Are country people more resilient? Only with good networks.

Did you grow up on a farm?  If so, you’re part of one of the smallest minorities in the country.  And you are becoming more of a minority in the US and world-wide.

maxresdefaultPeople with rural accents, especially Southern white rural accents, are perhaps the only minority which can still be ridiculed without fear of the PC police.  Country bumpkin, redneck and yokel are terms not yet banished.

The country person is often portrayed as the ignorant rube who can be taken advantage of by city people.  It’s often true.  I remember the first time going to town to buy school clothes with money earned by baling hay and raising cattle.  The shopkeeper played on my naivety and sold me a bunch of stuff which was ugly and didn’t fit.

The shopkeepers in small town America have traditionally been members of urbanized ethnic groups well connected to sources of supplies.  Chinese shopkeepers dominated in the Mississippi Delta; Jews and Lebanese in other rural areas.

They knew how to bring in goods needed in rural communities, often gouging the local farm families.

Walmart, for all its faults, changed that.  “Quality of life, for me, is having a Walmart within 20 miles,” a participant in one of our studies told us.  Walmart provided a connection to cheap staples available only far away from rural areas.  Local merchants, used to profiting from the rural lack of connection to these sources, could no longer compete.

It’s easy to look at the many  survival skills of country people and say they are more resilient.  They have many more of the skills needed to produce food, shelter and warmth than city people.  They know how to use garden tools, preserve food, build houses and cut and store firewood.

But when country people aren’t well-connected outside the rural area, they often find it hard to survive.  That’s true for crucial inputs and for markets.  Farmers in the 1930s woke up to this fact and began developing input supply and marketing cooperatives. These ventures enabled the farmer to avoid middlemen and their high prices for inputs and low prices for farm commodities.

Many farm cooperatives also became adept at adding value to commodities so they could sell more directly and reap more of the consumer dollar.  Those who did created wealth unheard of in rural areas.  Stuttgart, Arkansas, has become one of the most prosperous small towns in Arkansas due to two large cooperatives which make products from rice, soybeans and other grains.  Many other small towns in the Midwest have followed the same path.

One common ingredient in the communities which have created these prosperous cooperatives is usually a large number of people descended from European immigrants in the late 1800s.  These Germans and others came largely from small villages where people knew and trusted each other.  In some cases, whole villages immigrated together.  Stuttgart was settled by a group of Germans led by a Lutheran preacher who settled on the open prairie.

Sociologists would say these folks had high levels of bonding social capital.  They were all tied to each other by blood, history, religion and language.  As a homogeneous group they knew each other and could trust each other.  This was enough to help them survive.

But to prosper, they needed bridging and linking social capital.  They needed to be connected to suppliers and markets and government and new ideas.

Ecologists call this modular connectivity: a few strong local links and many weak, long-range links.  To survive, any species or ecosystem relies mostly on local resources and other local species to create resilient systems.  However, when an ecosystem is isolated, it often declines.  To avoid extinction, ecologists call for “increasing connectivity . . .[i.e.] management actions that facilitate dispersal of species among natural areas, for example, through the establishment of landscape corridors or stepping-stone reserves.”

In human terms, resilient people have a few good friends and many acquaintances. Resilient systems are networked yet independent.

Resilience is not about survival on your own.  The most resilient systems are independent, but they are well-connected outside their systems.  When country people establish those connections, no one can beat them on resilience.

Then roles are reversed and the city slicker must rely on his wiser, more skilled country cousin. That’s the way resilient systems work.  All cities decline when their residents lose their knowledge of the ecosystems their existence depends on.  The only question is when.


For more on being networked, but independent, see the first chapter of our free book at this link. 

For more on ecological connectivity and climate change, click on this link.