How you gonna keep 'em down on the farm?
A while back I attended a meeting about population migration, both here in the US, and around the world. I learned that 77% of the people in South America live in a city and that the vast interior of that entire continent is virtually empty--and is becoming emptier every day. There, rural people are moving as fast as they can to cities, for jobs, for an education, and for other opportunities.
South America is not an isolated case. The same phenomenon is happening in China, in Africa, in Australia, our smallest continent, and here in North America as well. According to population and migration specialists at USDA, if the current rate of US migration from rural America to our cities continues, 100% of the US population will live in an urban area by 2040.
Does that mean that the Ozarks will empty out and revert to wilderness? Probably not, since the "rate of migration" will undoubtedly slow as some people--like retirees--won't feel compelled to move because they "have been there and done that" at least as it relates to jobs, or education. And tourist destinations, like Eureka Springs, will certainly remain points of destination for vacationers and recreationists seeking respite from the daily urban grind. That surely means that a rural service industry, and a population of nearby rural service workers, will be necessary to "serve" them.
But who other than retirees and service workers will live in rural America in general, and in the Ozarks particularly? Food production workers will, for one. Because world population now stands at almost 7 billion human beings--and is projected to increase to 9 billion by 2040--land devoted to agricultural production and production facilities to process animals, minerals, and vegetables will greatly expand, along with the pool of food processing workers to slice, dice, and package. These workers will be, by the way, mostly immigrants or refugees from Mexico, Central America, or Somalia.
Under most scenarios, by 2040, rural towns like Berryville and Green Forest will be surrounded by factory farms owned by absentee corporations, have a Wal-Mart where service workers and production workers shop, and have plenty of Public Housing which will be necessary because local and federal government chooses to subsidize low wages paid by food processing companies with public housing and other government remittances.
What won't be in our towns by then? Virtually all retail shops not explicitly focused on the tourist trade, your church, your newspaper, the middle class, and your children and grandchildren--who will have moved away to seek better lives and living wages in distant cities. Do you think I'm overstating the case? Try, today, to buy a pair of socks in Carroll County in a store other than Wal-Mart.
Does the future have to look like that? No, but changing the future depends on how well we--you and me--along with local government and business, work together to, in the words of the writer and farmer Wendell Berry, "invert the economic order and practice the Law of Return."
Inverting the economic order means putting nature first, the economies of land use second, manufacturing third and the consumer economy fourth. The Law of Return means that if you make your money in town you return it by spending your money in town.
All that prevents these miracles from becoming real is if we chose nostalgia over action, and ignore the practical arts and skills of our neighbors in favor of what is cheap, and what is easy. The future can be different if we begin to make different choices.