September 06, 2004

A town for industry, not people

Here's another example of this country's rejection of Thomas Jefferson's rural vision, and of the seemingly inexorable economic drive toward the large-scale: Greyhound is eliminating many small-town stops like Ritzville, Washington.

Residents of these small towns have very few transportation options open to them anymore; all ways out of town are in the car, either yours or someone else's. This shrinkage of transportation options seems at odds with most of modern society, where technology seems to provide a constantly expanding set of choices for doing just about everything that human beings habitually do. At least, that's the way it seems for residents of the modern economy's favored mode of social organization, the megacities with their associated suburbs and exurbs and satellite settlements. If you live in "San Francisco" or "Atlanta" (the scare quotes mean that the precise city limits aren't what matters), you can be sure that you'll have access to every new gadget, restaurant concept, movie, investment vehicle, health-care plan, and advertising gimmick that the modern economy produces. You'll be participating in the modern miracle of economic expansion and greater consumer choice. The one choice you don't have is to move to Ritzville, Washington and expect to participate in the same way. The large-scale dynamism of modern society seems to have required the sacrifice of rural vitality and the health of small-town life.

The abandonment of rural areas isn't limited to transportation. Ironically, rural areas also suffer from a restricted range of food availability (as this study exemplifies). The rural regions that we've abandoned as places to live and wholly given over to agricultural production suffer from food scarcities.

The success of the megacities at the expense of the hinterlands, at least as a pleasant place for people to live, can't easily be described as the result of "choice" or of the American people "voting with their feet." Instead, it seems more like a physical imperative. Greyhound doesn't describe its withdrawal of service as anything other than an economic necessity. Small-town stops aren't profitable, and so this move more closely resembles a natural phenomenon than it does a human decision. Greyhound is as much a victim of implacable economic forces as the town of Ritzville. The limited food availability in rural areas is the seemingly inexorable result of large-scale agriculture designed to produce large volumes of single crops for transportation across the entire globe. These economic forces are slowly but surely killing small towns outside the orbit of the megacities. There seems to be no room in the modern economy (i.e. the modern reality) for the small-scale, local, decentralized, and independent way of life, completely apart from any consideration of what actual people "prefer."

The internet is one example of a modern technology that could make small-scale, independent communities more appealing. But this seems to be an isolated exception. The general rule is that small towns have no place in the modern economy, regardless of whether individual people might prefer the small-town life.

Ritzville, of course, still has a function, but it isn't as a place for people. Instead, it serves as a "destination point for grain from the surrounding farms, but little else." The grain doesn't get milled and sold in Ritzville, but "is loaded onto freight trains here and shipped to Portland, Ore., then on to Asian markets, where it is used in noodles." Ritzville is slowly becoming a mere waypoint for the worldwide industrial production of food products, and as it does so, it slowly ceases to be a community of people who farm.

Posted by Carey at September 6, 2004 12:06 PM

As a first-year public policy student here at the University of Michigan interested in rural/agriculutral policy, I found this blog entry very interesting. I share your concerns over the decline of American rural communities. Thanks for directing me to that article and study.

Posted by: kgb at September 7, 2004 03:42 PM

I do think you'd enjoy _The Geography of Nowhere_ and associated books by JH Kunstler. His website is snarky, too. His main point is that the suburbs are unsustainable and an affront to human nature and community.

Posted by: Nick at September 8, 2004 10:14 AM

The lack of public transporation is not just confined to rural areas. On Long Island for instance, it's easy to take the train into the city. Try using public transportation for getting from point to point on LI, however.

Posted by: Larry at September 9, 2004 08:30 PM

Are you familiar with Jane Jacobs' book Cities and the Wealth of Nations? It contains much that someone with a standard economics background would probably disagree with; however, it attempts to explain this sort of phenomenon, which standard economics does not.

Posted by: Zack at September 10, 2004 04:25 PM