Wednesday, May 23, 2007

An important day

Today is the day that, for the first time in human history, more people will live in urban areas than in rural areas. Another inevitability? Or perhaps a chance to stop and think about how societies are changing?

I mention this because of a light-hearted post at Pharyngula whose discussion thread is a mess of ambivalent observations and questions: i.e., where do suburbs and exurbs fit into the urban-rural divide? But lets start with a global perspective.

In large part the world population shift is due to large-scale changes in India and China--the two most populous countries in the world. People from rural areas move to urban areas to find employment. Its an age old story (think Les Miserables), but when these changes take place on a large scale social movements are not far behind. Pockets of urban poverty, historically, make great incubators for social unrest and often this unrest is violent. Couple this potential social unrest with nuclear weapons, and headaches for everyone...

In the United States the picture is different. You don't have to leave your rural environment at all... the exurbs will come to you. When they sold it a few years ago, my parents' farm was surrounded by exurban houses. It was depressing to drive out there yearly and see the steady transformation of farm after farm into tracts and houses. Everyone, it seems, wanted a chance to have the 'good life'.

The creation of exurbs has been particularly disconcerting. Instead of neighborhoods with neighborhood bars, neighborhood restaurants, a neighborhood post office, and a neighborhood school... millions of Americans have traded that in for gated communities, large weed-free yards, and soulless copycat bars, restaurants and box stores that you have to drive to. We are a nation that, by becoming more attached to our homes, has become less attached to each other*.

Economically, suburbs and exurbs are not sustainable, as their very existence requires both a thriving metropolitan area and cheap fuel. Well gasoline is not going to become cheaper--although we might save on our long term costs by switching to hybrid cars. But... well I don't want to derail this entry too much by going into the state of our cities. Let's just say that my city, Rochester, gets by... but barely. Also, it is used to wearing a lot of hand-me-downs.

This rural-exurban exchange is troublesome on many levels--cities need rural areas to provide food and farm products (cotton, flowers, and dope)--but few people actually think about the realities of farming--the increased incidences of cancer and accidents involving machinery. Sure, people may have a vision of farmers as living the good life. But it is a life of long hours, hard work, and high occupational risks. Also, hay fever sucks and animals stink (this may be obvious, but it is never mentioned in the brochures).

Yet in the end, exurbs suck at the life of our country. They take land out of production. They landscape land that could have been a wildlife area. They transform landscapes with black asphalt and cars. And yet at a time when household debt continues to rise and household savings are at an all-time low, the exurbs continue to expand. In part this is because people are willing to borrow what they cannot afford--it is no longer a question of being able to pay it all back, now it is a question of making the minimum monthly payment. And in part it is because developers cut deals with county commissioners (look: jobs!) and because 5 houses will always bring more tax revenue than 1 farm... never mind the fact that 1 farm will use less of a county's resources.

I've always thought that exurbs were an example of all of the shortcomings of classic economic thought--anyone who assumes that people make decisions about money in a rational manner is out to lunch. But that could just be me.

*This is actually a Fascist's wet dream. The Vichy slogan--work, family, and patriotism--is embodied in the exurban dream.