The Fate of the Small Rural Town
Update: Today’s Drumbeat at The Oil Drum features two additional stories covering this issue:
SUV factories closing, bicycle sales and train use rocketing, commuter belts becoming “ghostburbs” as residents flock to the inner cities . . . welcome to 2008 America, where soaring oil and petrol prices have triggered a sudden revolution in travel behaviour and a seismic upheaval in the automobile industry.
There are no utilities and no public transportation in this unincorporated town of a couple hundred people along a narrow road that winds through the mountains 314 miles north of Sacramento. Many people here buy gas for their vehicles and gas or diesel for generators that power their homes.
“I’m scared to death” of rising fuel prices, Hanley says. At the store, the hub for visiting whitewater rafters and residents of other isolated towns, gas cost $5.30 a gallon on a recent day when the national average was $4.07.
This community may be an extreme example of how rising gas prices are hitting rural Americans particularly hard, but people in small towns from Maine to Alaska are in a similar bind as those here.
Also a story on the situation I noted on my drive down to Texas with fewer RVs on the road:
“We’re sitting with a calculator in one hand and a map in the other, trying to figure out how far we’re going to get when we get 7 miles a gallon,” says Lynda Perdew, 61.
Like the Perdews, many older Americans had long envisioned retirement as a period of adventure — a time to indulge in leisurely lifestyles, with frequent trips out of town to see relatives and explore places they’d never seen. That was then. Now, with food and health care costs surging and fuel prices soaring, many retirees have been forced to downsize their dreams of travel.
There were small, rural towns across America before the automobile and cheap oil came onto the scene. But some that even struggled to maintain their populations in an era of cheap energy may be destined to become ghost towns due to rising oil prices. I pondered this during my recent drive across arid areas of Montana, Wyoming, and Nebraska. Towns need food, water, and jobs – to name a few necessities – in order to survive. Water often comes to small rural towns in the West by drawing down fossil aquifers. Food comes via the same route, or is shipped in via ever more expensive long-haul trucking. Jobs are often many miles away, and the commute is becoming much more painful at today’s gas prices:
Don Campbell’s daily commute to Kansas City – about 100 miles each way – costs him roughly $866 a month at $3.90 per gallon. But he’s a union iron worker and says he can make the math work.
Most of his neighbors can’t. For them and thousands of other small-town residents across the country who drive long distances to jobs that pay little more than minimum wage, the high cost of gas is making that daily commute cost-prohibitive.
So much so that economists predict that over the next few years, the country could see a migration that would greatly reduce the population of Small Town America – resulting in a painful shift away from lifestyle, family roots, traditions and school ties.
The expected exodus from small towns, said Don Macke, a widely considered authority on rural economics and head of the Center for Rural Entrepreneurship in Lincoln, Neb., will be far more profound than the gradual erosion that has been going on since World War II. That decline was due to the country’s shift away from an agrarian economy and a choice for convenience: People wanted to be closer to jobs, shopping and entertainment.
The new flight, Macke thinks, will be more out of necessity.
As I recently reported, some are making ends meet by discovering the car pool. Others are trading their trucks and SUVs in for fuel efficient models. (You may have seen today that Ford’s sales are down sharply, as they can’t move their large models, and they can’t keep up with the demand for the small ones).
Most people, however, fall into this category:
Her father may leave Dixon and move closer to Freeburg, but Tracy Rector isn’t yet ready to commit to such a drastic move from her hometown.
“But I’m like most people – I don’t know what to do.”
That’s a big reason I started writing – to try to shed some light on the topic of energy so some people have a better idea of what to do. Most of my friends and family fall into that category: Gas prices are going up, and they don’t know what to do. As I always say to them, prepare for the future as if gas is going to be $10 a gallon.
Ultimately, the small, rural towns with good farmland and water resources should do OK in the post-cheap-oil era. But a lot of small towns that sprung up in the age of the automobile are likely to fade away as people move closer to jobs in the city. And if you live in one of those small towns, and you depend on cheap gas to get to a job far away, you better start thinking of a contingency plan because the days of cheap gas are over.