Rural Renaissance

One scenario for America in the nineties

One of the articles in Being A Planetary Villager (IC#1)
Originally published in Winter 1983 on page 53
Copyright (c)1983, 1996 by Context Institute

WHAT FOLLOWS is an excerpt from the book, Seven Tomorrows, which develops seven scenarios for the evolution of the U.S. during the eighties and nineties. While naturally fictional, they are based on extensive future studies by SRI International. They differ primarily along two dimensions, how difficult the economic and environmental situation becomes, and whether people react in primarily cooperative or competitive ways to these difficulties. This particular section is from "Mature Calm", the mildly difficult, cooperative scenario. Reprinted with permission. Pages 76 – 81.

Many of the changes during these decades happened so slowly that they were not immediately noticeable, for example, the resurgence of the small town and the profound demographic shift accompanying it. College-educated youth from the cities continued their exodus to rural areas. Instead of heading for the woods, many of them set up shop in the village. Just when it seemed that many of the lost skills and arts of our forebears were to be forever lost between the pages of Eric Sloane’s books, tens of thousands of young craftpersons and artisans revived long forgotten skills. The hot tub revolution eventually spawned the revival of the cooperage. Blacksmiths became numerous enough for a national convention in 1988. Blacksmiths not only acted as ironmongers, but many began making tools to order complete with hand turned native wood handles.

The explosion of smalltown culture stimulated a similar increase in live music. With more and more people off in the country, unplugged from TV or just disinterested, there was a resurgence in smalltime country, jug, and bluegrass bands; folk singers, minstrels, and traveling road shows. Networks of smalltown entertainment circuits spread a festive and heel-kicking air that had been lost for decades. Just as the folk-rock music of the sixties had resulted in an explosion in the record industry, this new form of music had its correlative commercial wave. But instead of CBS and Warner, the new labels read Beanville, Red’s Neck, and many more – a profusion of smalltime record companies. Instead of acting as producers, the major record companies functioned as distributors of those labels they thought had national or regional appeal.

Another demonstration of smalltownism was demographic. While city schools continued to close one by one for lack of enrollments, country schools burst at the seams. At first the shift was not recognized by state and federal agencies as they acted on the continued assumption that cities should get the bulk of federal aid. The faltering cities received large infusions of capital and ended up buying off the poor. The pall of urban bureaucratic charity contrasted with the vitality of small towns where the poor were having a better time on less money.

The move toward small towns was not just a romantic fixation. During the eighties, it was still popularly assumed that living country-style was part of the post- industrial reaction to complexity and technology, and that those who left the urban areas were slightly nostalgic if not Luddite. When the 1990 Census showed how dramatic the shift had become, it became clearer that the migration was in fact a reversal of the economic considerations that had driven families off the land in the first place. The cities no longer offered the best jobs, the most security, or the richest lifestyle. They had become so burdened by scale and infrastructure costs that they could no longer support their populations with services and security. Police were beefed up, but streets were dirtier. Teachers were better paid, but the schools were dangerous. Housing was available, but rents were expensive. Food was costly, tension unbearable, and smog unabated.

As the migration to rural America proceeded, it took with it many small businesses – manufacturing, service, and communication. Many people left with their employers en masse to find a better environment. Electronics companies continued to be the growth industry they were in the eighties, and their technology allowed them the privilege of remoteness since they relied little upon steel, trucking, railroads, and freeways. When a small, high-tech company moved to a small town, a ripple effect typically produced a new food store, bookstore, and bakery, as well as a bicycle shop, graphics and design studio, printing press, community garden project, a babysitting co-op, a musical society, and a new surge of community activity in local schools. Each migration and settlement had its tensions, problems, and transitional crises, but there was no question that the hybridization of country folk with city folk in small towns and villages produced a vital environment that was very attractive. Instead of pouring money into the cities, many people hedged their urban bets by putting money into their own favorite town and looked forward to the time they would move to it.

Many who attempted the transition failed. Some could not adapt to lower wages or to the more modest lifestyle. Others missed the tension they had once dreaded. Others simply did not get along, refused to learn the lesson of smalltown diplomacy, and soon found themselves none too subtly ostracized for untoward remarks and actions. Long hair was never a problem in these resettlement activities, but big mouths were.

In the suburbs the change was not as dramatic. While the suburbs experienced some of the plight of the cities – higher transportation and food costs, rising crime and unemployment – they also had some of the advantages of the rural areas in that people had backyards, garages, and, in some cases, small workshops where they could produce for many of their own and their neighbor’s needs. The more affluent suburbs seemed to hang onto their image of how things ought to be. Their voters refused to allow small businesses to operate from homes, or food to be grown on school lawns. Otherwise suburbs made whatever adaptive measures were necessary and prudent. People did sewing, tailoring, and sharpening in their homes. Many front lawns became gardens, and food was prominent at flea markets.

By the mid-nineties, a three-tiered society was easily divisible by geography. While government concentrated on industry, production, and resource allocation, the cities saw their condition deteriorate with little taxpayer sympathy from either Washington or the states. Suburbs that had access to viable industries saw a modest decline in living standards and a tremendous increase in community participation in government, policing, services, and planning. The rural areas that offered good living conditions in terms of food, liberal building codes, friendly people, and ample resources, saw their stock soar. Rural America became the queen of the nineties.

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