One rural future: the fall of the countryside

Over the holidays some of us discussed a thoughtful and gloomy New York Times piece on rural America. For me this crystallized some ideas about the future of rural America.

A key point for me was one of the article’s conclusions: that as the rural population declines, one of the best things the nation can do is accelerate the movement of people from the countryside to cities. Not how to stabilize that population or even to expand it, but a kind of embrace of decline.

So let’s start with a cluster of rural trends:

  • Demographics: older, whiter than suburban and urban America.
  • Economics: poorer. Agriculture obviously more important, and that increasingly operated at scale by large enterprises.
  • Technology: some use of advanced tech. Otherwise, relatively behind in infrastructure. Also, given an aging population, tending to be less likely to use digital tech than the rest of America. In some ways closer to tv than the web.
  • Politics: in rural areas, more conservative. Nationally, there’s a Republic sense that the heartland is precious, but not necessarily supported well by government policies. On the Democratic side, a sense that rural America is either irrelevant to strategy or is simply a lost cause.
  • Education: lower degree levels than suburban/urban America.
  • Environment: increasingly impacted by global climate change. That’s like the rest of the world, of course, but rural areas are more challenged in some ways. Their businesses depend more clearly on nature (think ag as well as tourism). Their politics currently tend towards rejecting anthropogenic climate change even exists, so local and even regional mitigation efforts are less likely to gain traction.

These trends reinforce each other at times. Technological enterprises demand many highly educated workers, and so they draw resources and people into cities and away from the country. A growing experience of racial homogeneity encourages white racism, which in turn discourages nonwhites from moving into the countryside. Declining infrastructure – broadband internet, electrical grid, roads – further discourages investment, which then leads to lower resources for infrastructure maintenance, and so on. (In my new book I call trend clusters metatrends. The term is obvious, but seems rarely used.)

Now let’s extend these trends, assuming for the sake of a blog post that they’ll generally continue. What does rural America look like by 2035?

I call this scenario “The fall of the countryside” as it is a decline narrative. I also want readers to hear the seasonal reference, as it points to a winter to come. It is one scenario, by no means excluding other futures. Quite the contrary. If I have time, I’ll share an alternative.

Abandoned motel, upstate New York.

Imagine a much smaller rural population. There are fewer people in rural counties than in 2019 and earlier, even as the rest of the country’s population slowly grows. This means fewer people per rural house (think lone individuals) and more untenanted buildings. The latter recall the Rust Belt.

It’s also an even older population than it is now. Indeed, a popular cultural imagination of the countryside is as a retirement zone, the place where people go who no longer work. The combination of aging and shrinking demographics could shrink, merge, and close K-12 schools. That, in turn, with make rural areas even less appealing to younger families, which accelerates the aging and depopulation trends.

The more active economic realm within the countryside is divided into five areas. First, big ag, worked by a small number of people, often immigrants, and a good amount of automation. Scale and automation enabled food to be produced by relatively few people, actually tiny working staff numbers in historical context. Second, health care is very economically significant, as an older population tends to consumer more of it. So hospitals, clinics, dentistries, medical supply stores, etc., are key players in the rural economy.

Third, retirement sites of all kinds can be seen, from memory centers to gated communities. Fourth: tourism, which may become more exciting as the majority of Americans have so little experience of the countryside. Fifth, a service sector which supports the preceding four categories – i.e., food service, tech support, transportation. Given compensation trends in these areas, economic inequality will likely be high.

An abandoned school.
Abandoned school in Illinois.

There are now rural ghost towns, eerily empty counties. People tour these for thrills, much like visitors descend upon the ruins of Detroit today. Glamping occurs for the wealthy. There are also rural pioneers who set out to revitalize rural America, learning new skills. Some few suburban and urban people, horrified of what digital technology has become, migrate to the low-tech countryside. Nonfiction and fiction stories of thrillingly empty and/or retro rural America are popular.

Dotted throughout the rural landscape are connectivity islands. These are nodes well connected to the world through a combination of investment, a population cluster, improved infrastructure, and drones. They may be anchored on an affluent population, an ag business enter, a medical center, or a campus.

Speaking of which, education: the K-12 sector shrinks, as noted above. Locally serving public higher education retools to focus on an older student body, while some campuses fail who cannot make this transition. Some nationally- and internationally oriented colleges and universities struggle to maintain student numbers, as the rural location becomes viewed as a net downside. Those that do well serve as anchors to the immediate regions. To the extent that states continue to believe that education is a way to save rural areas from collapse, they will offer some level of support to that end.

Some institutions will shift curricula to address the changing rural situation. We could expect more classes on local traditions, including handicrafts, folklore, history, and construction (the image here is from the Foxfire book series, which everyone in education should know). We should also see a greater emphasis on the full range of allied health, with an eye towards gerontology.

Politically, rural resentment of the rest of America could possibly burst out into dissent or unrest. Already several political leaders, notably Trump, have tapped into this sense of having been left behind economically and culturally. Racism and religious reaction are some patterns that could expand. These could become self-reinforcing if suburbs and cities view these politics with horror and disdain.

Alternatively, a reactionary rural world may sustain itself demographically by attracting suburban and urban conservatives, which in turn exacerbates the country-side divide even further. But in this scenario that dynamic fails to materialize, as few conservatives in practice choose to leave behind suburban and urban amenities.

