'Sustainable development' is the new name for an old idea; a group commissioned by Teddy Roosevelt tied rural prosperity to conservation a century ago.
History is a teacher. It can tell us how far we’ve come. It can humble us by telling us we haven’t come very far at all.
This is the centennial of Theodore Roosevelt’s Country Life Commission (CLC) of 1908-1909. The Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs is celebrating this event with a website that explores the commission’s work and some of its influences over six decades.
Roosevelt’s CLC emerged in a turbulent time, as America was being transformed from a rural, agrarian society into an urban, industrial one. Farms were fairly prosperous during this so-called “Golden Age of Agriculture,” which drew to a close just before World War I, but dissatisfaction with country life was widespread. Rural residents flocked to the nation’s cities seeking better opportunities. This was an alarming trend for those who saw rural America, especially agriculture, as the economic, social, and moral foundation of the Republic.
Roosevelt’s progressive Republican politics challenged industrialization and corporate domination of both politics and the economy, at odds with the big-business orientation of the mainstream GOP. He and his followers not only reacted to corporate abuses; they implemented plans to rebuild faith in a government that they believed had lost its moral compass. The reformers wanted to redress corporate iniquities by restoring government to its proper roles: regulating companies, conserving natural resources, and building a national political economy that served everyone, rural and urban.
The Report of the Country Life Commission is not exactly well known and is rarely read now. Roosevelt’s biographers hardly mention it. It comes up in rural studies classes as part of all-too-brief historic discussions of rural development policies. In reality, the report is a gem partially obscured behind layers of time. Pull it out, read it, and you will find old ideas glittering, enough to shed light on rural sustainability today.
The commissioners’ understanding of American farming communities shaped CLC’s approach to rural development. Admittedly, the commission’s process was top down and male dominated. Given the times, the agency probably would have worked this way even without the short timeframe for its work. Roosevelt appointed the Country Life Commission in August, 1908, as his term was about to end. Commission members were pressed for time and used budding social science methods to gather information quickly and build support from rural farm communities.
The commissioners held well-publicized hearings nationwide. They conducted a national survey. They listened to rural residents and, even though the report clearly shows the commissioners’ preconceptions, they also included citizens’ ideas in the final report and recommendations.
Their suggested remedies took an institutional approach to communities, advocating reform of rural churches and schools as places that could bring about a better country life. Their remedies focused primarily on meeting human needs through community action and education.
Later presidents tried to overlook the report after it was issued in March, 1909, indicative of deep splits both between Republicans and Democrats and within the Republican Party. Although the CLC did not survive intact, its political opponents failed to quash what the commissioners created. The country life movement survived partly because Roosevelt was such a dynamic political force. In addition, the commission’s members represented a broad swath of agricultural and rural educators and journalists with considerable influence.
Cynics tend to dismiss presidential commissions as shallow political maneuvers or public-relations gestures. The president assembles a group of notable people. They investigate a problem, issue a report, and get a flash of publicity. The report may generate some enthusiasm but is soon forgotten.
In the case of the Country Life Commssion, the members’ expertise, energy, and passion carried their ideas through World War I, developing into a broader and often fragmented movement that bore the following results:
• The American Country Life Association (ACLA) which advocated for farm life and farm communities from before the end of World War I until the mid 1970s;
• The American Farm Bureau Federation, founded in 1919. It became a highly successful association of farmers, advocating for farming as a business whose producers should receive their fair share of value from the food production and distribution chain;
• The Cooperative Extension Service, based in Land Grant Universities’ agricultural colleges, which blossomed after the war;
• Expansion of applied research in agricultural economics, rural sociology, community development, and community education.
The Report of the Country Life Commission laid the groundwork for today’s rural sustainability efforts, advocating community development and education that used natural resources wisely. Roosevelt and the commissioners recognized that rural areas, defined as farm communities, were falling behind the rest of the country. At the same time, the CLC participated in a growing conservation movement dedicated to changing a nation that had been squandering its soil and water. Roosevelt is known in history as a conservation activist; in a 1910 speech, he explicitly linked the health and well-being of the farm community to the condition of natural resources.
Despite its shortcomings, and there were many, the CLC challenges the cynic’s view. It has taken a long time, but the commission’s efforts helped open the way for promoting rural sustainability with the goals of healthy local environments, social relationships, and economies. Rural community development has inherited its progressive ideals — to foster democratic participation and build on practices that make communities better, more sustainable places to live in today’s challenging global economy.
A century later, the continually growing recognition of the relationship between community as people and their natural ecology is a tribute to the foresight of Roosevelt, CLC’s members, and those who have worked to keep their legacy alive.
We have a long way to go.
Timothy Collins is assistant director of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.