Popular Science Monthly/Volume 68/February 1906/The Wealth of the Commonwealth

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THE WEALTH OF THE COMMONWEALTH

By Dr. A. C. LANE

STATE GEOLOGIST OF MICHIGAN

IN these days of evolutionary theories and dominance of biology it has become fashionable to apply the analogies and language of biology in other fields—for the geographer to speak of mature rivers, and youthful drainage, and the sociologist and historian to speak of society and nations as organisms. So, without going so far as to assume that there are units of consciousness apart from brains, and that there is an American or Michigan consciousness standing in somewhat the same relation to your consciousness and my consciousness as ours may be supposed to stand in relation to the sensitiveness which may belong to each individual cell of the body, we may still accept the comparison of the nation or state to that of an organism so far as it may help to remember and connect real facts.

The youth of a people is in reality like that of a man, full of hope, extravagant, feeling boundless resources and inclined recklessly to squander them in attaining the objects of desire. If it is wisely guided, age may bring riches which are not merely in prospect, but in possession, which are the fruits of useful industry and the relics and mementoes of a noble ancestry. Unwisely guided, age may bring the exhaustion of the resources thought to be boundless, with nothing worth while to show for them; and as the individual man may be found bankrupt in purse and pride, so the nation or community may suddenly find its supposedly inexhaustible supplies exhausted, the fabulous fertility of its fields failing, its hills once clad in forests naked and seamed and gashed by gullies until they remind one of the beggar's clothes whose spendthrift habits have dragged him down to like depths of destitution.

Mill[1] says that 'looking on the world as not only the home of man, but as subservient in all its phenomena to the welfare of the human race, we may consider the development of any region to mean such treatment of its natural resources as will enable the land to continue to support an increasing number of inhabitants,' and ventures the suggestion that, "fortune hunting is inimical to development in its true sense. A fortune acquired through production or speculation can usually be made by only a few individuals and almost always entails the exhaustion of natural resources or the lowering of wages; a prosperous livelihood, on the other hand, can often be secured to a multitude without permanent impoverishment of the land."

The former statement we may consider a very fair definition of development of a country. The latter is one of those general statements which are hard to disprove, being both vague and qualified. But it suggests that there may be such a thing as improper development. Much talk and writing seem based on the theory that development is always and only good—is a good in itself. This we may fairly question.

It is fit then to consider what is the path of wisdom, what is that true development of natural resources which scattereth and yet increaseth, and what is that development which may better be called devastation, whose scattering is not that of the seed corn which returns many fold, but that of the whirlwind and tornado. How best to conserve natural resources and secure adequate compensation for that consumption which is necessary are questions which interest scientists studying either the face of nature or the course of history, patriots desiring the welfare of their country, and parents desiring to pass on unimpaired the patrimony that has come down to them.

In the first place, note that the development of national resources does not in all cases imply consumption. It is true that one can not eat one's cake and have it too, but it is also true that one can use a house, see a picture, and gaze at a statue, and they be none the worse for it. Italy and Greece are vastly wealthier to-day than they would have been had the marbles of their statues remained in the quarries of Pentelicos, Paros or Carrara.

The marble still in the quarry has not the value that it has piled up in the Parthenon, and every Milton who dies mute, inglorious, but who might have sung immortal verse is a loss and waste, most of course to the higher and spiritual interests of the nation, but also to the commercial interests as well. I do not know how much cash loss of trade it would be to Stratford-on-Avon had Shakespeare lived and died there without knowing letters, but I do know that the American pilgrims to Europe are expected to leave 130,000,000 dollars, and a very large part of this comes from those who go to visit the footsteps of great men gone before us.

Thus a development of natural resources which means merely turning the material into more valuable, artistic shape, or surrounding it with inspiring associations—such a development is pure gain and no loss, so long at least as we do not bury living prophets under the tombs of their forerunners or shackle the present with reverence for the past. This accumulation of wealth may be either by the importation of art from abroad or by turning our own material into art forms. Particularly is this true of architecture and of furniture which are worthy to descend as heirlooms from father to son. Dollar chairs are no permanent gain to the assets of the state, Chippendale sofas are. The accumulation within the state of art treasures, that is to say of fine work in fitting material is, therefore, a means of increasing the wealth of the state. And schools and professional feeling which shall help the workman to become the artisan, to put individuality into his work and feel a pride in it, and money spent in the production and education of men who serve mankind and whose footsteps will be gazed upon with reverence by coming generations are directly helping the prosperity of the commonwealth. In so far then as work of artistic value is expended upon material which is retained in the state, there is a definite increase in the wealth of the state.

