rural populations are in inexorable decline

English: This photo describes a rural area
English: This photo describes a rural area (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
In more and more countries, rural populations are in inexorable decline. China hit peak rural in 1991, only a year after the U.S., with 836 million people in rural areas. The number living in the countryside today is 636 million (compared with 722 million living in urban areas of the country). Brazil’s rural population peaked in 1973 with 42.4 million rural dwellers. That is down to 29.7 million today (compared with an urban population of 171 million).
India and Nigeria are yet to hit the peak, with rural populations still growing at a little under 1 percent a year in India and around 1.2 percent in Nigeria. But globally we are reaching the inflection point. In the five years between 2009 and 2013, world population increased about 1.2 percent a year. Urban populations increased 2.1 percent a year. If urban population worldwide keeps expanding faster than total population, sometime around 2021 the global rural population will start to decline in absolute terms. Three decades after peak rural in the U.S. and China, we’ll hit planetary peak rural.
This change could have some significant political impacts. Not least, it will probably speed movement away from conservative attitudes. Around the world, city dwellers consistently tend to think differently from country folk. Pippa Norris looked at survey evidence from 70 nations around the world and found that people living in urban areas are more likely to favor free trade and immigration, and more likely to trust the United Nations. Urban populations are less likely to be religious, according to Robert Barro of Harvard. And Quentin Duroy of Denison University notes they also seem willing to pay taxes to protect the environment.
The environment will likely benefit from declining rural numbers because urban living is simply more environmentally sustainable. At the same income level, dense cities have lower per capita energy use than sparsely populated rural areas because people don’t have to travel as far for work, school, or entertainment, and expensive land makes for more compact housing. City living is also good for human development—urban populations in the developing world see higher life expectancies and better education outcomes because public service provision is so much more straightforward than trying to provide electricity or schooling to sparsely populated rural areas.
But there is a flip side: As rural areas literally empty out, it will become more and more costly to provide infrastructure, education, and health services to those who remain in the countryside. Rural residents will likely have to travel farther to schools and hospitals, and the tax base supporting repair of the roads they travel over will shrink. Providing new infrastructure will be increasingly uneconomic. It may well be that the pockets of poverty in rural areas will become even deeper. The world may well follow the U.S. and China in seeing the income gap between those in the countryside and those in the city yawn ever wider—in China average urban incomes are now about threefold those in rural areas.
Planetary peak rural is a plus for the average global quality of life and its sustainability. But an increasingly disadvantaged rural population across the developing world might also be the source of political division. Perhaps in the Indian or Nigerian elections of 2030, a candidate will talk about people in the small towns of rural Rajasthan or Kano clinging to their guns and their religion or their antipathy to people who aren’t like them out of desperation at their state—and recognize America’s past in their present.
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