On self sufficiency and rural sustainability

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(Rubem Porto Jr/Flickr Creative Commons)

Density, density, density and more density. That’s my mantra. Build cities up, not out. Get people out of their cars and connect the masses to public transit. Build affordable housing and foster energy independence. Empower communities that have been trodden on and implement their ideas. Plug in to a renewable grid. Produce food and goods as locally as possible. Eat the rich — wait, I mean eat less red meat (maybe the rich too).  

These are all promising solutions to the beastly problems of climate change and climate injustice. The cities of the future must be efficient, clean and equitably planned. And as the majority of people on earth continue to move into urban areas, these ideas will become even more prevalent.  

However, rural areas of the world will continue to exist. How do we eliminate their emissions? How do we connect them to goods without unwieldy supply chains? How do we satisfy their energy demands without tying them to grids hundreds of miles away? How do we solve rural transportation needs? 

Rural communities are not designed in the same manner as urban areas (duh) and thus need different, more creative solutions. Incentivizing density, for instance, is not easy to do. Rural areas are spread out and isolated. It’s not a simple task to connect rural populations to efficient supply chains and mass transit. The current system of individualized supply chains and personalized transit is wasteful and unsustainable. If we want to create sustainable rural communities, these supply chains have to be eliminated or mitigated.  

Self sufficiency is the most effective way to reduce stress on supply chains. Foods and fossil fuels need to be transported to and from rural communities — but if relative energy and food self-sufficiency is achieved, these inefficient supply chains won’t need to exist. Energy needs, especially in the relatively low-usage rural areas, can be accounted for with renewable energy microgrids. Solar microgrids, which provide locally sourced, locally controlled renewable energy, have produced tangible benefits for the rural poor. In 2015, the Rockefeller Foundation started an initiative to bring solar microgrids to India’s rural poor. The project connected millions to clean electricity and created serious economic and social benefits in the process.  

Self-sufficiency should be encouraged among rural farmers—not the current system profit-maximizing monocropping. This monocropping prevents farmers from engaging in truly self-sufficient agricultural practices — like biodiversity, crop rotation and cover cropping — that serve themselves, not the broader economic system. Without an emphasis on food in self-sufficient communities, we cannot scale down the massive supply chains which bring food across the world.  

Rural communities will also need to embrace electric cars as a central plank of their clean energy plan, as the sprawling nature of rural living makes it hard (although not impossible) to connect residents to mass transit. We must be wary, however, of the Elon Muskian vision of widespread, personal electric car use. A large part of fighting climate change is reducing our consumption — not just the way we consume.  

Sustainable rural development will not look like sustainable urban development. While urban areas can become more efficient by densifying and linking people to mass transit, sustainable rural development will rely on self-sufficiency and decentralization. That’s not to say rural people should be cut off from society and forced to live as nomads — no, rural populations should and will maintain connections to the urban centers. Light rail and other forms of mass transit can link small rural centers to cities and goods. The internet, which is currently unavailable to vast swathes of the world’s rural poor, will be accessible through clean, locally controlled microgrids.  

At its core, sustainable rural development should focus on self-sufficiency — not just to reduce emissions, but to empower the rural poor. Of course, building the institutions and incentive structures to achieve sustainable rural development is another issue altogether — but all progress and all action begins with a vision.  


Harry Zehner is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at harry.zehner@uconn.edu.

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