Thursday, December 29, 2011

Making Rural Matter

By Shanna Ratner, Principal, Yellow Wood Associates

When I started Yellow Wood Associates in 1985, it was with the idea of that the world would be a better place if rural people were able to act as effective stewards of the natural resources that surround them and be rewarded for it.  That led us to specialize in natural resource-based community economic development.

Over 26 years, we've discovered lots of barriers to effective local stewardship, especially for poor rural communities. Resources are often owned and controlled by external forces. Local people lack information about the quantity, quality and potential of the resources surrounding them. Policies and regulations don't support local engagement. Training in stewardship approaches is not readily available. Management expertise is lacking. Market forces encourage exploitation of people and resources.

Today, as we struggle to cope with climate change, population growth, increased effective global demand for goods and services, and instability caused by over reliance on fossil fuels, the need for new approaches to stewardship of natural resources has become even more evident. CarbonNYC
Increasingly, here in the United States, we are beginning to imagine regional solutions; however "regional” is too often taken to mean “metro and adjacent counties” when really it should mean metro, suburban and rural areas. Why? Because cities depend (and could increasingly depend) for clean air, clean water, food, fiber, recreation, labor, renewable energy, and markets for urban goods and services on rural areas. New York City understood this when it chose to invest in improved resource stewardship in the (rural) Catskills, its source of clean water, rather than in a water filtration plant within the city limits. New York City recognized that it is much less costly to protect water quality at the source, by investing in the infrastructure, training, public education, and innovation required to support rural people in changing their behaviors to benefit an entire region, than it is to restore water quality once it has degraded. New York City's investment in the Catskills isn't charity; it's an investment made with the clear expectation of a tangible return in the form of clean water.

We now know that the process of industrialization has resulted in significant exploitation and degradation of the natural (and human) resource base. Bringing these resources (soil, water, air, wetlands, croplands, forestlands, lakes, streams, pollinators, etc.) back to a productive state in which they can help meet the needs of entire regions, will require intentional investment in rural areas that increases the capacity of rural people to restore, manage, and sustain these resources for the benefit of entire regions. We also need to invest in new resource management approaches to available renewable resources.  Ultimately, rural resources cannot be “protected” for the benefit of metro and suburban areas without engaging rural people in their protection and development in ways that are mutually beneficial. If we continue to separate rural development from regional development, we are likely to continue unsustainable patterns of rural resource exploitation.

How can we join hands with consumers and decision-makers in urban and suburban areas to identify new opportunities to funnel investment that sticks in rural areas for the benefit of entire regions? If we can answer this question, we can begin to overcome the rural/urban divide and create allies among our urban friends. As they recognize the value to their own communities of investing in the productive and innovative capacity of rural places, together we can speak truth to power with a force beyond what rural America can hope to achieve by organizing within its own ranks.

Shanna Ratner is the Principal of Yellow Wood Associates, which is the managing grantee for the Wealth Creation in Rural Communities initiative of the Ford Foundation. 


David Kay said...

Nice piece, Shanna. The New York City watershed example is a good one, if distilled into its successes by the City's crystal clear understanding that billions in avoidable expenditures were at stake. Among other things, regionalism projects always remind me of something perhaps more fundamental but less well defined than the money, expressed by Dan Kemmis in Community and the Politics of Place as follows: "But what 'we' do depends upon who 'we' are (or who we think we are). It depends, in other words, upon how we choose to relate to each other, to the place we inhabit, and to the issues which that inhabiting raises for us. All of those 'we' questions are about our way of being public."

Anonymous said...

Thank you, David for your comment. One important purpose of our work on wealth creation in rural communities is to recapture the concept of "wealth" as a 1) something with multiple facets, not all of which can be reduced to dollar signs; and 2) as something that can be derived through investment without exploitation ( a novel idea given the history of wealth accumulation in our industrial and then post-industrial society) and 3) as something we share. We've identified seven forms of wealth that are foundational to a sustainable society - individual, intellectual, social, natural, political, built, and financial wealth - that have both individual and social dimensions. We will not have a sustainable society until we can learn to live off the combined income (not all monetary) from all these forms of wealth and have enough left over to reinvest to offset depreciation and grow the stocks of wealth over time. That's the idea -- we have a long way to go!