Rural Sustainability is Key to Nebraska's Future
By Seanica Reineke
The future of rural communities and the world depends on many factors, such as appreciation for the history and culture of rural areas and regions. Managing the water supply so "future generations have water, forests, wide open spaces and fertile land" without too much urban sprawl is also a factor, according to Sandra Scofield, Director of the University of Nebraska Rural Initiative.
"We want to leave a little something in place: quality streams, wildlife and well-managed farms and ranches, and not just let urban sprawl take over the planet so that this place is a decent place for the next generation to live in," said Scofield. She is convinced that with population growth and more resources becoming scarce, more people will begin moving back to rural areas. With the future in mind, she said people need to remember the importance of being good ancestors.
"If we continue to protect the land and water for the highest level of productivity, to produce food and fiber and possibly biofuels, that's an appropriate and effective use of certain parts of the state. If we protect our wildlife, our streams and the things that make rural areas a desirable place for people to get away from it all and have some outdoor fun, that's not only good for the future of the planet, it's good for the serenity of the human race. People need to get out of the city once in awhile and connect with nature," she said.
Connecting Young Nebraskans: Investing in Rural Communities and Educating Urban Communities
Scofield said more emphasis should be placed on qualities "that make rural Nebraska livable"- the idea that a healthy community is more than its economy. It's about the environment, social structure and infrastructure coming together to create a place where people want to live.
"People have to take it upon themselves to understand how we're all hooked together," Scofield said. This includes making sure everyone understands how the rural communities and agriculture affect their lives, including where their food comes from and how to manage water wisely. Scofield said individuals should begin conversations about these topics and impacts, and begin to inform themselves. That's why the Rural Initiative created a program called Connecting Young Nebraskans.
Connecting Young Nebraskans is a group primarily of rural young people between the ages of 20 to 40, who come together to discuss the future and their points of view on what is best for everyone's future. Scofield said conversations between these young people and others cause a ripple effect, have a bigger impact and make a positive difference because people listen to them.
"Urban people ought to go out and walk around a little bit... maybe visit rural Nebraska," said Scofield. "You really need to get out and talk to people and try to understand what the state is like. And on the other hand, rural people can't just sit back and think 'you're all going to come and visit'... because it just doesn't work that way."
Scofield said rural community investments, particularly public and private investments in infrastructure and education, also are important to be sure rural residents have the necessities to not only run successful businesses and agricultural enterprises, but also to live healthy, productive lives. Rural businesses need access to affordable Internet and other technologies. To be competitive, Scofield said lifelong education upgrades must be readily available to their management and employees. But she said public money is a necessity because these needs, in most cases, cannot be met with private funds.
"A well-educated workforce is essential," Scofield said, "and to retain that workforce, competitive wages must be paid and the overall quality of life must be high. So you need good hospitals and healthcare professionals, good schools, parks and civic centers, good housing for a variety of income brackets, clean and reasonably abundant water and affordable energy for buildings and transportation, all maintained in a way that is sustainable over the long term."
Managing Resources, Land is Today's Responsibility
Nebraska sits above an underground water source, the Ogallala Aquifer. The state also has nearly 50 million acres of land, 90 percent of which is privately owned and mainly used for agricultural production. Scofield said people need to appreciate the resources in rural Nebraska and recognize their scarcity by managing them correctly, otherwise a grim future lies ahead.
"To just say 'well, we'll figure out some invention to take care of all this when crisis hits' is not responsible!" Scofield said. "I think because we have been so lucky to have all this land and all this water, we sort of take it for granted." But Scofield said now is the time to carefully consider how to manage resources and be supportive of the people already involved in resource management. Those are the farmers and ranchers across the state, nation and the world, who, she said, do a wonderful job of caring for the land and wildlife, but aren't appreciated because people aren't aware of their work.
Scofield, a native of Chadron and former Nebraska state senator, said the programming of the Rural Initiative is directed toward trying to make rural Nebraska more sustainable. The Rural Initiative's definition of "sustainable" comes from the 1983 United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development which defines "sustainable" as "meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." Scofield passionately believes people need to be "good ancestors" for future generations.
"I think we all have an obligation to leave the world in at least as good of shape as we found it," Scofield said. "Given some of the challenges facing us in terms of population growth and pollution and so on, we probably have an obligation to try to leave the world in better shape than we found it."
Globalization, Technology, Urbanization and Population Growth
According to Scofield, the world is moving into a new era where the scarcity of resources will be the driving factor. Certain trends, such as globalization, technology, urbanization and population growth, are already making an impact around the world.
Globalization has completely changed the business world, especially in rural communities. The small community businesses that used to thrive because they were the only place to purchase certain products, Scofield said, experience difficulties because of consumers' abilities to order anything they need through the Internet. Technology is a major component of globalization because it "has driven the capacity for... relatively few farmers to basically feed the nation."
Urbanization is a major factor because people are moving to cities, not just in the United States, but around the world. "Rural areas have to realize we live in an urban world," said Scofield. "We've got to figure out how to build effective relationships between rural and urban areas... because urban people need the resources and the talents in rural areas; rural people need the urban markets."
By 2050, it is projected that 9 billion people will live on Earth. With this population growth, Scofield said projections indicate more people may begin to move away from crowded, urban areas, which will have an impact on rural areas. Rural areas that see a population increase
that doesn't "overtax their 'carrying capacity' will do well," but the areas that get overrun will struggle, according to Scofield.
As a result of these trends, many rural communities already are struggling because there isn't an economic need for them to be around anymore, Scofield said. "If we take up productive land for traditional urban style development, we will see more sprawl and environmental problems." But she said that doesn't have to be an inevitable situation for all rural areas. Community residents have to be engaged, and volunteers and leaders have to be "committed to continuous learning and to working with their citizens to recognize and take advantage of opportunities... and deal with threats." Scofield said determining true opportunities and real threats in the long run can take a lot of analysis.
Opportunities for Growth During Change
Change is inevitable, Scofield said. "We've already seen dramatic change, and we're still trying to figure out what hit us!" This change can come from people being informed about the issues at hand, and Scofield said that comes from knowing what research says. Scofield added that debates have to take place in order to find answers, but said those debates must be formed from a knowledge base that also must continue to grow.
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