Speak Your Piece: Seven Rural Capitals

Rural development requires a full-on approach, taking into account all forms of local talent, resources, and heritage. Tim Collins offers a model and a challenge.

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MEMORANDUM

TO: Honorable Tom Vilsack, Secretary, United States Department of Agriculture
FROM: A concerned citizen

Early in February, you wrote an op-ed piece in the Des Moines Register reflecting on your first year as Secretary of Agriculture. One of the things you have learned, noted in that column, was the need for a regional approach to rural development.

So far so good, if, by regional, we mean building networks of strong communities that share regional goals, interests, heritage and resources, rather than wasting their time and energies competing with each other. Rural development needs to be about community reinvigoration, using local ingenuity and creativity to bolster shared regional resources to move toward rural sustainability.

Your understanding of rural development suggests we now have an opportunity to create a coherent, focused policy that builds communities and regions. To do that, I suggest we need a systems approach with overall goals and principles as well as a structure for the policy. This will help us move toward an improved quality of life that is built on respect for the environment and each other, spelling out individuals’ rights and obligations within the policy.

One systems approach, the Community Capitals Framework, seems promising, and I want to share it with you. The framework can be adapted to community and regional needs and has a strong orientation toward rural sustainability. I suggest it with thanks to Cornelia and Jan Flora, as well as Mary Emery of Iowa State University, who led its development.


Cornelia and Jan Flora
A model of seven forms of
community capital: natural, built, social, cultural, financial,
political, and human.

The framework’s goals are realistic and can become rallying points for implementation. They are

•    Healthy Ecosystems
•    Vital Economies
•    Social Well-Being
•    Healthy People

The “seven capitals” it describes are lenses for examining community assets and the interrelationships among those assets. They can be leveraged together to improve the quality of life:

Natural Capital: What does the land give us?

Natural Capital focuses on the rural landscape’s gifts, which are limited and shared among all living creatures. A systems-based development policy will consider “mixed use” of rural land to account for food and energy production and other activities, while sustaining soil, water, air, and species diversity for a healthy environment. The concept of natural capital suggests the need for an enviro-centric policy built on shared obligations of government, landowners, and citizens to protect the rural landscape for future generations in an increasingly global economy.

Timothy
Collins
Bushnell, Illinois, after the
harvest. This community, like many in the rural U.S., relies heavily on its endowment of natural capital.

Cultural Capital: How do we think and act in our communities and region?

Cultural Capital focuses on community and regional heritage, defined broadly as shared knowledge from a variety of sources, including nature. It helps individuals understand their interconnections with others, so they can cooperate in preserving what is best, while moving toward improved social well-being and sustainability. To build cultural capital, individuals need to temper self-interest. It is the first step (and likely the most difficult) individuals need to take to help move toward a culture that supports sustainable rural development.

Social Capital: What can we do together?

Social Capital focuses on healthy interactions that help people feel welcome in their community and region. It helps individuals participate more fully in everyday relationships that build a stronger sense of place. Ties to place, whether emotional or pragmatic, are necessary to build commonwealth and increase well-being.

Political Capital: What about our political activities?

Political Capital focuses on local and regional politics to build government and private partnerships for sustainability through commonwealth. Citizen participation is crucial to these political activities. The role of government by the people is to create public and private partnerships to advocate for and sustain all parts of the community and the region: our fellow human beings, the soil, the water, plants, and animals.

Financial Capital: How do we pay for development now and in the future?

Financial Capital focuses on investments now to build a storehouse of wealth for future generations. The goal is a vital economy. All human activities add or subtract value from our environmental and social commonwealth. Sustainable rural development decisions focus on environmental impacts; public-private cooperation enhances sustainability, while assuring adequate profits.

Earthtrepreneurship is encouraged to foster creative, innovative ways to work with and for the earth. It can be an important driver of the green economy. This long-run view of financial capital focuses on meeting the needs of today and succeeding generations, with respect for the landscape.

Timothy Collins
A closed storefront in Littleton, Illinois, shows built capital that could be reclaimed for community use.

Built Capital: What is built on the land?

Built Capital focuses on housing, water, sewer, transportation, communications, and other infrastructure and the tools used to sustain them. Built capital needs to be situated to minimize waste and environmental damage. It should use technology appropriate for sustaining the community and the region. Appropriate technology allows for the practical application of Earthtrepreneurship based on cultivating and nurturing nature. Appropriate technology is not necessarily profitable in the traditional sense; it is a long-run investment in people and technological processes that use resources wisely. Appropriate technology fits the community and region’s scale based on the local ecology, human ingenuity, widespread benefits, and the availability of various resources. Appropriate technology may have local origins or may be adapted from other places to suit local needs.

Human Capital: What can I do?

Human Capital entails more than individuals’ knowledge and skills. It is the sum of individuals’ decisions about whether or not to help improve the quality of life for themselves and their families, as for everyone else in their community and region as well. In “the best of all possible worlds,” individuals recognize rural sustainability as rational in both the short and long runs because of the possibility for improved quality of life now and in the future.

Using the Capitals Framework as an outline for overall rural development policy and its implementation could open the way for a shared vision for a sustainable rural America. Progress toward rural sustainability could be measured with indicators negotiated as part of a regional vision and goals shared by networks of communities.

The country desperately needs a coherent, systemic rural development strategy that focuses on sustainability. What do you think, Secretary Vilsack?

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.

 

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