Monday, September 26, 2011

Three Stories that Changed How I Understand the Importance of Rural America

By Alan Okagaki, Senior Fellow, Rural Futures Lab

After casting about in the community development world for the last 25 years with CFED and ShoreBank Corporation and as an independent planning and evaluation consultant, I was looking for something fresh, new and promising.  Around that time, Brian Dabson recruited me to be part of the Rural Futures Lab.  As he explained his thoughts about the Lab, I found myself getting excited about this new project in a way I hadn’t in years.  In this blog, I’m going to relate three stories which suggest what I think is at stake for rural America and why the Lab is so important. 
The first story is an Associated Press article released July 28, 2011, that ran with the headline “Rural America is disappearing; population share hits low.” It reports that the share of the United States population living in rural areas had fallen from 20% in the 2000 census to only 16% in the 2010 census.  It cites demographers who predict that “by midcentury, city boundaries (will) become indistinct and rural areas grow ever less relevant. Many communities could shrink to virtual ghost towns as they shutter businesses and close down schools.”  My perception is that this negative viewpoint is becoming increasingly prevalent among policy makers and the general public – or at least those people who spend much time thinking about rural America.  Metropolitan areas are seen as the centers of economic strength, innovation, and growth; they are the future.  Rural areas are perceived, at best, as along for the ride and, at worst, as a drag on economic growth and a cost sink for social services, transfer payments, and public subsidy. 
The second story is the report entitled Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World (2008) written by the National Intelligence Council.  It highlights a set of global trends that have huge implications for rural America.  According to this report, global population will grow by 1.2 billion people by 2025, putting pressure on energy, food, and water resources.  Demand will outstrip supply.  The World Bank project that demand for food will increase by 30% by 2030, putting even more stress on land and water resources.  Climate change is accepted as a given: the pace at which it occurs and the places it affects most will define winners and losers.  The report anticipates that agricultural losses will mount.   One major question is whether an energy transition away from oil and gas will be completed by 2025.   The report believes that all current technologies are inadequate for replacing the traditional energy architecture on the scale needed.  In sum, resources will become an increasingly prominent part of the transnational agenda and will have significant security and geopolitical implications.
My take-away from the Global Trends report is that rural areas and the assets and services they provide will become more and more important in the future.  As clean water becomes scarcer, rural watersheds and groundwater will become more valuable.  As world demand for food grows, productive agricultural lands are precious.   London, New York, and Hong Kong may be the largest global financial centers, but they are not going to be centers for carbon sequestration.  And we are already seeing the contributions that rural areas are making towards renewable energy.    
My third story goes back to 1971 and to the state of Montana where I’ve lived most of the last 30 years.  The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation released the North Central Power Study, which called for building 42 coal-burning power plants in the Northern Great Plains.  It portrayed eastern Montana as a “national sacrifice area” for energy production.  The plan would have devastated farming and ranching communities – massive strip mining, depletion of scarce water resources, air pollution, high power transmission lines.  Not surprisingly, the North Central Power Study helped catalyze the creation of the Northern Plains Resource Council, a state-wide coalition of ranchers, farmers and environmentalists committed to protecting water quality, family farms and ranches, and rural ways of life.  Northern Plains continues to this day, with nine local chapters each concerned with a set of local issues.  The intent of these rural advocates is not necessarily to stop resource development but to ensure that development be done responsibly and respects their communities and the land.
The first two stories suggest a paradox: rural resources and assets are becoming increasingly important at a time when rural areas are depopulating and falling off the public radar screen.  One can make a plausible argument that our long-term economic competitiveness will be contingent on protecting and making highly productive use of our rural resources which in turn will enhance our geopolitical positioning.  The third story begs a series of questions about the relationship between rural people and rural landscapes, between rural communities and major economic interests, and about the abilities of rural communities to control their destinies. 
There is no question that rural America will be subject to major changes over the next 20 or 30 years.  Articulating how these different factors can play out in the future– the economic utilization and conservation of rural resources, the relationships between urban markets and rural areas, the roles that rural communities play in shaping their economies, landscapes and lives – is the major task of the Rural Futures Lab.  This is an exciting and significant endeavor.      

What do you think are the best ways to change the negative narrative about the future of rural America? How does your rural area contribute to national prosperity? Do you feel that your community or region is in control of its destiny?

Alan Okagaki is Senior Advisor for Growth and Impact Strategies at Enterprise Cascadia (a community development financial institution serving Oregon and Washington) and Senior Fellow with the Rural Futures Lab. He recently moved to Seattle for his work with Enterprise Cascadia, but his heart remains in Montana where he lived in a rural community for 30 years.

Visit the Rural Futures Lab website here.

Photo credits: Street scene, Cornfield

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