The Ruralist Series #1: Introductions


Things are not okay and we must do better.  The good news is that we CAN do better.  Even better news is that we don’t have to figure out how to do the things that we need to do.  There are already proven solutions out there that have already been shown to work in places just like here. The bad news is that we are going to have to do things differently than we have been, and people are hard-wired to resist change.  It is, however, a simple fact that “the way we’ve always done it” isn’t working anymore.  In a lot of cases, “the way we’ve always done it” never did work.  In some cases, it used to work, to a greater or lesser degree, but it’s not working anymore.  Whatever the case may be, rural communities, like ours, are on a downward trajectory and have been for decades.  If our communities are to have any kind of future, much less the healthy, happy, prosperous one that we hope for, we’re going to have to make some changes to make it happen.

There are some realities that we are going to have to accept.  Here is an incomplete list:

  1. It is not 1979 anymore.  The world has changed.
  • The fossil fuel-based economy that our prosperity was based on for most of the last 100 years is declining and is not coming back.  It’s not coming back here, because it’s not coming back anywhere.  It is not a philosophical issue.  It is not a political issue.  It is an economic issue on a global scale.  Coal, like kerosene lamps and buggy whips, is a technology whose time is passing.  We should be glad for what coal mining did for us in the past, and we should now look for ways that will provide prosperity in the world as it is now and as it’s going to continue to change.
  •  Our population, like those of many rural places all over the country, is declining and has been for over 20 years.  One can make whatever arguments one cares to make about change and community stability, but it is an inescapable fact that no community can sustain a decreasing population.  A smaller population means a smaller workforce.  Less workforce means less productivity.  Worse than just the declining number of people is which people we are losing.  Most of our population loss is our youngest, brightest and most ambitious, so not only is the population shrinking, it’s also getting older, sicker and poorer.  This is an un-survivable trend and it has been negatively impacting our communities for decades already.  The effects are only going to increase faster and faster with time, unless we change the trend.
  • Every town was founded for a reason.  Nobody was just walking through the woods one day and decided randomly to build a town.  There was always a reason.  In this area, like much of rural America, and much of the world, it was often as a market town for agriculture.  Sometimes, it’s a road junction or a river port.  Occasionally, it’s because of a mill or a factory.  Whatever it was, there was a reason.  Some towns, often because of a particularly advantageous location, grow far beyond that original purpose into vibrant cities with diversified economies, but most remain small.  The problem comes when that purpose goes away.  What happens to a “company town” when the economic engine dies?  For many small towns, the answer is that it starts down a sad path of decay.  There are those who say that investing resources in rural America is a waste, because it’s just trying to keep alive communities that no longer have any real reason to exist.  These people would also say that, except for people who work in agriculture, forestry and a few other location-specific industries, everyone else should just move to a more urban area where there are more resources, more opportunity, and better economies.  I don’t like these people very much, but from a purely economic perspective, they are probably right.  Fortunately, there are other factors besides the purely economic to consider.  There are 3143 counties in the US.  704 of those are completely rural, which basically means there are no towns with more than 3000 people.  Another 1185 are mostly rural, which (again, more-or-less) means that there are no large towns and the overall population is below 50,000.  It’s kind of hard to really nail down the numbers, because it’s pretty difficult to define “rural”.  Different agencies of the government define it differently, based on their missions.  For instance, the Department of Agriculture uses a different definition from the one used by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.  It’s close enough, though.  Roughly 60% of the counties in the US are either completely or mostly rural.  Those counties encompass about 97% of the land mass of the country and are home to about 20% of the US population, roughly 60 million people.  Rural America is, and will remain, an integral part of the fabric of the nation, socially, culturally and economically, so the question now is “how do we make it work”.  As I said in the beginning of this article, the good news is that we already know how.  We just have to do it.  In this series of articles, I’ll lay out some ideas for where we are and for doing what has to be done to help get us to where we want to be.