Globalization and Rural Communities

By Aubrey Streit Krug

Want to be challenged? Check out Richard Longworth’s 2008 book Caught in the Middle: America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism.
 
I commend Longworth for calling my attention to the reality of globalization: an increasingly connected and competitive world in which wealth is unequally distributed. Solutions to problems in the Midwest—like economic insecurity and rural depopulation—must take globalism into account.
 
Longworth tells dark stories about the Midwest - the few surviving mega-farmers, small towns turned into slums, the effects of methamphetamine and other drugs, the influx of immigrants to work in dangerous conditions, the under-education of youth, the popularity of Casey’s General Stores in food deserts.
 
The Midwest has already changed for the worse due to globalization, Longworth says, and “More will change. Nothing’s coming back.” In an age in which borders are crossed around the globe, Longworth calls for the Midwest to cross its own self-made borders—the mythical and political ones that divide polities and communities—and come together as a region. “The Midwest’s task now is not to try to reclaim what is lost,” he concludes, “but to seize the future.”
 
I think this oversimplifies the situation. To “seize the future,” the Midwest and rural communities need not make a clean break from the past. Instead, we need to reclaim and take the best of the past forward.
 
Small communities need not be seen as collateral damage on the way to a brighter future. In fact, we should draw on Midwest ideals, the tradition we have of seeing our region as a place where people both hatch innovative ideas and serve their local communities. I believe that Longworth too quickly dismisses the possibility of a third way, of rural communities that can both participate in and critique globalization. Rural citizens committed to small, local economies don’t have to pick between a) giving in to globalization or b) facing a slow death on the margins.
 
The forces of globalization may be a reality, but they are not immune to change. They can be challenged, reconsidered, revised. These challenges can come from the bottom up, from our Midwest roots.

Small and mid-size family farms, for example, need not be so quickly dismissed from the future of farming, as Longworth states in a recent blog post. Longworth’s belief in the “efficiency” of mega-farms is based upon an optimistic view of technology. Big ag has problems with environmental degradation, he says, but it also has—or will soon have, thanks to the research of land grant universities and private corporations—solutions. But my faith in human ignorance outweighs my faith that human technology can, quickly and on a large scale, control environmental variables.
 
Whether you agree or disagree on this particular issue, I think Longworth’s overall logic prompts us to ask important questions about globalization. Longworth says that globalization is the way of the world now, and will be the way of the future.
 
But we have to ask: does it have to be this way? Is Longworth’s version of globalization the only version? I don’t think so. I believe we Midwesterners can together imagine—and create—a globalized future that includes resilient rural communities.