As a second class we have the resources of which there is a continuous and transitory supply, in contrast to those of which there is a stock, in the using of which we are drawing on an original supply or the accumulation of generations. The farmer's windmill in using wind power is using a resource of the former class, while the use of coal is drawing on a reserve.

Farm products so far as they are due to air, water, sunshine and hard work, the minting of golden sunshine into golden grain, are a development of resources continuously supplied, but there is also a little ash or mineral matter which, if not replaced by manure or fertilizer, is a draft upon the capital of the commonwealth.

Most important perhaps of these resources is water power, which is indeed largely used, but of which there are millions of horse power yet unused. Any permanent substantial dams which may help us to utilize this will be a permanent gain to the resources of the state.

Third, are the resources which are wasting away in the use. As we gaze on a piece of soft coal across the cleavage, we shall see dozens of alternating bright and dull bands in an inch. Each of these may represent an annual or semi-annual change of climate, and a ton of coal may represent thirty tons of wood. Thus in using coal we are dissipating in a few years the accumulations of generations heaped up millions of years ago.

Now of these reserve accumulations, and I can not emphasize the fact too strongly, there is never an inexhaustible supply. People a scant half century ago used to talk of the inexhaustible supplies of pine in the Saginaw. There is now hardly a stick standing. Men prate of inexhaustible mines. There are no inexhaustible mines. The bottom of perhaps the greatest mine in the world, the Calumet and Hecla, on its conglomerate is much too visible. The Spindletop bubble has already burst, and its wealth has practically vanished, wasting what should have been the industry of a generation in a scant decade. The towns that had natural gas no longer burn it in flambeaux that burn millions of cubic feet a day, but charge twenty cents a thousand for it. Of course sometimes the supplies are in a way practically inexhaustible. The salt of Michigan, if the present rate of production of two billion pounds a year is not too greatly exceeded, might probably last some two million years. Yet the consumption will increase—we know not how much, and a much less time and amount would threaten the collapse of Detroit beneath Lake Erie.

They talked only a few decades ago of inexhaustible supplies of iron ore, and yet now a pretty well posted man says there is in sight but thirty or forty years' supply of ore—that is now merchantable, I presume he means. I would double that and say that, at the present rate of consumption of some 23,000,000 tons a year, there is probably enough for eighty years' consumption. Still that is not a very long time in the lifetime of a nation.

One thing must be noted in regard to this matter of exhaustion. It is rare that a resource supposed to be inexhaustible comes so sharply and entirely to an end as the pine of the Saginaw Valley (the American Lumberman says that pine is on the toboggan), or the countless herds of buffalo of the western plains, which were sharply wiped out between 1877 and 1887, so that the buffalo coats which the street car men wore when I was a sub-freshman were a luxury of the rich when I was graduated. Usually as the cost increases it tends to cut down the consumption until a certain balance is attained depending upon available substitutes, and so the price slowly rises and consumption keeps on decreasing. That is the way in which our anthracite coal fields, and the British coal and iron ores are now becoming exhausted; a large part of our anthracite now comes from fine stuff formerly thrown away. Moreover, in many cases there may be both an accumulated stock and a continuous supply. For instance, it is so to a certain extent with our forests. The magnificent growth the pioneers found here was an accumulated stock. But in many countries forests, like a farmer's wood lot here, are looked to for a continuous supply. We must soon be in that case. Originally the great white pine belt extended over 400,000 square miles and there may have been 700 billion feet of it at the beginning, say in 1851. By 1901 there was but 110 billion feet, which was going at the rate of seven billion feet a year.

So within ten years there will be no more white pine—it will be hemlock, jack pine, anything. As the annual consumption in the United States is some 25 billion cubic feet, and the total forest area of the United States is some 500 million acres, from which American lumbering practise will only get 420 board feet a year, it is obvious that even though we improve to the standard of the German practise of 660 board feet per annum, we must still either reforest large areas or find substitutes. It is difficult to see the national economy of rushing through, our timber pellmell at a low price and then buying that of our neighbor, Canada, at a high price.

