Monday, May 13, 2013

Growth and The Rural Frontier

"As I look west from the banks of the Mississippi I struggle to comprehend the vastness of the continent in front of me."

While scanning the latest content on my preferred websites I came across an article that intrigued me. The piece by politician and cultural critic, Enrique Penalosa, titled The Coming Bold Transformation of the American City, captured my attention. According to Penalosa, “In 40 years, 2.7 billion more people will live in world cities than do now”. Furthermore, according to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs--which although I was unaware of its existence I have no reason to doubt it shares in the responsibility of improving my quality of life day in and day out--the population of the United States will grow from 322 million to 438 million by 2050.

This of course is an opportunity; an opportunity to reinvigorate the traditional cities and restructure the loathsome suburbs which many tend to agree consumes an exorbitant amount of energy and resources, but whose impediment would infringe upon our divine right to enjoy small town charm. Initially, I admit that I too saw opportunity. This after all is a dichotomous choice for the future, suburbs or the city? Choose wisely for only one will lead to salvation. What about the vast rural frontier? Why should these additional 116 million people not be part of the resettlement of our rural lands?

What does 438 million people mean? While they may live in the City and make “green” choices the concept of “growth” perpetuates an idea that as a whole we struggle to grasp--the absurdity of perpetual growth.  After all, we live in a finite world. As I look west from the banks of the Mississippi I struggle to comprehend the vastness of the continent in front of me. Yet, I have navigated it several times at 70mph and I have no doubt that it too has limits. At some point 2000 miles to the west the plains, mountains, and forests abut a vast ocean. As large as this continent is, it too has limits. At some point, perhaps it has already passed, the idea of continued growth gives way to diminishing returns. Herman Daly has described this as uneconmic growth, whereby our costs outweigh the increase in benefits.  Given the decaying state of rural communities and quality of the food in our supermarkets, this idea may not be so far fetched.

Growth is indeed an opportunity. It is an opportunity for us to pause and consider another set of questions. How much should we grow? Where should we grow? And why are we growing? And maybe most importantly, what is the hurry? If we pause, slow, or reconsider the benefits of growth will we miss out on something grand? What benefits do we gain from increasingly larger communities and taking ever greater amounts of wealth from the soil?

Rural lands and rural communities continue bearing the negative effects of our industrial agricultural system. With little to no relevance, they too have no choice but to grow. So we continue to see amenities of suburban life growing their way into rural lands and communities. We see gas stations, fast food chains, and discount shopping develop, all in the names of growing our way to prosperity. Growth is an opportunity to examine the physical world of great cities and rural communities, but growing in numbers and promoting density only address one aspect of the dilemma. The changes in the physical world will be fruitless without substantial consideration given to our cultural expectations and economic behavior which perpetuate the myth that growth is equally beneficial to all.