For The Record

Photograph by Jamie Betts
This spring, Ann M. Eisenberg, a professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law, gave the opening lecture at University of Richmond Law Review’s annual symposium. Her talk was titled “Rural America as a Commons.” The following is a lightly edited excerpt.

We talk about rural decline as if it has been caused by forces of nature. We hear about globalization, automation, and improved efficiency as driving workers out of these areas and into cities. But I argue that each of the supposedly larger-than-life trends can always be traced back to policy choices — or the decision to refrain from making a policy intervention — and that those policy choices reflect subjective values that do not have to be accepted at face value.

For example, we talk about globalization as an irreversible thing that just happened. In fact, if we look back to the ’90s and beyond, there were widespread social movements of workers and residents fighting for their jobs and for their towns. The federal government told them it was all going to be OK and then entered into arrangements like the North American Free Trade Agreement, resulting in mass plant closures, layoffs, and displacement. Congress did also pass some protections for workers and establish trade adjustment assistance, but it seems safe to say that globalization was a substantial blow to the rural economy that was made by decision makers acting with agency.

Another piece of legal history that often goes missing is the legal history of transportation. There was a series of decisions over the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s to stop requiring that common carriers to provide equitable, affordable service to rural communities. This, of course, meant service providers would subsequently engage in large-scale abandonment of rural regions, which helped contribute to rural isolation, a harder quality of life, and socioeconomic stagnation.

I say this to establish a couple of premises. Premise No. 1 is that the rural economy and way of life haven’t been dying; they’ve been actively undermined by a series of intentional policy decisions. Premise No. 2 is that this experiment in undermining and neglecting rural communities with the tacit or explicit hope that everyone in struggling regions will just leave hasn’t worked or worked out well for us as a society. I call this approach the Wasting of Rural America.

I’ve been exploring the arguments in support of more aggressive public interventions to try to change course in distressed rural regions. There are a few angles that we can approach it from. There is a moral component. To some people, at least, this feels wrong. Then there’s the pragmatic case, which is that by tackling geographic inequity or otherwise engaging more across the urban-rural spectrum, there is the potential to defuse rural political alienation and achieve more harmony in the national political atmosphere. Today, I’m looking at the case for intervening that’s even more urgent than both of these two arguments, and that’s the argument that our society and federal government need to intervene more aggressively to reshape the rural economy to ensure that we are able to survive climate change, in addition to tackling other pressing crises.

The idea that American society collectively needs rural regions and residents and workers to survive really complicates the idea that urbanization is benign, inevitable, and the way of the future. I argue that it offers helpful guidance to reconceptualize rural America as a commons. The idea is that rural America — and not just the natural resources in it — can be reconceptualized holistically as something we all need and need to manage better, which in turn helps guide the way forward for a more just and sustainable approach to governance.