Besides stored up treasures of wood and coal, the loss by extermination of any native animal or plant is one which may indeed be small, but may easily be irreparable. The last survivor of those flocks of wild pigeon which once darkened the sun seems to have winged his solitary way to that bourne whence no traveler returns, which the fowler's eye may vainly strain to discern. The same thing is almost true of the wood-ducks. Logging operations have absolutely cleared many a stream of trout, and it might easily be that grayling, white-fish and sturgeon would become as unknown as the wolverine in the wolverine state.

I presume that in some exterminations like those of the rattlesnake and the wolf there is a distinct gain. But it is not well that we should let these exterminations of our animal neighbors go on in sheer heedlessness, but take some pains to preserve and propagate those most valuable. A great body of laws on game preservation and fish culture show that we realize something of this. Yet I venture to say that we still know far less than we might of what animals should be preserved and especially how best to do it, or which of our animal friends are being exterminated and how best to stop it. Many a well-meaning action fails in its object because based on imperfect knowledge. The laws for the preservation of lobsters are aiding their extermination.

First then as regards these exhaustible resources one should know what is happening. Again, the consumption should be as little wasteful as possible, getting the full benefit of all that is used.

Thirdly, the product should be so used that we may have something to show for the exhausted resources and, in particular, so far as possible, substitutes should be devised and developed.

Now as to the kind of knowledge we ought to have. Marl or boglime beds which have been used as the base for cement factories have been produced in the past few thousand years, but the lake algae and shells are still busy abstracting lime from the hard water. One thing which it would be interesting to know is how fast our marl beds are growing and how many acres of pond and bog and cubic yards of boglime a company would need to have so that when they got around they could begin over again. The state might well encourage such an investigation and also see how fast it could be accumulated by the fittest plants. In the same way with peat bogs. If peat comes to be a popular fuel, it will at first be mainly on accumulated peat that we shall draw; but it will also be worth while to know how fast a bog can be made to grow and whether its growth can be stimulated by changes in water level or by encouraging appropriate plants. It is a good reason that scientific research be endowed on just this ground, that when the present coal mines are exhausted one may know where most readily to find new, and when these in turn are but hollow voids some inventor shall have found a storage battery that will turn Ariel from a tricksy sprite to a mighty genius of work and make the windmill as much a source of power as the water-wheel. Thus as earlier sources of power, lumber waste and coal are exhausted, one may turn to oil or gas, or use water power to develop electric heat or grow fuel either as four-foot wood or as peat, whichever shall be proved by scientific experiment to be the most economical.

A Frenchman has recently suggested setting a coal mine on fire and pumping down just enough air to make water gas and then burning this gas as it comes to the surface. If this idea proves feasible it will add untold millions to the wealth of this state in seams which it will not now pay to burn. But in any case by the time our coal is gone we should be ready with our streams already dammed and copper cables covering the land to furnish more power from water than we now use from coal.

So again little by little the unfertilized farm will become less fertile, for in spite of all the care and skill of the Michigan farmer, the wheat product per acre of the lower four tiers of counties of Michigan does not bear the same ratio to that of the state that it once did. It is well worth while, therefore, to see that we are getting our money's worth in buying fertilizer to replace the fertility. It should be worth while to see that we do not squander valuable potash salts in making table salt, or burning lumber waste, etc. Again, as the forests depart, not only should we cherish what is left, but with the proceeds, before we are left naked, poor and desolate, we should plan and develop substitutes, tile and slate for shingle, cement, sand-brick and stone for building, stone, cement and steel bridges for wooden, and paving brick and macadam for cedar block and corduroy.

So too by the time the present iron ores are becoming exhausted scientific chemists should have found some economic method of smelting leaner ores or, better yet, of handling that vast bulk of iron ore, of which we now know, that is made refractory by only a few per cent, of titanium, and geologists may have found for us new ranges, or extensions of the old ones. Moreover the necessary consumption should be as little wasteful as possible. Legislation which is such that 'we skin through as fast as we can and then throw the land back on the state' is not wise legislation. There are, indeed, two parties in politics and in economics as to whether the state should hold for itself these natural resources. But if it be granted that the state should put these in the hands of individuals to exploit, it is certainly short sighted to then so legislate in the hope of getting back again 'unearned increments' by taxation that the individual is tempted or even forced to rush through the development, squandering a large proportion of the resources, in order to get the utmost possible returns to himself.

In the same way the policy of taxation which leads those with accumulated property to leave the state and transfer the money which they may have made from its resources to some other clime and their interests to other institutions will not correct any error which may be supposed to have been made in allowing them to accumulate that wealth in the first place.

