The Digital Bridge

Commentary / 1st Quarter 2019

The Digital Bridge

by Dr Jalel Sager

April 22, 2019
Dr Jalel Sager, CEO of New Sun Road, watches as rural students use computers for the first time at Aldea Llano Grande (March 2018)

How can global society strengthen its rural areas and reverse a decline in countries such as the United States that is now more than a century old? Slowing down urban migration and building up skills and opportunity for rural inhabitants is an oft-cited goal for many sustainability thinkers. In one example, Amory Lovins told this journal all the way back in 2010 (FuturArc 3Q 2010 issue) was that stopping urbanisation was the key to China’s environmental recovery.

Yet, while the intention is laudable as well as logical, the mechanics of such a change remain unclear. Is it even possible to arrest a dynamic with such enormous momentum? Is it desirable? Cities have long been understood as engines of economic growth for nations. The American Jane Jacobs, one of our best urban thinkers, in Cities and the Wealth of Nations, argued that economic growth springs from the cities, fundamentally, where true industrial creation takes hold, rather than from the nation. The Belgian historian Henri Pirenne, meanwhile, in Medieval Cities: Their Origins and the Revival of Trade, traces the progress of Western civilisation to the fundamental trading function, especially for long distance trade, played by the city.

So the question really becomes whether or not the pastoral restoration has any basis as a solution under the current system of global capitalism— whether it is consistent with a possible future that may come about short of a revolution in the way we eat, work and produce. Plenty of Green thinking may be faulted for ignoring system dynamics and the path dependencies of the industrial system we have inherited. One example is the understandable desire to throw a renewable technology such as solar panels or wind turbines at every environmental issue that arises in the energy world. In a deeply intertwined and evolved global production matrix, however, it is often coal that produces the energy to fabricate our favourite renewable technologies—and there are energetic reasons why it is still difficult to produce solar panels with solar energy. The co-evolution of the city and the country carries some of the same difficulties: the two have evolved functions that are difficult to do away with in the name of restoring some kind of balance to the flows of people, money and information between the two.

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