Sat Sep 15th, 2007 at 10:53:31 PM EST
A recent discussion in the daily news forum got me thinking about the issue of rural population decline in developed countries. I have a sense of the problem in Japan and the US, but I'm curious about the situation in other parts of the world, and I wonder what the community thinks about the issue.
Articles and discussion after the jump.
First off, an article about the situation in Kansas, from the Lawrence Journal/World News. Lawrence is a university town in Kansas.
Rural Kansas, once the backbone of the state economy, is going through a series of painful changes, expert panelists told a Kansas University audience Thursday.
"The state of rural communities is tough," said Tom Gissel, who farms 7,000 acres with his brother near Larned. "We're aging and we're depopulating," losing schools, post offices and other services that hold the communities together.
"Kansas has a lot going for it, and not all Kansans subscribe to the gloom-and-doom paradigm," Brooks said.
But the tone of the presentation was far from optimistic.
"I live in a rural ghetto," said Pete Farrell, a Greenwood County cattle rancher. "Do you know what a ghetto is? It's where people are so poor they can't leave."
The situation in the US is a combination of abject poverty and demography - agriculture doesn't pay, there's not much of an economy outside agriculture, and a lot of young people wouldn't want agricultural jobs even if they did pay.
Anecdotally, my parents moved recently to Mountain Home, Arkansas. My father had to drive three hours or so to pick me up at the airport in St. Louis, so I got to see a bit of the countryside on the way home. Not very encouraging - lots of disused farms and land returning to nature. Abandoned barns, decaying outbuildings, empty houses.
In Japan, poverty is not as much of a problem. The government and the giant nationwide agricultural cooperative make sure that farmers do well enough, economically speaking. The problem seems to be that there are fewer young people than ever, and those few there are simply don't want to be farmers, especially in small, remote communities.
As much as people hate the Economist, they do sometimes produce worthwhile articles, like this one on Japan's demographic crisis.
It is in the countryside that demographic changes hit particularly hard. There the population has been falling for years, as younger villagers head for the city in search of work and play. Today, those over 65 account for two out of five people in rural communities, and three-fifths of all farmers. The future of farming in such places is in doubt. Growing rice, the staple crop, requires communal efforts in irrigation, flood control and the like. Mutual obligations in communities run even to organising funerals. So when young villagers leave for the city, everyone feels the loss. An earthquake on July 16th in Niigata prefecture brought the problem home; the 3,000 evacuees still living in shelters are predominantly elderly, unable to fend for themselves in their damaged houses.
The tiny hamlet of Ogama, in Ishikawa prefecture near the Sea of Japan, is responding most radically to population decline. (The community has three men and six women between the ages of 62 and over 90, down from a population of 50 a generation ago.) The survivors of this remote and stunning valley have canvassed an industrial-waste company from Tokyo and, if the prefecture approves, the valley--paddy fields, vegetable plots and cedarwood plantations--will disappear under 150 metres (500 feet) of industrial ash. The villagers plan to use the money from the sale to build new houses in the nearby township, to where the ancestral shrine has already been moved.
My own take on the rural situation in Japan is that the "bright lights of the city" effect is really strong. Everybody wants to be part of "mainstream" Japanese culture, which is pretty monolithically defined as Tokyo urban culture. Rural culture is the culture of old people, and rural life is the life of the old. Some get involved in it, but most don't, and those that don't are lost to it forever. In my area, young people don't go walking in the parks and hills, they don't go and enjoy the various natural wonders, and they don't care about the history of the area. I occasionally see young couples at the various famous Chichibu temples. They're almost always kited up in modern urban wear, the woman in ridiculous heels, the guys as often as not in some approximation of the hip-hop look. They drive in, see things for a bit, then drive away.
As people leave the distant areas, they're just abandoned, with sometimes odd effects. I'm not sure if this is a reprint of something posted in ET a while ago, but I think it's really emblematic of the situation here - Leech invasion makes residents see red
TOKYO (Reuters) - Long confined to the mountains, Japanese leeches are invading residential areas, causing swelling, itching and general discomfort with their blood-thirsty ways.
Yamabiru, or land leeches, have become a problem in 29 of Japan's 47 prefectures, according to the Institute for Environmental Culture, a private research facility in Chiba prefecture, east of Tokyo.
The little suckers are riding into towns and villages, hitching lifts on deer and boar whose numbers have grown due to re-forestation and dwindling rural populations.
An academic piece I randomly found on the topic of rural population decline cites the following factors in its abstract.
The factors that best explain differences in rural county population growth rates are
* the level of employment diversification
* average rural income
* average education level
* distance to a major city.
The analysis shows that:
* Other things equal, counties with higher average incomes grow faster.
* Counties with more highly educated populations grow more slowly since the incentive to leave rural areas increases with education.
* Rural counties benefit from proximity to an urban labor market and from a more diversified local economy.
* Younger populations are more sensitive to these factors than the population generally.
* Local government fiscal policies have no effect on population growth. It seems that the although locally provided government services make a place more attractive to live in, the taxes needed to finance these services counteract the effect.
* Higher average farm incomes tended to slow the decline of the county farm population.
* Similarly, nonfarm populations grew more rapidly in counties with higher average nonfarm incomes.
* Higher nonfarm incomes had no significant effect on farm populations, while higher farm incomes led to declining nonfarm populations. This suggest that nonfarm population growth does not depend on a strong farm economy, nor does farm population growth require a strong nonfarm economy.
The results of the study suggest that the welfare of rural areas does not depend on the welfare of the farm economy. There is evidence to suggest that rural areas will benefit from an effort to diversify the rural economy. However, more local government spending financed by local taxes will not lead to higher population growth.
First, I wonder if interested readers might post a little bit on the situation in their own country. How are rural areas doing? Why?
Second, I wonder what the community thinks about the countryside in general. What do you see as the future of small towns and rural populations? What role do you see them playing in the world of the future? Do you think they are doomed to disappear, linger on in a marginal state, or undergo a bit of rejuvenation? What should their economic role be? What balance is to be had between them and the unquestionable cultural superiority of the big cities? How will peak oil and the coming resource shortages affect all this?