It is often proposed to correct and control the excessive accumulation of wealth and the power or wealth by competition, but it must be remembered that competition is a most potent source of waste. The different iron ores are used together to produce a maximum amount of iron from a minimum amount of iron ore, because they are all owned by the same parties, regardless of the fact that some of the ores can be produced much more cheaply than others. But if the ore belonged to different parties and there were free and unrestricted competition the most cheaply produced ore would crowd the others for a time entirely from the market, and would cause a decay of the town supported by their development. I do not think that any one would consider this desirable, and certainly from the point of view of the geologist there would be a waste of resources.

It is lucky for Michigan that the iron ore of Lake Superior is held by a comparatively few strong corporations, the U. S. Steel Corporation having, say, a billion tons on the Mesabi range and many million tons on the older range. The Mesabi ore is a mere mass of varicolored dirt. I saw five forties last summer said to contain 200,000,000 tons of ore. All that has to be done is to run in trains of ore cars and load it on by steam shovels, after once the layer of clay till, etc., overhead is removed. The huge, yawning, red chasms thus left when weathered in the smoke of puffing locomotives and laboring steam shovels, present a volcanic and truly infernal picture. In time some of them will be 400 feet and over deep. The ore, too, is largely of the highest grade. What could any ordinary iron mine do in competition with such, especially those of Michigan, where the miners have all now disappeared underground?

Fortunately, however, it has been found that in the draft of the blast furnace in which these ores are reduced to iron, a good part of this light powdery ore is liable to be blown out if not held down by something more substantial. Moreover, a certain amount of some flux must be added to aid the flow of the iron, and the silica of some of our Michigan harder ores, poorer in iron, is admirably adapted to that end. And as the same interests own properties in both states they prefer, rather than to let their Michigan properties go to rack and ruin, to use a moderate amount of that ore and save wasting their Mesabi ore, even if thereby it is not produced quite as cheaply at the moment. They fix the price, and in the long run it will be doubtless better for the community and corporation. More iron will be made with less work, by mining the high grade and low grade ores together, than there would were the high grade ore first run and wasted and then the low grade ore developed. The same thing is true regarding coal. In an era of unrestricted competition only the choicest portions of the best seams would be put on the market provided, as is true, there is a possibility of producing more coal than can be consumed. So on Spindletop unrestricted competition crowded an area of less than 200 acres with derricks drilling holes as thick as they could be set and caused an expenditure of over $15,000,000, where a million should have been ample.

Customs, such as that of paying royalty only on the coal mined, may favor wastefulness. If the royalty were per acre foot, it would pay to mine more closely, as I have said in my report on coal. Thus it is for the state's interest that coal royalties should be per ton on coal in the ground, not per ton of coal hoisted. This is practicable and done in some coal fields. In the case of iron ore, too much property has changed hands on the basis of the ore in the ground, as shown by drilling.

In the same way in Indiana it has been found necessary to pass laws restricting the waste of gas or oil, because in so many cases it was cheaper for the individual to save the one and waste the other, regardless of the effect upon the resources of the state or his neighbor's wells. It would seem, therefore, that in relying upon competition as a cure for the ills of the body politic or in attempting taxation of the 'unearned increment' we should not fail to consider carefully the effect of these remedies upon the development or conservation of those natural resources of the state which, once squandered, no financial or political legerdemain can restore.

I know that the questions here raised are difficult ones and I know no panacea for all the wastes of the body politic. I might, indeed, suggest that it seems to me that municipal or state ownership is too often treated as synonymous with municipal and state operation and exploration. The Boston subway is a good illustration of public ownership and private operation, which apparently works better than would any other plan just now. I may perhaps remind you, too, that in Mexico all mining is under a system of state leases, and in Canada lumbering. State control under a system of wise leases, preventing waste, would seem to be wise, when complete state ownership was not. In the United States the policy has in general been for the state to divest itself of the title to its lands with the resources, even though they could be sold only for a song, and were mainly useful to be cut up into lots to be given away with 'free chickens.' Would not, in many cases, a lease for fifty years or longer have been exactly as well? It is a fair question, how far it is wise for a community to let its wealth go permanently out of its own hands, and in particular into the hands of non-residents. Non-resident property holders have been a source of friction ever since the days of the nobleman who let out his vineyard to husband-men and went into a far country. Harvard University years ago, instead of selling Boston real estate outright, had a policy of letting it on a 99-year lease. And of late every now and then a piece of property, like the Adams house, worth a couple of hundred thousand, reverts, and is a very welcome addition to their unrestricted funds.

