–Philip J Reed on behalf of Exede, a rural internet provider.
In the natural world, diversity matters. An ecosystem needs a variety of both plant and animal species in order to thrive. On a larger scale, a healthy planet is home to a variety of landscapes, from rain forest to tundra, that contribute to a balanced earth.
In the human world created by civilization, another kind of diversity is important to our overall health in the present and to our future as a species. That diversity is found in the variety of settings in which we live, from the most densely populated cities to the most isolated rural outposts.
We tend to think of cities as the most important of those settings, and that tendency is reinforced by the growing cultural influence and political clout of urban areas, qualities that are themselves functions of vast demographic change. In 1800, some three percent of the world’s people lived in urban areas. According to a 2011 estimate by the United Nations, in 2008 the number of people living in cities reached 3.3 billion, for the first time amounting to more than half of the total world population.
That trend is likely to continue. Between 2011 and 2050, the United Nations expects world population to grow by 2.3 billion and the urban population to grow by 2.6 billion. This projection can mean only one thing: Cities will grow while rural population shrinks.
Perhaps it’s natural, then to focus our attention on cities, but rural areas and the small towns and villages they encompass are absolutely necessary to a healthy world. We neglect them at our peril. The fact is that the very existence of cities depends on the integrity of the rural areas on which we all depend.
Agriculture is obviously essential to our survival, and farming is of course a rural enterprise. Fisheries occupy a similar position. Natural resources are another product of the rural environment. Some are renewable, such as forest products and wind- and water-powered energy. Others are non-renewable, including sources of energy like oil and natural gas, and sources of industrial materials generated by mining. Regardless of category, all are critical to our survival and all originate in rural areas.
However, the rural contribution is not limited to practical matters, important as those are. We derive physical and psychological benefit from the countryside in ways that are quite real, though hard to quantify. We get pleasure from sports and outdoor activities, and from visiting an area where we can enjoy natural beauty and abundant wildlife. If nothing else, our psyches often need the refreshment of the rural perspective.
Beyond the vision of rolling green hills and amber waves of grain that symbolize “the country,” the small towns that punctuate rural areas also fill critical needs. First, they provide a nexus for distribution of those vital rural products, including food, lumber and minerals. Second, they perform important functions for the rural population, providing small-scale government, along with commercial and personal services, that would not be available in a truly isolated area. Third, they offer community, a necessity for the inherently social beings that we are. Without small towns, the rural population’s decline would likely be even more precipitous than is now predicted.
Our tendency to discount rural value is nothing new. It found a notably clear expression in the debate over the original terms of the U.S. Constitution, when less populous states feared that they would have no say in a legislature apportioned according to population. The convention stalled over the question, and it took the “Great Compromise” to move things forward. That compromise added a legislative body, the Senate, in which each state had equal power regardless of population.
The Great Compromise recognized the importance of rural America. The need to respect the value and integrity of all non-urban areas around the world is certainly no less important today than it was in the 18th century. If anything, the need becomes more urgent as the cities grow in the foreseeable future.