Progress Doesn’t Belch
By: George Lee Cunningham
The story said: “Within a week or ten days the smoke of another factory will be seen winding toward the sky. The latest industry to come to Long Beach is the Rickett’s trolley catcher factory following a recommendation from the Chamber of Commerce at the regular meeting this morning.”
In 1909, people saw a new factory as a good and welcome addition that meant jobs for people, prosperity for the community, and new products being produced for a better tomorrow.
One of the things I like about doing historical research is looking at some of the perspectives and attitudes of the past. Some of those perspectives were almost elegant in their simplicity, perspectives that today are considered naïve. Some of them were so brutal and repugnant that we immediately reject them and feel a sense of shame over what our predecessors regarded as acceptable. And, in retrospect, some of them just seem silly.
One of the challenges of the historian is to set aside the temptation to judge the people of the past by the standards of today. The world has changed and so have our attitudes.
Smoke winding into the sky from a factory in 1909 represented everybody working together to create a better world. Smoke billowing from the stack of a locomotive or a ship was a symbol of power and of man’s conquest over the tyranny of geography and the vast distances that separated people. A power plant turning coal into electricity was the bringing of light to the darkness and of supplying power for a multitude of new and modern devices for both the home and workplace.
In 2013, we see things differently. In 2013, smoke no longer winds its way skyward or billows majestically from a stack. In 2013, pollution belches out of trucks and locomotives, poisons spew into the air from refineries and factories, and power plants spit greenhouse gases across the globe, killing polar bears and generating hurricanes.
People back in the old days weren’t necessarily wrong in their beliefs or the way they approached their world and we aren’t necessarily right. But the world has changed and so have our attitudes.
If truth be known, the people of 100 years in the future – people yet to be born – will look back at our beliefs and customs with the same mix of superiority, horror, and bemusement that we hold today toward the people of our past.
Let’s hope they give us a break.
George Cunningham and his wife Carmela are writing a history of the Port of Long Beach. You can order George’s novel, Kaboom, at amazon.com