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Sustainability in Rural Areas

Being a “green” person nowadays means that you compost, ride your bike everywhere, eat organic and local, drink tap water, and try to consume less. Visions of this person generally conjure the image of the urbanite, however, sometimes spilling into other aspects of life such as an activist job and vegan diet. Never do we think of the poor rural citizen either as the target of “greening” or as someone who might already be green.

Making a sustainable ruritan

The challenges of a sustainable rural life are similar but in many ways fundamentally different than those for urban citizens. Perhaps the most obvious of these differences is those around transportation, where the “ride your bike to work” or “take the bus” mantra becomes a moot point. Rural jobs tend to be natural resource based and only connected to the global market at distant distribution hubs.

Although basic needs found in town tend to be close (such as the general store), most rural citizens end up going “into town” once in awhile for a dose of the arts, medical care, networking, or visiting family. These trips put a new perspective on distance and require car ownership in the US, where public transit such as Greyhound and Amtrak doesn’t extend into small communities. Greening rural transportation then isn’t about giving up the car, but instead making the use of a car less resource intense – this is where the use of biofuels made of farm waste and fuel efficiency play a large role.

The rest of the rural challenges can be lumped into one statement: green consumerism doesn’t work in areas of low population. The idea of voting with your wallet is impossible when your entire constituency is a tiny fraction of a given market. Furthermore, this particular vote is not even a fair one, as purchase options are limited. In extremely rural areas, there will be one store, often a Walmart, offering the only place to buy things that aren’t produced at home.

Take food as an example. The food in a rural grocery store may be locally produced, but those local farms are the demonized industrial farms that produce food for urban residents. In North Carolina, for example, a familiar backyard sight and smell is the industrial hog farm. Granted, the industry could stand improvements in animal welfare and waste management, but many rural carolinians work for the hog industry and depend upon the continued existence of the industry. The answer here is not to import organic veggies and tofu from California to support a vegan or vegetarian diet, but instead to develop new ways to support the local farms to be greener – and therefore the pork industry.

Might we have things to learn?

Rural life, however, might have much to offer our understanding of sustainability. Previous sustainability movements have been accompanied by a “back to the land” movement, placing young people back on farms and valuing resourcefulness and home production. There are elements of this in the modern sustainability movement, with a growth in farm ownership by young families, the popularity of knitting and sewing, growing support for backyard gardens sometimes complete with chickens and bees.

What rural life has to offer is really a connection to the natural resources that underpin modern society. No matter what the upper crust of society chooses to commodify as part of the green movement, there is still and underlying social metabolism requiring food, fuel, and fiber. Rural areas will continue to produce this food, coal, metals for information technology, and cotton and wool. They therefore embody the much greater challenge the sustainability movement needs to face in the future, moving beyond a commodified and sometimes hipster “green”. We need to find ways to support these industries to be greener and keep their rural communities safe and healthy. Once that happens, the urban communities might fall into place. I’m not sure it can work the other way around.