November 8, 2019 – I received a few comments on Facebook suggesting that I oversimplified rural-urban exchange in this post, most notably that rural areas benefit from the products produced by urban areas. My intent wasn’t to write a treatise on the subject, but I would encourage those folks to do their own research while considering the following:
What do cities consume? What do they produce? What do those goods contain that contribute to ecological systems? What do they contain that are detrimental to those systems? What ultimately happens to those goods? How does supply and demand within free-market capitalism influence the means of production with regard to environmental health concerns and the division of labor? Would you say that the enduring legacy of rural stereotyping plays into the concept of Social Darwinism?
Now that your research is done, it has been my experience that very few people know the concept of externalized costs. Many more have never had to experience life in communities bearing the greatest burden of those costs. 82% of the US population now lives in urban areas. Like Joel Salatin I also believe that many people in urban areas have little knowledge of where their food comes from. I’d go further to say they don’t know where most of the things they use come: energy, construction materials, goods such as clothing, furniture, appliances, etc, nor do they consider the amount of embodied energy required for their creation–beginning to end.
Make no mistake, oil and natural gas are not extracted in urban areas, neither is coal, nor bauxite, nor iron ore, nor rare earth metals, nor aggregate for concrete, nor livestock, nor mono-cultures such as corn, wheat, and soy that require pesticides and petroleum based fertilizers that are linked to cancer. Sure urban areas manufacture cars, but car culture has further separated us, turning many rural areas into commuter villages for urban areas and eroding away our sense of community while increasing the demand for oil. And sure urban areas produced electronics, including TVs, but those have only further separated our communities as we “amuse ourselves to death” (Postman 1985). What useful products are produced that increase quality of life are often created with programmed obsolescence. And quality of life is also very subjective. I would wager that many indigenous, free, land based cultures would say they had a very high quality of life until we took their lands and destroyed them, along with their culture.
Engaging in the argument that rural-urban exchange somehow equalizes the injustices occurring in rural communities is simply engaging in cognitive dissonance regarding the overall impact of urbanism. People want to enjoy their comforts and conveniences while believing that their lifestyles have minimal impact. I’d highly recommend walking a few miles in rural people’s shoes, especially rural communities comprising minorities such as migrant farm laborers or other communities of color where the injustice of externalized costs are exponentially worse. I’d also highly recommend reading Wendell Berry’s What are people for?, Joel Salatin’s Folks, This Ain’t Normal, and/or, for a quicker, much simpler take watching The Story of Stuff .They have a fact checking link in the comments if you are worried about the truth of their assertions.
Finally, this isn’t to say that urban populations can’t mitigate many of these problems. I’m a big proponent of multi-use zoning, urban agriculture, and smart grid renewable energy systems, cradle2cradle design, and numerous other sustainability initiatives, but even still, the simple fact remains, concentrating a population on a smaller geographic area that cannot produce the goods it needs will ultimately place that burden upon smaller, rural communities and their environment—people, lands, and ecosystems that are out-of-sight and out-of-mind to the growing majority. Simply put—it is not sustainable.