Sustainable Community Development[i]
I have spent my entire life with rural people. I was raised on a small
farm, attended a two-room country grade school and a small-town high school,
and spent my entire 30-year academic career working with farmers and other
residents of rural farming communities. During the last five years at the
Based on a life time of experiences, I have come to the conclusion that most people change only when three conditions are met. First, they must become convinced that what they have been doing isn't working and isn't likely to work in the future. Next, they must have a realistic idea or vision of something fundamentally better they could do instead. And finally, they must believe that it's possible for them to make the transition from what they are doing now to what they would rather do – they have to have hope for a better future. Real change is always difficult and often risky. Lacking any one of the three, people just keep on doing what they've been doing.
Change is even more difficult for communities of people. It's not enough for just a few people in a community to conclude that something is wrong; there has to be a community consensus that change is necessary. It's not enough for just a few people to have a new vision for the future; there has to be a common vision of a better future for the community. Finally, the people of a community must have a shared hope that their common vision is possible, that together they can create a new and better future for themselves and for their community.
The process of community change is made even more difficult by the fact
that real change is rarely initiated by those in positions of greatest
influence. The people with political and economic power have gained their positions
of influence because the status quo is working for them. They may be willing to
tinker around the edges to appease their critics but they are quite logically
defensive against any real change. So, change in rural
The most common approach to rural economic development today is reminiscent of “imperial colonization.” The only real difference is the nature of the colonizers and the colonized. Large multinational corporations are extending their economic sovereignty over the affairs of rural people under the guise of economic development. These corporations use their economic and political power to dominate local economies and local governments. Irreplaceable and precious rural resources, including rural people and rural cultures, are not being developed but instead exploited to enhance the wealth of corporate investors. These corporations have no commitment to the future of rural areas; they are only interested in extracting the remaining wealth from rural places. This is corporate, economic colonialism.
Rural people everywhere are being told that they must rely on outside investment to bring badly needed jobs, increase local income, and expand the local tax base. Economically depressed rural communities will then be able to afford better schools, better health care, and expanded social services, and will attract a greater variety of retail businesses – so they are told. Rural communities will become more like urban communities and rural people will be able to live more like urban people. Rural people are led to believe they have been left behind by the rest of society – economically and socially –and corporate investments from outside are the only means by which they can hope to catch up. This same basic reasoning has been used by imperialists throughout human history to justify the extraction of wealth from their colonies.
after decades of so-called economic development, the colonies of classical
imperialists were invariably left in shambles. Traditional ways of life were
destroyed, cultures were lost, economic resources were depleted, and natural
environments were degraded and polluted with the toxic wastes of colonial
economic development. Indigenous social and political structures were
destroyed, leaving the people with no means of self-government to address the
shameful legacy of colonialism. The only places in which colonization was
considered a success are those places where the colonial powers virtually
annihilated indigenous populations. The surviving indigenous people of virtually every previously colonized country of
the world, including the
the economic colonization of rural areas continues virtually unchecked all
around the world, including in rural
recently, corporations have begun using contract agriculture as a means of
colonizing rural areas. Comprehensive production contracts turn thinking,
caring farmers into little more than contract tractor drivers, cow milkers, or hog
house janitors. The industrial practices of corporate agriculture invariably
erode the fertility of the soil through intensive cultivation, poison the air
and water with chemical and biological wastes. Once the remnant resources of
this imperialist approach to economic development is allowed to continue, rural
But where is the new vision for better future needed to motivate change?
What's happening to rural
Fortunately, fundamental change is taking place in the larger economy
and society? A growing number of people are coming to realize that industrial
development is not sustainable because it is rapidly running out of natural and
human resources to extract and exploit. The trends of the past simply cannot
continue into the future. Everything of economic value comes from either nature
or society, both of which are finite and fragile. Once the productivity of
nature and society has been depleted, there will be nothing left to support
economic development. Furthermore, those who are rebelling against its
continued extraction and exploitation are creating a new vision of a better
future, including a new vision for the future of rural
Change is inevitable. Everything on earth tends to operate in cycles – physical, biological, social, and economic. This is one of the most fundamental principles of science. All long term trends eventually reverse themselves and move in opposite directions during times of fundamental ecological or societal change. We are living through such a time of change, within agriculture, within rural communities, and in the larger human society. The current transition is being driven by questions of sustainability. We simply cannot continue to extract and exploit. We must find ways to meet the needs of the present without compromising the future.
dominant public issues of today – economic recovery, global climate change,
depletion of fossil energy, growing economic disparity – are all symptoms of
the same basic cause. We are rapidly depleting the natural and human resources
of the earth. Consequently, we must shift from an economy of reliance on
nonrenewable fossil energy – oil, natural gas, coal – to reliance on renewable
solar energy – wind, water, photovoltaics.
