February 21, 2015

The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse

An illustration from Aunt Louisa's Oft Told Tales,
New York c.1870
The contrast between life in the city and life in the countryside is older than the history of Nebraska.  Indeed, a story that may have been one of your favorites as a child, The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse, is included in the collection of Aesop’s Fables.  Aesop, a slave who told stories, is believed to have lived in Greece almost 2600 years ago. 

You may remember the story: a mouse from the city goes to visit his cousin on the farm, who offers him a meager, yet hearty, dinner of beans, bacon, cheese, and bread.  The town mouse turns up his nose at the meal, and asks his cousin to visit him in the city.  When the mice arrived in the city, they find the remains of a magnificent feast and are half-way through their meal when two large dogs interrupt them.  As the mice scurry for cover, the country mouse decides that he has had enough.  He declares to his city cousin that he will be leaving, for he would prefer “beans and bacon in peace than cakes and ale in fear."

In modern days, the story of the country mouse and his cousin has become an idiom that describes a perceived, stark contrast between life in urban areas and life in rural areas.  As it turns out, this simple dichotomy has deep and far-reaching impacts on the politics of a state like Nebraska and the manner in which our landscapes are viewed and managed.

1920 was a unique year for demographics in the United States.  Nebraska served as a mirror for the rest of the US when the population of Nebraska, for the first time, was equal in urban and rural areas.  After 1920, the domination of the ‘farm vote’ and the ‘rural voice’ would never be the same.  It might be easy for us to view the demographic shift from rural to urban as an image of rural people running to the city.  But, in fact, the census figures show us that the rural Nebraska population stopped growing in 1920 while the urban population continued to grow and grow and grow—thus tipping the balance in the favor of city folk.

Intriguing political contests show an insight into the friction between rural and urban views.  The fight to prohibit alcohol after the turn of the century in the US, as an example, can be viewed as an urban/rural battle.  Some historians view prohibition as a reaction by rural people against the cities that were developing and growing in the US.  More and more immigrants were settling in cities, and these people had different cultures and different drinking customs.  The century-old march towards Prohibition reached a fever pitch after 1910, as the hand-writing was on the wall—the 1920 census would show that urban populations had outpaced rural populations for the first time, and legislative boundaries would be redrawn. The end of the political clout of the farm and ranch could be seen on the horizon.  And, in 1919, Prohibition was signed into law as the 18th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.  Nebraska served the vital role as the 36th state legislature to ratify the amendment; 36 of 48 states were required.

Prohibition, as we know now, was a temporary victory for rural America.  As cities disintegrated under the thumb of crime syndicates that were unforeseen byproducts of Prohibition, urban American grew in population size and the economy started to flounder.  The Depression was upon the United States.  In 1933, Prohibition was repealed.

Modern political scientists who look for trends in ‘blue’ and ‘red’ states tell us that the divide between states has vanished—the story is focused on cities.  For example, in the 2012 presidential election, the only major cities that voted Republican were Phoenix, Oklahoma City, Fort Worth, and Salt Lake City. After these major cities, the largest urban centers to lean Republican were Wichita, Nebraska’s Lincoln, and Boise.  To point, some of the bluest cities in America are located in the reddest states.  For example, Texas is a red state, but all of its major cities (Austin, Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio) voted Democratic in 2012.  Since 1984, the trend for cities to vote ‘blue’ has deepened. 

Taken from The Atlantic (reference below).
As urban centers continue to grow, some demographers predict that the US will become a dichotomy of rural areas scattered between megaregions of urban concentration by 2050.  These megaregions are produced as cities within certain regions grow towards each other and merge: the Northeast, the Great Lakes region, Florida, the Piedmont Atlantic across the Carolinas, Georgia and Tennessee, the Gulf Coast, the Texas Triangle, the Front Range of the Rockies, the Arizona Sun Corridor, Southern California, Northern California, and Cascadia along the Oregon/Washington coast.
The resulting landscape and potential dynamics make us pause.  Most people in the US will be living in urban megaregions, depending on food, energy, and water resources gotten from rural areas.  As urbanites are further and further removed from rural areas, there may be deeper misunderstandings about how food, energy, and water arrive in the city.  The country mouse will be providing for its city cousin, who will have little comprehension of rural life.

