That American culture is city-centric doesn’t take a degree in social science to figure out. We love our metropoles, assign character to each of them, and take a great deal of pride in them. Many of us aspire to live in the one that we imagine fits us best (hence BuzzFeed’s recent “What City Should You Actually Live In?” quiz). Ask a college student where they would like to be after they graduate and they will probably name you a major city, potentially across the country (or world) from where they are now. Dwelling in an urban center is the unquestioned norm for the majority of Americans, sometimes to the detriment of the minority who do not. In my previous post I commented on environmentalist thinker Stewart Brand’s support of urbanization as a force for good, which I find problematic. I promise that Stewart Brand-bashing is not an intended theme of this blog, but here I must return to a particular statement in his book Whole Earth Discipline: “In the slums as well as the leafy suburbs, the progress is from hick to metropolitan to cosmopolitan, and everything the dictionary says that cosmopolitan means: multicultural, multiracial, global, worldly-wise, well-traveled, experienced, unprovincial, cultivated, cultured, sophisticated, suave, urbane.”
“Hick.” That’s urban America’s view, straight down its nose, of its country-dwelling people. The fact that Brand can so glibly drop that insult in an ostensibly intellectual text only underscores the fact that his audience is nearly exclusively urban (perhaps urbane) – which makes sense, as I would imagine most anyone working for a living in a rural community would scoff at his argument that the countryside benefits from urbanization – but that’s perhaps yet another post. The funny thing is, as much as I disagree with Brand, I can’t quite label his negative view of rural America as prejudice. It is judgment – deserved in a sense, unfair in another. Rural communities are known for being tight knit, or stifling, depending on who’s talking. It’s easy enough to see why. There is a great deal of shared experience among groups of people who have occupied the same land and many of the same livelihoods for generations. That fosters tradition, and along with it, strong expectations of what an individual in that society should be like. As a product of suburbia, I can’t claim firsthand experience of the phenomenon, but I have met a number of other young people who do not wish to return to their hometowns because they do not fit the cultural mold there for whatever reason. People who watch the exodus from the countryside tend to implicate a lack of economic opportunity in small towns and rural areas, but I suspect that cultural alienation of young people is also to blame. It seems to me that if those young folks felt enough at home in their rural home places that they did not want to leave, the American entrepreneurial spirit could find a way to build an economy just about anywhere.
Cities, on the other hand, are giant mosh pits of cultures, all thrown together in pursuit of disposable income and social excitement. There can be no denying the eye-opening, transformative power of coming into contact with people who are very much not like you. The idea that cities over time create a net effect of increasing knowledge and cultural acceptance seems entirely plausible. However, as the forces of globalization press onward, the city dweller lives in an increasingly homogenized world, a concrete land of big-box stores, chain restaurants and supermarkets, highways and industrial architecture that make urban areas less and less distinguishable from one another, and increasingly disconnected from the land base they inhabit. If today’s metropolitan individuals are more worldly-wise than ever before, they are in equal measure regionally clueless. I believe that equation works both ways – what rural folks lack in cosmopolitan sophistication they must possess in local adaptation, which is why urban Americans should think twice before throwing around condescending labels.
My point in all this is that cities are chaotically diverse, which facilitates exchange of ideas and culture, while rural areas tend to be insular, and foster intimate knowledge of a place and people. Wouldn’t it be great it we could have our cake and eat it too? Be connected to the land, and also to each other on a global scale? We have a tool for that. You’re on it right now. So you don’t want be isolated from the rest of the world in order to get back to the land? You don’t have to. Internet is increasingly available even in the boondocks. Those hicks – at least the younger, hipper ones – listen to much of the same music and watch the same TV shows as their urban counterparts, via Pandora and Netflix. They’re on Facebook and Twitter. Most importantly, they are increasingly connected to one another across many country miles about issues that matter to them. The internet enables organizations promoting young agrarianism through modern media, like the Greenhorns and Farmrun. FarmHack is an online community for open source small farm technology, from high-tech developments to the most knucklebrained simple solutions. Internet sources connected me to my last two farm jobs. A whole slew of eco-farming blogs, YouTube channels, Twitter accounts, and e-Book collections provide me with endless information and inspiration from others inside the movement, all over the world.
This is what people mean when they talk about the “democratization” of information on the Internet, and it is the best side of the digital age. It affords people an unprecedented ability to communicate and organize from the ground up rather than from the top down, and I believe the new agrarian movement stands to benefit most dramatically from that ability because of its widely dispersed nature. I blog (and Tweet, and Facebook, and Google…) because I look forward to a future American landscape of richly interconnected, locally adapted cultures and economies, and I believe the Internet is our most powerful tool for realizing that vision.