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Taking Rurality Seriously

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I’ve spent more than my share of time in American rural communities, both in terms of studying them for my logging book, living in east Tennessee and northern New Mexico, teaching for a year in Ohio, and in my time in small-town remote Pennsylvania off and on over six years that just ended a few months ago. I don’t agree with everything about this essay on the problems with how we talk about rural America, but it’s worth reading and taking seriously.

Rural regions dominate the American landscape, comprising 97 percent of the country’s land mass. While 20 percent of Americans live in these regions, many still doubt their importance in the 21st century. A new wave of commentary and reports have tackled a question on many urban Americans’ minds: can rural America be “saved”? One of these, a New York Times op-ed by Eduardo Porter, went as far as to say, “one thing seems clear…nobody—not experts or policymakers or people in these communities—seems to know quite how to pick rural America up.” With stagnant or declining populations in many rural counties, and “superstar cities” hogging most of the economic growth, Porter’s view would have us believe that rural life is fading away.

I’ve spent the past four years living in and researching rural communities in Michigan and Wisconsin, trying to understand how rural people use modern technology to further their livelihoods. Rural businesses and economic developers have many tools at their disposal to do what makes the most sense for their communities. But an economic growth perspective—largely a result of neoliberal economic policies—makes assumptions about what success looks like. And while the growth prospects of rural America may come across as dire, accounts such as Porter’s largely ignore the work being done on the ground by rural communities to save themselves.

A major problem here is that urban-based commenters think about rural areas and their unique features as deficits. Instead of portraying aging and stagnant populations as a problem that needs to be fixed, what happens when we think of them as opportunities to learn about sustainability and the future? Rather than constantly harping on Internet infrastructure and access as the keystone technological issues of rural America, what experiences do rural people bring to the table that help us build a future digital world that can be equitable for everyone? Rural values related to neighborliness and tight-knight communities can be looked to by technology designers to create more open and welcoming online spaces. Remote and spread-out populations can teach us a lesson about how to incentivize user-generated content on platforms like Yelp and Wikipedia.

We treat rural communities as if they are just behind the times and waiting to catch up. When we turn to emerging American supercities as bastions of the future, we lose what we can learn from rural communities. Porter asked, “can rural America be saved?” It’s too late for the editorial offices of the New York Times to save rural America; it’s already saving itself.

I don’t really know how one can build an economy around tight-knit communities and I question what that means other than racial homogeneity. But I do think there are some good points here. Part of the problem about the way we talk about rural American comes from teh fact that the chattering classes have absolutely no clue about it, which partially explains all the ridiculous “let’s go talk to white people in the Midwest who have voted Republican for 35 years about Trump stories.” Part of it is that people can’t imagine an economic model different than what we have or values different than profit.

It seems to me that there are multiple things happening here. First, rural people are trying to do what they can to keep an economy going. Whether they are “saving themselves” or “need to be saved” is an open question. But there is more going on in these places than one might think–although that might be growing weed or meth. Tourism is absolutely part of an answer. Oakridge, Oregon has become a national mountain biking mecca and has turned a depressed old logging town into something with some real economic growth. The question of who shares in that growth is an open question though. The cultural changes that come with hippies entering your small town can be fraught with conflict. In the end, the biggest problem is that we don’t have an employment policy that takes place seriously. The question needs to be not only how we create jobs but where we create jobs. This is why I get so angry about tech just building more in California and Austin and New York instead of thinking about how they could revitalize less advantaged regions. Ultimately though that takes government leadership which we very much don’t have. You have to create jobs in areas that need them, not just make Austin and Nashville and San Francisco even more expensive. The government can do that. Maybe it takes rethinking what rural people actually want, a question that we should all be asking, even if we may disagree on what it means.

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