Although prediction of the future is difficult and potentially foolhardy, we can make some statements with certainty.   Even though megaregions may develop, rural areas will see the influx of people who will continue to take up residence on acreages scattered throughout the ag landscape, and this will have interesting impacts on local elections.  To facilitate the ‘urban seep’ into rural areas, we can also predict with certainty that efficiency in agriculture will continue to increase.  So, even fewer people will be needed to live in rural areas.  If we picture the landscape as the factory that it is, fewer people will be needed to run the factory.  The problem with this scenario is that the factory—the rural landscape—is also seen as a way of life, which is different than any other factory in an urban area.  The loss of sheer numbers of ‘real rural people’ in rural areas seems certain to bring continued conflicts surrounding political representation of rural interests. 

Simultaneously, political representation of urban areas should continue to grow.  And, the resource needs of cities will continue to grow, which will bring pressure to extract more energy and food and water from rural areas.  If much of the population will exist in megaregions, we can predict an increase in controversy over transportation of goods: pipelines, transmission lines, highways, and the like will have to cross rural areas.  Current controversies over the Keystone XL Pipeline and electrical transmission lines through the Nebraska Sandhills are likely a small foreshadowing of controversies to come.  Ironically, rural people don’t seem to like to see infrastructure built on their property to transport the byproducts of their livelihoods.  And, that seems reasonable, really.  Not in my backyard, as they say.    

Legislation, in the future, will continue to favor urban values.  If people in cities want their food to be produced without the use of growth hormones and genetically engineered organisms, rural producers of food—who may very well understand how to safely produce food with such tools—may be forced to capitulate to market demands or legislation related to food production.  It is interesting to reflect on Europe and Japan’s current opinions and regulations on genetically engineered foods.  The regulations that are more restrictive in those regions may have arisen because Europe and Japan are much more densely packed into urban areas than is the US.  Current ‘educational’ efforts in the area of agricultural literacy are amusing to view in this light—are these efforts the last gasps of an industry trying to argue with the ideology of an urban demographic that is quickly dwarfing the rural producers?

In truth, the demands on the rural population will not be fair.  On one hand, the rural landscape will be asked to respond to produce food and energy for the cities.  On the other hand, the cities will look across the plains and complain when wildlife disappears from the landscape that is producing their bread or steak.  Or, the populations of cities—undergoing mushrooming growth that is supported by chemical technology on the farm—will complain about the quality of the water that arrives via rivers or canals.  That doesn’t seem fair, and it is a dynamic that must be remedied as we move to the future.

At the same time, the liberal, environmental ideology of the city may be needed to make political decisions to save our landscapes.  Are cities useful?  We can look at the case of hypoxia (loss of oxygen) in the Gulf of Mexico to gain some clues about public opinion and politics.  Currently, the agriculture industry in the Midwest enjoys a relative lack of regulations for nonpoint source pollution of nitrates that rush from farm fields after heavy rains.  One reason for the lack of regulation is that the Midwest—the region drained by Mississippi and Missouri rivers—is essentially city-less, in a relative sense.  There is no emerging megaregion in the Midwest.  So, rural politics still dominate.  Certainly, we can find urban centers along the Gulf Coast, but they cannot enact legislation to regulate farmers in Iowa or Nebraska.  Shrimp fisherfolks in New Orleans feel the impact of hypoxia when the ‘dead zone’ widens and they must fish farther from shore.  But, the shrimpers are in the wrong state to make legislative demands on corn farmers.  In fact, it will probably take Federal legislation to regulate nitrogen usage, but that is currently viewed as counter to the demands for food production.  Nebraskans may rise to challenge pollution of our rivers, but only if urban centers begin to see financial impacts of water treatment to protect their citizens.  Therefore, we would predict that if regulations come, the culprit will be in-state, urban pressures.