Would it not have been, and even now be, a wise policy for the states and their land-owning institutions to have leased much of their lands for a term of years rather than deeded the property outright? Certainly a lot of land would have come back to them, and kept off that mælstrom of useless expense—the delinquent tax list. While this I would merely suggest, what I would urge is more careful and intelligent consideration of our waning natural resources, so that before they are gone we may develop substitute products and replacing industries, and that their proceeds may go in part into permanent improvements, stone roads replacing plank roads, stone or cement bridges wooden bridges, stone or cement dams wooden dams, and into other additions to the permanent wealth of the state.

It is hard to find any wealth that has been better spent for the permanent wealth of the community than that which has been spent on educational institutions. They produce intelligent citizens. They draw into the state an intelligent public which spend much money at the time. Many of them stay to help build up the state. Their buildings and equipment will be more and more Meccas and permanent objects of interest and attraction and resort. Their scientific researches will help to develop, to save and to replace our natural resources.

I can picture in my mind two fortunes, and they will be but composite photographs drawn from life. The one is built upon a reckless cutting out of the choicest of the lumber, none but the best taken, the brush left around and fired, either purposely or fraudulently, to conceal theft. In the path of the first fires is left either a tangled mass of worthless trash, overgrown with bushes and fireweed, ready fuel for the series of conflagrations that sweep through from time to time, or a sandy plain covered with sweet fern and goldenrod, used by speculators to defraud the settlers, who from time to time try to make a livelihood from it. There are here three wastes, the half-gathered crop of timber later burned, the land left in a useless condition, and labor wasted in trying to make it useful. The logs thus gathered are driven to the mill by a crew of loose livers whose hard-earned wages are largely scattered to the dive and brothel in a few weeks. The saw mills devour them and circular saws rip a wide swath of sawdust waste at each cut; piles of slabs, sawdust and waste of every description are transported in a continuous stream to an ever-burning fire whose pillar of cloud by day and fire by night betokens not the presence of Jehovah, but the demon of destruction. The timber itself is shipped away, and the money thus acquired by one who keeps on making money because he does not know what else to do is squandered by his heirs, who by themselves or by those whom they purchase as husbands scatter it to scandalize two continents.

The forest, the accumulation of generations, and of ages of sunshine, rain and dew, is gone, and there is less than nothing to show for it. This is criminal waste.

Now let us paint a brighter picture. Into the forest go a lot of pioneers, such as Ralph Connor loves to picture, bent on caring for themselves and their children. The instructions are to cut every green top, and every thing is gathered up, even old half burned logs. Whatever is not otherwise used is used for fuel in making salt, but all that can be used down to stuff that will only make lath or matches or toothpicks is saved, and pains are taken to make even the narrow bandsaw cuts as narrow as may be. The land is left ready, if it is good enough, for one of those same sturdy pioneers to take hold of and make a farm that will be the stay of his old age and the homestead of his children. That best fitted to remain forest returns once more to the state to be reforested.

The lumber goes where it is most needed, but part of it into buildings within the state, of permanent artistic value. The fortune thus acquired is expended perhaps in part in reforesting those parts of the tract that are better suited for forest growth permanently than for anything else, and in their fire protection, but those lands hardly worth paying taxes on are deeded to some state institution, to which after some years they will be of great value, while in the meantime they are kept off delinquent tax rolls. Another part of this fortune is employed in permanent improvements, roads and railroads, and in buildings which are a permanent addition to the beauty of the state as well as a memorial of the man who reared them. Another part goes in starting industries and providing education which will open fields of useful and valuable employment and keep alive the town where the fortune is made when lumbering ceases to be the all sustaining occupation. A part may be employed in exploring for coal, developing peat or water power, drilling for oil, mineral water or other resources to replace those that are vanishing.

The forest is then not wholly gone, and in the place of the part taken are fertile farms, with happy homes, noble buildings, intelligent people and varied industries, and the state is wealthier than ever.

The one picture is as true as the other, though they are put together like one of Thompson Seton's stories. That the brighter picture should be the one becoming more true, each man of intelligence enough to recognize the situation, each citizen of the kingdom of science, as well as the republic, should strive.

  1. Hugh R. Mill, 'New Lands,' p. 7.