In the last post, I listed four common characteristics of rural economies and suggested that they could be used to “flip” common problem narratives to suggest solutions. Today’s post explores the first of the four: rural economies’ deep dependence on natural environments.
The key industries at the heart of rural economies – agriculture, horticulture, forestry, fishing, mining, tourism and so forth – are heavily reliant on natural environments. This in turn means rural economies are vulnerable to a range of risks and shocks that create rural economic problems: drought, bushfires, floods, storms, disease, weather variations, climate change and environmental degradation – just to name a few. While policy, research and local action may work in various ways to mitigate the frequency and impacts of these hazards, the fact remains that these are natural hazards. Most of the time, they are outside human control.
Rural industries rely on natural environments to survive. Recognising this pattern enables us to ‘flip’ the narrative: from problem to opportunity. Dependence on natural environments can create losses and shocks, yes. But this dependence also reveals a deeper truth about economic activity – and human activity. No matter how much we may disguise the fact with pavement and boardrooms, websites and streetlights, our economies and societies are deeply interconnected with our environment.
In rural places, in rural economies, these nature – people connections are most clearly visible. Locals directly experience the flow-on effects of damage to primary industries in their businesses and shops. They directly see and experience environmental ipact and damage. This direct visibility is a strength. Daily, those who work in rural industries must grapple with practical questions of how to embed sustainability into their livelihoods and landscapes.
While urban dwellers often paint simplified caricatures of “environment” versus “economy”, rural communities live and work at the coalface of the economic – environment interface. They are well placed to see sustainability in three dimensions: with attention to people, economy and environment.
Successful rural regions are ones that take these grounded insights and transform them into sustainability-focused products, processes and initiatives. Examples of “green economy” and “eco-innovation” are abundant from Australia and from around the world: smart agricultural innovations to maximise water and fertiliser efficiency; community-owned wind farms; ecotourism initiatives; Indigenous traditional food industries; the list goes on. What these economic activities have in common is that they are made possible through embeddedness in local environments.
The deeper the embeddedness, the more sustainable the economy. For instance, while our Western worldview sees “natural resources”, an Indigenous Australian worldview sees Country. The difference is enormous. Resources are inanimate; they can be extracted and used up. Country is animate, relational, sustaining. It is therefore unsurprising that Indigenous land management practices demonstrate effective understanding of how to “manage” natural environments and protect against hazards.
Rural communities work at the “eco-interface”, the meeting-point of ecology and economy. As the global community begins to recognise the need for economic activity to harmonise with ecological limits, and to count the real costs of environmental damage, rural communities are in a surprisingly powerful position. Beyond slogans and political posturing, rural industries and communities are perfectly placed to grapple with sustainability in three dimensions, and use this knowledge to lead real change.