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the return to small town america
back to the past
by erik lars myers (@TopFermented)
pop culture

For a while, I was really glad that gas was up to $4.00/gallon this past summer. I was really excited at the forecast that we might see a $7.00 gallon of gas this coming summer, though that looks more unlikely now.

This might make me look, up front, like a bad consumer. Or maybe an OPEC sympathizer. Or maybe I hate dinosaurs. In reality, I have an over-developed sense of loyalty to local economy.

Let me explain. In my mind, here's what a $7.00 gallon of gas does: It heralds the return of small farm, local market America. It means that the production cost of getting a box of red peppers from Chile to my supermarket in North Carolina isn't nearly as efficient as it used to be. It means that there starts to be an incentive for people to start working a plot of land to feed themselves and sell a portion of their goods locally again.

Sure, I know what you're going to say. It also becomes very hard for those people. After all, fuel becomes very expensive to them as well. The cost of getting supplies to them rises. The cost of them distributing their goods rises. The cost of plastics rise. The cost of everything rises with the price of gasoline. You can't run a tractor to plow your land if you can't afford the diesel.

But maybe that's just what we need. Necessity is the mother of invention. So, let's pretend that the price of petroleum skyrockets. Gasoline goes to up $7.00/gallon. People can't afford their 2 hour commutes to work anymore, so they need to reassess their lives. Do they move into the city, or do they find something to do out in the suburbs where they live? Many people move, but some people stay and small towns are born again.

In the cities where you have a concentration of people, and thus a concentration of incomes, it becomes easier to sustain a mass import of goods. In small towns, it's much more difficult, but that's when local goods start to become more important. Local people in small towns will need jobs and food, and small farms are a good source of employment. Those big cities, who can't grow their own food, start to look like good markets for larger farms and those in close proximity.

We often forget that humans existed for 5000+ years before fuel-based machines made things really simple for us. The perseverance and success of our ancestors has bred laziness in us that will be difficult to overcome without our society being forced through a overwhelming change. But we can do it if we have to; our very existence is proof of that.

Would a return to 1890's America, but with internet, instant communications, excellent science and innovation, sanitation, and a more enlightened and educated population be a terrible thing? I don't think so. In it, we have the potential for less pollution, more healthy living, and, I think, a more sustainable economy.


Writer, beer drinker, brewer. Not necessarily in the order. For more, check Top Fermented and Mystery Brewing Company.

more about erik lars myers


lightning goods
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topic: pop culture
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the great american sameness
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by erik lars myers
topic: pop culture
published: 8.24.11


sandra thompson
1.21.09 @ 9:10a

What we need is innovation and creativity in the transportation industry, which I agree with you, we probably won't see unless it's absolutely irrefutably NECESSARY, such as $7/gallon gasoline.

adam kraemer
1.21.09 @ 9:52a

I'd point out that most small towns grew up around industry, as much as farming. They grew up around quarries, around coal mines, around the local factory or mill. And a factory takes up a lot less space and employs a lot more people than a farm. The reason the small town is dying is not lack of farms, in my estimation, as much as it is automation and running out of (or running out of use for) the natural resources that once defined the area in question.

Also, in what pipe dream were people more enlightened in the 1890s? Oh, yeah, everything going great for the average worker in the Gilded Age?

erik myers
1.21.09 @ 9:56a

I only partially agree with you. But that's mainly because I don't believe that anything large enough to have a factory could qualify as a small town.

The other thing is that my argument here is that we're more enlightened now than in the 1890's, but in the 1890's the vast majority of the populace wasn't growing fat and lazy scarfing down potato chips in front of their televisions because they had to get up off of their ass and actually work if they wanted to survive - which would be my preference. Less lazy, more fresh vegetables, more local involvement, also, snazzy internet.

adam kraemer
1.21.09 @ 10:09a

Oh, no. We're definitely too reliant on fossil fuels and what the things that run on fossil fuels do for us. I won't argue that.

But I'd also point out that human beings tend to have a love for sloth when we can get it. I mean, these people you're talking about worked hard because they had to, not because it was good for them. Look at the aristocracy in pretty much every human era, at least since Rome. If you're looking for progress, just think - this might be the first time in human history that the common man can be just as lazy and fat as the rich.

erik myers
1.21.09 @ 10:18a

I'm not sure that's a good thing.

I like to see sloth as a reward for hard work rather than the default state in a time of relative prosperity.

adam kraemer
1.21.09 @ 10:40a

No, I agree. There was some tongue-in-cheekiness there.

Honestly, I'd love to see $7/gallon just so people are forced to walk, run, or ride bicycles.

erik myers
1.21.09 @ 11:40a

Right. Yeah. I think it does force action, which is why I think it would be good in the long run.

In the short term it would suck to high heaven, though.

robert melos
1.21.09 @ 3:31p

Locally this won't work. We have surburban spread here. Hundreds of condo/townhouse developments. You can't plow an acre when all you've got is a parking space. As for walk, I was in what locally passes for a city here; New Brunswick, NJ, last night. A guy stopped me and asked if there was a supermarket near by. I pointed out the nearest supermarket was 13 blocks from where he was. The option was to get a cab and go to the town across the river. Nothing locally in walking distance.

Small town America is a nice idea. So is a world where aliens land and give us everything we've ever wanted. Sure then may eat us later, but nothing is perfect.

tracey kelley
1.21.09 @ 10:31p

The predictions for 2009/2010 is that more people will have backyard vegetable gardens, not only because it's healthier, but also because it's more frugal. There's a renewed sense of nesting, because people can control what happens at home - not so much what happens in the big, scary world.

I don't think $7 gas is the answer, because it's not the only reason for the problem. Small towns started dying out when the highway system replaced the scenic byway system. While I enjoy traveling at 70 mph as much as everyone else, it's harder to drive through Main Street, USA and stop in a local diner for a late lunch if the interstate has a cloverleaf with a Fill-Er-Up and a McDonalds.

Also factor in lack of industry (I once lived in a small town, population 7,000, where the paper mill employed half of the adults in the community). Then add in lack of qualified workers for certain industry.

By the 1980s, you had WalMart. Once considered a sign of progression for a small community, it now represents the death of downtown.

You also have brain drain. Young people leaving farms and small towns for the big city and university. They meet new friends, new partners, take different jobs away from home and move out of state. Buy a house, start a family, and 20 years pass. Oh sure, they go home for Christmas, and miss the friendly pharmacy where they once had ice cream, but they've become accustomed to certain conveniences not found in most small towns.

But there's a resurgence. Thousands of people leaving big cities for something a little more quiet. Main Street revitalization efforts are succeeding in many small communities. Read up on Fairfield, IA, for example. A sleepy farm town that experienced new commerce and new growth because the Marharishi thought his University and his TM followers belonged there. Suddenly, there's a cosmopolitan air and strangely-shaped buildings and a lot of vegetarians in and around pig farms.

So it all has less to do with the price of gas, and more to do with intent.

This couple is an example of this - Stuart and Alice White, who own Bluebird Meadows - http://www.bluebirdmeadowsnc.com/

lucy lediaev
1.22.09 @ 12:22p

Fairfield, IA....A sleepy farm town that experienced new commerce and new growth because the Marharishi thought his University and his TM followers.

My ex-spouse and I can take credit for calling Maharishi's attention to the availability of a vacant college campus in Fairfield. Our whole family spent a lot of time in Fairfield during the 70s, once Maharish International University landed there. It definitely changed the town--some have argued not for the better!

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