We must shift from a wasting, discarding, disposing society to a
conserving, reusing, and recycling society. We must abandon the pursuit of
narrow economic self-interest and individual wealth for the pursuit of economic
opportunity with equity and justice for the common wealth. We must accept our God
given responsibility to care for others, including those of future generations,
as we care for ourselves. Meeting these challenges of sustainability will create
new opportunities for people in rural communities. In the vision of sustainable
economic development there is a new vision of a fundamentally better future for
Sustainable economic development must be ecologically sound, socially responsible, and economically viable. It must respect the basic principles of nature and nature is inherently diverse and dispersed. Thus, in the new sustainable future, the population will be more geographically dispersed. The big cities are relics of industrialization; masses of workers had to be gathered in central locations to work in the factories and offices of large industrial organizations. Cities were built near sources of raw materials, including fertile farmland, or on rivers or seashores for cheap transportation. Cheap fossil energy allowed the cities to survive long after their initial economic advantages were lost. Raw materials could be shipped to cities from anywhere and products could be shipped from cities to people everywhere. But the days of cheap fuel for transportation are over.
Contrary to popular belief, it would not be more energy efficient to concentrate population in a few large metropolitan areas in the future. Too much of anything in one place – solid wastes, chemicals, gasses, animals, people, – inevitably creates environmental and social problems. Such problems cannot be avoided and their mitigation invariably requires large amounts of increasingly costly energy. “The solution to pollution is dilution.” The logical response will be population dispersion – not the urban sprawl of today but instead dispersion of densely populated rural communities integrated into the new energy-efficient transportation network.
Things of nature also are interdependent; relationships are mutually beneficial. Mutually beneficial relationships among people are relationships of choice, not necessity. Sustainable communities of the future, urban and rural, will have their own local economies. These communities will not be self-sufficient but locally owned and operated businesses will be capable of meeting most basic day-to-day needs of the community. Large corporate manufacturers and retailers will be supplemental or secondary providers of goods and services, if they survive. Local farmers will provide sustainably-grown foods. Local builders will provide affordable, energy-efficient housing. Manufacturers of consumer durable goods – washers, dryers, refrigerators – will provide additional local employment, but will supply regional, rather than national, markets. Energy-generating residences and locally-owned utilities will meet most of the energy needs of the community with wind, water, and solar generated electricity.
Sustainable communities of the future will be neither independent nor dependent; they will be interdependent. They will form mutually beneficial relationships of choice with other communities and with outside investors, rather than relationships of economic necessity. People will deal with people in other communities that they personally know and trust. Communities will not be forced to submit to economic exploitation but will engage in relationships that are mutually beneficial. The new communities will be economically sovereign.
Perhaps most important, the social relationships among people in communities respect the principles of human nature. Positive human relationships must be built upon core human values such as honesty, fairness, responsibility, respect, and compassion. People within sustainable communities must have the moral courage to be trusting and kind rather than cunning and ruthless. In the process of building positive relationships, people will come to share a sense of common purpose for their community, not just an individual purpose to be fulfilled within the community. They also will come to appreciate the fact that their lives are made better by relating to each other in ways that serve their common good, not benefiting one at the expense of another.
Sustainable community development is a dynamic, living process. Community members of the future will devote time and energy to the community, as well as to their own endeavors. They will nurture the children of the community, as well as their own, for the long run benefit of the community. Each generation of leaders will nurture the next generation of leaders, each generation committed to the long run sustainability of the community. Community members will understand that it is in their own enlightened self-interest to help sustain a desirable quality of life for the community as a whole, both now and in the future. They will not focus solely on their own success, but will help each other succeed, so the community can meet the needs of the present without compromising opportunities for those of the future.
People of the future will come to respect the hierarchy of nature. They will form communities that are first ecologically sound, then socially responsible, and then will find ways to make them economically viable. They will understand that a sustainable local economy must be built upon a sustainable local ecosystem and society. Communities of the future will be “intentional communities,” in that people will choose places where they want to live and work and then find a way to make a living there. Many of the communities considered the most desirable places to live in the future will be in rural areas.
Most businesses in the new economy will be individual proprietorships, partnerships, or small family-owned or locally-owned corporations. Even today, small businesses provide more than half of the new jobs and the proportion will likely be far higher before the current economic recession is over. The people who own and operate small businesses will be real people, not faceless corporations, and most will be responsible members of their local communities. Their business decisions will reflect not only their individual self-interests but also their interests in the well-being of their communities and the future of humanity. They will be enlightened thinkers who understand their well-being is inseparable from the interests of society and humanity. Many of the owners and operators of these new businesses will choose to locate in rural areas.
