I dream that rural people gain power in developing their potential and self-sufficiency.
“They’re going to build it, and it’s out in the middle of nowhere!”
When you’ve awakened from a dream where you’re explaining why rural areas and communities are important, you can tell your life’s work is on your mind. This is especially true if rural places are your passion and some of your city friends wonder why you’ve chosen to live out there “in the middle of nowhere.”
Here’s the dream: I am trying to explain to an urban-oriented economic developer why working with a village of, say, 300 residents is not a waste of resources. (The dream actually mirrored a conversation at a party the night before. Can you see any unresolved issues here?)
Certainly the U.S. has a long history of small towns rising, falling, and enduring. This cycle can be problematic because it is so wasteful. But it is fact, the result of natural resource depletion, changing agriculture, and seemingly constant migration of people throughout our country’s history.
The rising and falling and enduring of rural areas is based on chance, location, natural resources, leadership, and a host of other factors. Places can and do die, but the real issue is whether the residents who decide to stay behind should have a voice in choosing to survive.
In all too many cases, places die because of a decision made by someone else who lives somewhere else. In the big picture, political, economic, and cultural patterns reinforce an urbanizing geography of sprawl, what some people call “uneven development,” that is occurring the world over. This is the larger sweep of events whose forces typically combine, conglomerate, and obliterate small places and disperse people into places that are larger and centralized. These processes inexorably create urban “somewheres” out of rural “nowheres” all in the name of economies of scale.
Continuing patterns of rural geographic discrimination target people who are a distinct minority with limited voice and resources, especially in the financial and political arena. After all, they live out in the middle of nowhere, far from where the action is. So why should they matter?
We are a nation (and an urbanizing world) facing a connected and incredibly complex series of ecological, political, economic, and cultural crises that may well threaten our existence on the planet. We desperately need to do things differently, because so many people are suffering from hunger, poverty, and lack of access to education, health care, and other social services, as well as good jobs. Healthy communities with high quality of life supplement our rights to have basic needs fulfilled individually and as part of our human and natural commonwealth.
What we are doing now does not work well for rural people, places, or the environment, although it isn’t for lack of trying in some quarters. That said, I am not dreaming about a utopia (or maybe I am and don’t want to admit it right now). I am talking about dealing with relationships of economic power and powerlessness that fragment our nation into rich and poor people and regions even, in an age that opens up possibilities of even more highly sophisticated communications and sociocultural interconnections that have at least the potential to build better lives for everyone.
The way we handle our affairs now is, quite simply, not sustainable. We are too big in some places, “the somewheres,” to deal adequately with the basic human need to live in communities that allow us to build healthy relationships with each other and the natural environment. On the other hand, some rural places, the “nowheres,” are written off as too small to be worthwhile, not a kindly way to treat our fellow travelers and citizens.
The idea that bigger is always better is, in itself, a dream, one that has caused hardships for many of America’s rural places. In my dream, I was telling my skeptical listener that the current deep fiscal, political, and confidence crises in the U.S. could well be linked to the loss of smaller places, where people might believe they are more in control of their lives, even if only slightly so. Sound crazy? Remember, this is my dream, and I have a lot of unresolved issues.
My dreamy idealism defies conventional economies of scale, but it is based on the rights of people to live their lives where they choose and to have a high quality of life with the support of the commonwealth of government and the economic shakers and movers. In short, this is a call to integrate communities into the national and global economy by providing them with the capacity to correct failures of both the market and government. For the common good, let’s figure out ways to make these communities sustainable.
Should every rural small town survive? Pragmatically, maybe not. But residents of every rural small town should be given the opportunity to survive in the face of geographic discrimination that both sprawls and concentrates resources, people, and problems in megacities that dominate the countryside but still need its resources and people.
I never cease to be amazed at the talented people I meet in my work with rural areas. A little help goes a long way in helping people develop their potential and self sufficiency so they can participate more fully in the life of their community and their country. They do not live “nowhere.” The places where they live and die are “somewhere,” with family, friends, and other things that can make life richer in so many ways.
I just banged my head on the bedpost of reality, but, as I awaken in one of those beautiful early autumn fogs here in Illinois, I still recall a dream that many would like to see come true. And I certainly will enjoy my drive to work out in the middle of somewhere this morning.
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.