papering over climate change, threats to global democracy, and really any clear ideology at all. His slogan, “Our Way of Life,” simply implies that a stew of 20th Century thinking will shower northern Minnesota with prosperity.

It just won’t work. In fact, we will never again live in a world that resembles the 20th Century. The rural North, including the Iron Range, will become vital to America’s future for entirely new reasons: water, land, and climate. 

That’s not to disavow mineral extraction and logging, or other industries we know here. But these industries will become less important to this region’s economy in the decades to come, like it or not. We know this because they’ve steadily lost market share for 40 years. And because there isn’t enough iron, copper or pulpwood left to solve the problems held over from the last century.

We’ve got to think bigger. Where there is no vision, the people perish. That phrase is engraved on the side of Mesabi East High School if you want a citation. The Bible before that.

Yes, diversifying the economy of northern Minnesota is hard. There have been many failures for many reasons, among them poor planning, parochial politics, corruption and a lack of vision beyond the known world of the past century. 

For some, this is a reason not to try. Some, and they soon reveal themselves, see a return to extraction and consumption as the only way forward.

This is no plan; it is instead a trap. It’s a pitcher plant, luring us into its gaping jaws with sweet smells of nostalgia, capturing us upon its sticky walls, slowly digesting us over years and decades until our communities are indeed truly depleted of all vigor. 

By then, those who hoarded money and privilege can wall off their lake properties or leave entirely. Everyone else will have long forgotten the promise of the middle class, of homeownership, and affordable land, fully internalizing that such things must never have existed for people like us. For why else would the people of the early 21st Century have so foolishly ceded these nourishing assets to strangers who never cared for this land or its people?

Let dignity, grace and vision lead us forward. Be not afraid. Sun, soil and water still move seeds to flower.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, June 13, 2021 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.




  1. Elanne Palcich says

    Great piece, Aaron. Do you ever wonder if anybody reads nowadays?

  2. Joe musich says

    Stellar Mr Brown. This one should be embedded in the Reformer. It has application in so many places. I agree we are witnessing a slow down. Not planned by labor or a no profit just an we have had enough by lots and lots of people. One could see the beginnings in the 1980’s. Now it is here full force. It will also overwhelm Stauber and company soon. People will just up a walk away from that fraud. Hip hip horray fir a wonderful column.

  3. Susan Cebelinski says

    For the first time since covid hit us, I have read the truth. Aaron Brown my you see the world as it is with clarity and vision and today you hit it out of the ball park.

  4. Northern Minnesota lies within the boreal forest ecosystem, one of the most difficult places for human beings to live. The carrying capacity of the taiga for humans is low. Here, in Greaney, population density is about one person per square mile, which is about right for this biome. The Iron Range temporarily exceeded this through extractive industries, logging of virgin forest and iron mining. Both of those activities are one-time harvests and not sustainable indefinitely. The world is littered with abandoned mining towns on dead end roads.

    It’s not the world economy or environmental laws that ended the glory days of the Range. It’s 120 yard haul trucks and 60 yard shovels. Mining doesn’t require as many people as it used to, and just wait until mining starts using the autonomous technology that farmers are already using. Tractors drive themselves, and there’s no reason haul trucks can’t do the same. The timber industry is stuck primarily producing a high volume, low value product, pulp wood, that employs few people.

    Water is the north’s most valuable commodity. Last week, my well gave out, and I’ve been reduced to hauling water. That has changed my life. It’s no fun, and a new well will cost me $15,000. Water is too important to risk its contamination by short term, low employment, high risk hard rock mines. You’re right. We need to get creative. Unfortunately, many creative people have left the Range and moved to places more welcoming to them, leaving behind the ones stuck in their ways.

    With climate change, more people will want to move north as the presently favorable parts of the country get too hot for human existence. They will bring their ideas and skills with them. High speed broadband frees many occupations from a geographic anchor. There are technologies in development that can increase the value of our timber resource, such as heat treated wood and fibrillated cellulose, which show great promise in replacing petrochemicals. Sappi in Cloquet is already producing cellulose fibers for non-paper uses.

    Years ago, I said to Tommy Rukavina that the Range needed a four-year college, preferably private, to become a center of mind, a place where ideas can germinate and grow. The north’s two-year colleges and remote four-year degree offerings are certainly valuable, but they’re not the same as places that focus on research and intellectual ferment. There is wealth in the north, but it comes in as vacationers who make their money elsewhere. That wealth can be tapped for venture capital. But the biggest problem is the Range has lost its most innovative people, who have moved on, leaving behind those who dream of going back to a golden age which never really existed and will never come back.

  5. Very eloquent.

  6. David Kannas says

    What you wrote here applies to the country as a whole, not just the Iron Range. Great piece.

  7. David Roise says

    The Strong Towns organization ( has recently created an eBook to address some of the problems faced by resource-based communities such as yours. See It may be worthwhile considering how these strategies might reduce your reliance on mining and lumbering.

    Great post, by the way.

  8. Robin Raplinger says

    The world changed and it’s not changing back, see Crosby with its new growth.

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