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Rural America as a Commons
With many ready to dismiss non-urban life as a relic of history, rural America’s place in the future is in question. The rural role in the American past is understandably more apparent. As the story of urbanization goes in the United States and elsewhere, the majority of the population used to live in rural places, including small towns and sparsely populated counties. A substantial proportion of those people worked in agriculture, manufacturing, or extractive industries. But trends associated with modernity—mechanization, automation, globalization, and environmental conservation, for instance—have reduced the perceived need for a rural workforce. Roughly since the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century, rural depopulation has continued with some consistency. In 1940, the U.S. rural population peaked at 57% of the total population. Today, that proportion is 14%.
Rural populations’ presence in distressed regions borne of fading legacy industries raises questions of whether it is a beneficial use of scarce public resources to support rural regions, and whether the rural way of life is consistent with modern needs. And thus, the fate of the 14% and their communities, at least in the most struggling regions, is in question.
While many urbanites are quick to dismiss rural issues as niche issues, geographic inequality, rurality, and rural livelihoods are implicated in one way or another in virtually all the crises described above. Framing the countryside as obsolescent or superfluous overlooks fundamental aspects of the often-invisible urban-rural interdependence that undergirds American life. Cities still rely heavily on rural resources and workers and will need to do so even more in the face of climate change. As such, rural resources, workers, and localities need to be taken more seriously as a critical component of an interdependent national system.
Ann M. Eisenberg *
* Associate Professor of Law, University of South Carolina School of Law