A Conservative End to the Rural Dream?

NPR’s Morning Edition quotes former FCC economist Michael Katz bashing rural life back in early February when he addressed an American Enterprise Institute panel discussion on the broadband elements of President Obama’s economic stimulus bill.

“Other people don’t like to say bad things about rural areas,” Katz began. “So I will.”

The stimulus package includes $7.2 billion to expand broadband Internet access into “underserved” and rural areas. Katz listed ways that the $7.2 billion could be put to better use, including an effort to combat infant deaths. But he also spoke of rural places as environmentally hostile, energy inefficient and even weak in innovation, simply because rural people are spread out across the landscape.

“The notion that we should be helping people who live in rural areas avoid the costs that they impose on society … is misguided,” Katz went on, “from an efficiency point of view and an equity one.”

My immediate response, when I had managed to avoid swallowing my toothbrush, was that The Blogger Who Shall Not Be Named will have a fit when he hears this. So far, apparently, he hasn’t. But Katz, about whom I know almost nothing other than the above quote, has a point.

Back when I was an enforcement attorney for federal EPA, my duties occasionally took me into the Midwestern boondocks, in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Indiana. A lot of what we dealt with was various kinds of industrial dumping, which happened in the boondocks because such places are less closely watched than those nearer the cities. But in the course of dealing with this problem, I became acutely aware of another set of problems for which the statutes and regs provided no solution—what was inelegantly called in the Clean Water Act “non-point sources,” that is, runoff of pesticide, herbicide, and fertilizer residue into the waterways, and ultimately, into drinking water sources. The drafters of the Clean Water Act, reasonably enough, figured anybody can stop up a drain pipe until the stuff coming out of it is cleaned up, but it’s really hard to keep the rain from washing pesticide off of a cornfield, and, last I heard, nobody was trying. In god’s green countryside, the air smells great (usually—on principle, I will tolerate the smell of manure, but I’m not at all keen on fertilizer smells, which can get pretty rank in some seasons) but you have to be really careful about drinking the water. I have done no research on the sale of bottled water in rural areas, but the stats ought to be interesting.

Additionally, the farther apart people live, the more dependent they are on the passenger automobile to accomplish anything. The closest thing to public transportation in most rural areas is the school bus. Computers and various kinds of smart phones can do some of the work of physical getting around, and in the real boondocks (like arctic Alaska) they often do. But the car-truck-tractor culture has become embedded in rural culture even where it is not physically essential to rural survival.

So rural life is not necessarily good for the environment. Urban life may be better, not because it produces fewer waste products, but because it produces them at fewer points, which are therefore easier to monitor and clean up. The same principle, BTW, applies to the electric car—even if the production of the electricity necessary to run it also produced the same quantity of greenhouse emissions as an internal combustion engine [which may or may not turn out to be the case], it would still be a better idea, because it’s easier to clean up emissions from a power plant smokestack than from multiple car exhausts.

On the other hand, we still need to grow food, and rural areas are where mostly we need to grow it. Which means people need to live and work there.

On the basic principle that, if our society needs some individuals or groups to engage in particular activities, or live in particular places, or bear particular burdens on behalf of the rest of us, it ought not to punish them for doing so, I believe that country dwellers shouldn’t be any worse off than city dwellers (in the same way that parents shouldn’t be any worse off than non-parents, and so on.) So if we in Chicago can get broadband at a decent monthly charge, the folks in Grundy County should have the same access. But shouldn’t we at least be trying to encourage them to tread more lightly on the land they farm?

This needs more thought.


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