As we look back at Aesop’s fable of the country mouse and the town mouse, it is ironic that we see the mice arguing over food.  Perhaps Aesop was just a very insightful person.  Perhaps food has always been at the center of resource allocation arguments through history.  Whatever the reason, we can predict that the rural and urban divide will continue to be a critical factor in our political debates.  Today, there are more town mice than country mice.  And, just as we see with the failure of Prohibition, we can predict that the town mice are going to have an important role to play in the future of our rural landscapes.  Beans and bacon, indeed.  Let’s eat cake.

References used in this piece:

Jacobs, J.  1894.  The Fables of Aesop.  Macmillan and Company: London and New York.  7:15-17.

Kirkpatrick, E. L., and E. G. Tough.  1932.  Prohibition and Agriculture.  Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 163 (Prohibition: A National Experiment): 113-119. 

Kron, J.  2012.  Red State, Blue City: How the Urban-Rural Divide Is Splitting America.  The Atlantic (November 30, 2012).  On-line: < http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/11/red-state-blue-city-how-the-urban-rural-divide-is-splitting-america/265686/>  Accessed 14 January 2015. 

Scott, A., A. Gilbert, and A. Gelan.  2007.  The Urban-Rural Divide: Myth or Reality?  SERG Policy Brief Series, Claudia Carter (Ed.).  Macaulay Institute: Craigiebuckler, Aberdeen, UK. 


1 comment:

  1. Mr. Powell, I think you're close to making a lot of great points, but this article contains a number of false dualities. 1) we should be (and are) producing more food in urban and suburban areas, based on freshness requirements and the cost of shipping alone. 2) the tome that "the city people are just takers and whiners" wore out about 70 years ago - and I'm from the country. There is ample evidence that "The Wise, Conscious Farmer" meme isn't universal, especially when it comes to land use and pollution. 3) Arguably, cities continue to undergo growth because farmers have undertaken a pre-apocalyptic economy of scale when it comes to labor, machinery, and efficiency - driving rural people to cities for employment and adult life. Fire all your workers and get a 24-row planter! One variety of corn per 10,000 acres! I remember talking to an Iowan rancher once who said his "small operation" was 10,000 head of cattle. 4) City "takers" didn't force farmers into corporate-subsidized GMO, or to take corn ethanol subsidies which have forced corn prices over $12/bushel (sustainable prices 10 years ago were guessed to be $3.50/bushel). 5) the fact that many farmers can hardly wait to sell out their farm to real estate development, mining, or natural gas extraction - with negative impacts on water quality in cities downriver, speaks volumes. 6) The trend of "people continuing to move to the country" is real, but is subsidized solely by the fact that many retiring Americans have pensions (enough money to buy real estate while retired) - this will clearly not be the case past 2020 or so. I know that folks in the prairies perceive this as real, as the cost of land has increased tenfold in the last 15 years. 7) The article makes the point that interstate pollution regulation (TMDL) is impossible. Yet, the EPA has in place over 74,000 TMDLs, many of them on interstate waters. The Chesapeake Bay TMDL is underway, though contentious, and is a 6-state effort. And do you know who's currently fighting the Chesapeake Bay TMDL? Mississippi drainage farmers. Watermen in Virginia are being opposed by farmers in Illinois, for fear that the TMDL might (it will) come to the Mississippi. For fear that one day, producers might have to be accountable for the amount of bacteria and nitrogen that leave their operations.

    There's also a terrible dilemma in the works, and you're aware of it. While our farming efficiency continues to (slightly) increase, the number of acreages under tillage continues to decline, while population continues to increase. While "city takers and whiners" have been asked to trust and subsidize American agriculture with our tax dollars, there may come a day when American producers simply can't meet market demands. That will change the dynamic.

    You see, there's much more to this than City Mouse / Country Mouse, as the story holds. As long as the natural gas industry, corn producers lobbyists, and Farm Bureau have hold of the reigns of rural land policy, and land developers, real estate lobbyists, and highway industry lobbyists have hold of the reigns of urban land policy, we are headed for a set of dilemmas we can't yet see.

    But, in your case and to your point, at least some people are looking. Here's to hoping we figure it out.