Rolling eastward by train, then flying westward across northern France in early September, I was blown away by a simple fact. It is overwhelmingly agricultural.
I didn’t know. Though I am often in Europe, I tend to see it through the lens of the cities I visit. But in truth, those cities – even ones as vast as London, Paris or Frankfurt – are small islands in a sea of farmland and forest.
As the sun dipped low in the golden afternoon, the shadows stood tall behind the long windbreaks of trees planted at the edge of fields green and brown, stretching away into the distance beyond sight. It was extraordinarily beautiful. People have been cultivating this land for more than a thousand years, and it shows in the ever-running pattern of village, field and carefully groomed woodland receding to a misted horizon.
Cities are all the rage right now, since we discovered that more than half of the world’s people live in them. Cities are where commerce and culture thrive, where the Creative Class sips its skinny lattes, where efficiencies of housing and transport reduce our impact on the climate. If you live in a small city, town or village out in the boondocks, it’s time to roll up your sidewalks, hitch up the mule and get yourself to an urban core.
But that’s not what I saw in my journey across and above the land. For the first time, I saw that the farms and forests represent more than an inconvenient distance between the places where the action is. They are the ecosystem that gives the cities life. They are the source of the air that cities breathe, the food they consume, the water they drink. In their quiet vastness, they are the balance that keeps the cities from imploding on their own spiraling energy.
That is why we must figure out how to give the rural areas of our nations a sustainable future. We must use the tools of information and communications technology (ICT) to give the kids a reason to stay on the farm. We need to plug them into the world, to bring them learning and culture, to make rural areas a vital, connected and exciting place to live and work. They already have the beauty, the peace and the sense of place that their residents treasure – they just need to have what the cities have. And for the first time in human history, ICT makes that possible.
We don’t yet know how to do it. But we can recognize that technology has given us the tools to make the attempt.
So let’s stop congratulating ourselves on how successful cities are. Cities are old news. We have been congregating in them since before Babylon. We know how they work and why they are important. Let’s focus on the real work to be done: to figure out how to export from the cities to the country the inspiration, energy and sense of limitless possibility that cities generate without even trying. Not just for the sake of those backward souls too uncool to abandon their fields and forests. For the sake of us all.