Government policies of the future will give priority to sustainable local communities over interstate commerce and international trade. People in communities will be able to implement public policies that show preferences for local businesses whenever such policies are in the long-run best interest of the community. Inter-community and interstate commerce will take place only when it's mutually beneficial. Inner city communities will not remain “prisons without walls” for those who are rejected by the rest of society. Rural communities will not remain the dumping grounds for the animal waste, solid wastes, toxic substances, or criminals created and then rejected by the rest of society. Communities, like nations, will be granted both the right and responsibility to protect their resources and their people from extraction and exploitation.
This is not some idealistic dream. The only logical, reasonable reality for the future will be something at least similar in nature. Current approaches to rural economic development quite simply are not sustainable. If rural communities are not sustainable, agriculture is not sustainable, and without adequate food, humanity is not sustainable. A number of rural communities have already made the decision to localize their economies using the concepts of sustainability and thereby regain control over their future.
A growing number of eco-municipalities in
The Business Alliance for Local Living Economies is an international alliance of more than 50 independently operated local business networks dedicated to building local living economies. A living economy is defined as one in which economic power resides locally, for the purpose of sustaining healthy community life and natural life as well as long-term economic viability. There is no shortage of programs to guide development of sustainable local economies. The challenge is to convince people of the advantage and necessity of investing their time, energy, and money locally, rather than continuing to support the unsustainable paradigm of industrial development.
In the American Midwest,
organizations such as the Center for Rural Affairs in
Rural communities today are at a critical point in their history. Many are still places with clean air, clean water, open spaces, scenic landscapes, and opportunities for peace, quiet, and privacy. Many are still places where people have a sense of belonging, friendly places where people know and care about each other, where crime rates are low and a strong sense of safety and security still exists. These are characteristics most people value in seeking places to work and to live. These things provide the foundation for sustainable community development.
The tasks ahead will not be easy but today there is real hope for rural communities that are willing and able to confront the realities of today, to create a shared vision for the future, and can find the courage to pursue their hopes and dreams of a better tomorrow. There is no certainty of their success but there most certainly is reason for hope.
There is hope in the fact that even today many rural people are refusing to turn their communities into dumping grounds for the rest of society. They are fighting against CAFOs, landfills, toxic waste incinerators, and prisons. They are not getting much help from state and federal governments because most politicians are simply not willing to defy the powerful economic interests that profit from exploiting rural resources. Lacking an alternative, rural people are beginning to stand up for themselves.
They are claiming their basic democratic rights of self-defense and self-determination. They are rejecting economic colonization disguised as economic development. The future leadership of rural American is emerging from the opponents of prisons, landfills, toxic waste incinerators and CAFOs. These new rural activists are learning to organize and to work together to make a difference in the future of their communities. They are learning how to make government work again for the good of people. They aren't winning all the battles but they are slowly winning the war against economic colonialism. In this, there is hope.
Once the people of rural communities have reclaimed their basic right to a clean and healthy natural environment, they can begin the task of rebuilding a solid ecological, social, and economic foundation for sustainable community development. Again, the opportunities of ecologically and socially responsible rural communities will be virtually unlimited as the industrial era draws to a close. The future of rural communities is in the natural resources, the land, and the imagination, creativity, ethics, and honesty of rural people. These are the classical characteristics of rural American culture. In this, there is hope.
In the words of
Vaclav Havel – philosopher, reformer, and former president of the
Sustainable rural community development will not be quick or easy, but many
rural people are already working to make it happen, and it certainly makes
sense; in this, there is hope. The defenders of the status quo are powerful and
there may be no cause for optimism, but still there is cause for hope – in even
the possibility of a fundamentally better future for rural
Prepared for presentation at a Town Hall Meeting on Local Sustainable Community
Development, sponsored by the Catholic Diocese of Sioux City,
[ii] John Ikerd is Professor Emeritus, University of Missouri, Columbia, MO – USA; Author of, Sustainable Capitalism, http://www.kpbooks.com , A Return to Common Sense, http://www.rtedwards.com/books/171/, Small Farms are Real Farms, Acres USA , http://www.acresusa.com/other/contact.htm,and Crisis and Opportunity: Sustainability in American Agriculture, University of Nebraska Press http://nebraskapress.unl.edu;
 Elizabeth Culotta,. "Science's 20
greatest hits take their lumps," Science,
 Sarah James and Torbjorn Lahti. The Natural Step for Communities:
 BALLE, Business Alliance for Local Living Economies,
 The Center for Rural Affairs, <http://www.cfra.org/>
Vaclav Havel.1990. Disturbing the Peace