The technology gap may crystallize into a proudly retro culture. Rural people celebrate their gas-fueled, entirely human-driven cars in opposition to suburban and urban autonomous electric vehicles. They increase their dislike of cyberculture and relish older media: tv, print newspapers, movies and plays in theaters, live music. Imagine a 75-year-old couple sitting in their classic 2005 sedan, parked to watch a drive-in movie. They munch on snacks made by local folks they know. Nearby a string band plays before the generator-powered projector flickers into life. Just beyond the parking lot is a vibrant forest, well stocked with life, and emitted all kinds of noises. Our couple prefers to focus on the food, the music, the one other car in the lot, and each other, anticipating the film, and proudly bereft of mobile phones and smart glasses.

(thanks to Laura Gibbs for one link; abandoned motel photo by Alex Wrightabandoned school photo by Randy von Liski)

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3 Responses to One rural future: the fall of the countryside

  1. A few thoughts on the future: one rooted in the distant past; the other on a fictional distant future.

    The Past: In William Cronon’s seminal ecological history of New England, “Changes in the Land,” [ ], he cites the factors that posed a dilemma of existence to native populations similar to Bryan’s portrait of rural America.

    Although Cronon’s thesis cites some disruptive factors that are not present in Bryans’s thesis (smallpox, TB, other European diseases), there are significant similarities. Native concepts of land “ownership” were predicated on shared stewardship with other tribes and transient seasonal sustenance; European concepts of land use were driven by exclusive property rights, fencing in what one owned, and then exhausting the extractable commodities from them until the land was useless. Once natives became weakened by disease and from the encroachment upon their sustaining territory, they either had to join with Europeans, or die off. Some joined, but most died off. Residual evidence of the exploitation/abandonment model is found in Tom Wessels: Reading the Forested Landscape videos [ ]

    The parallel here to Bryan’s rural tableau is in the presence of “colonial” forces which cause the traditional rural economic model to become irrelevant, e.g. scale farming, automation, etc., and it doesn’t look good for the “pro-retro natives”. Which leads me to the future portion of my response….

    The Future: One cannot watch Star Trek in any of its incarnations (let’s take Next Generation for now) without being enchanted by the reality that, in their world, technologies have made money irrelevant. No one needs it because all of one’s basic needs can be met at no cost. (Suspension of disbelief required here).

    My point here is that we cannot possibly predict which technology(s) will instantly (in the geographical sense) make one’s physical location irrelevant because we can flourish without being in proximity to what we need to meet our basic needs, socialize, and raise our children to be successful. What would it take for this to happen? Maybe it’s drones, universal access to (good) satellite based Internet, no-cost healthcare, universal basic income, VR embodiment, cold fusion, chip implants, facial recognition, and on and on. Perhaps there will be a natural disaster so profound that tens of millions of people will need to be resettled. We just don’t know.

    But here’s my caveat: We can, as Bryan has done, document our observations about the current decline, but it would be a mistake for all of us, as McLuhan might say, to fill the old medium with the content of the new medium – the medium, in this metaphor, is the concept of community as “colonists” invade. We can only imagine the future according to our puny present-day frame of thinking, like a cinematographer in 1890 pointing a motion picture camera at a vaudeville stage. The new medium is an entirely different species, much like how political figures like Alexandria Ocasio-Ortez and Donald Trump have sucked the oxygen out of traditional news channels (who could have predicted that five years ago?).

    The rural landscape will continue to decline, but neither nature nor technology will allow a void to go unfilled. Just ask all the artists who shacked up in a decrepit Bedford-Stuyvesant Brooklyn, made it hip, and are now getting bounced out by colonial forces (developers).

    Note: Credit is due to Harold Innes [ ] who first developed theories of communication based on the Canadian transportation systems which transformed the entire economy, culture, and landscape.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Steve, thank you for the very deep and researched response. I really appreciate it.

      I like your parallel between old New England colonial settlement and today’s urban world, in terms of the changes they bring about upon the rural world.

      And I do agree about the limitations of trend extrapolation. There are others as well, which I note in my upcoming book: trends can accelerate or decelerate, for instance. But I still use them because they are grounded in evidence, and because part of the future is the persistence of the past.

      I like your Star Trek post-scarcity model, and think 3d printing (replicators!) would play a key role there. I’m less hopeful about that future than I used to be, having seen neoliberalism survive 2008 and thrive.

  2. Jim B says:

    I remain skeptical. I have the sense that the people making these observations are in favor of changes and have world views that hold rural worlds in negative lights. I’ve been reading for years that urban living is better and more efficient, that we should get rid of the master planned neighborhoods because they enable the automobile, that we want walkable urban spaces, not people living in the suburbs. It sounds like another refrain in an argument of a singular world view – that urban dwellers think everyone should be encouraged to live like they do.

    I suspect that there are significant regional differences…growth in Texas may be different than declines elsewhere. I don’t doubt that urban growth is accelerating here and elsewhere, but I also see suburban and rural growth. I know other southern states are seeing growth too, and I doubt all that is rural to rural and urban to urban.

    I think there will be a threshold – and you note this – of people who simply prefer not to live in cities. The more people live in large cities, the more people will want to exit. Houston, for example, has grown so large that I would not want to ever live there again. I think you are right about how economies will tranform but I also think you will see business moving to (and buying land) where costs are lower, especially ones where automation keeps labor costs down. I think this will build economies up because even small numbers of employees with cash in pocket will be looking for service. I also see significant changes (all well noted by people smarter than I) towards service jobs that almost anyone can do (grocery delivery for example) that can supplement other jobs.

    I think you are right that elderly populations will gravitate out of the cities as they retire.

    I note that I said “I think” a lot and am merely expressing opinion above. I don’t mean this to be more than a quick reaction to what I see as the latest in a steady stream of news about reinforcing the desirability of a move to a more urban world.

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