Repopulating the countryside

One feedback I received from yesterday’s “Hints of the Fourth Era” came from a friend in Australia:

“If population decreases significantly (as David Brooks has also suggested in a recent New York Times article), will this spawn a return to more rural environments, or will humans concentrate in megalopolises and leave much of the hinterland to nature? What do you think?”

My reply to him this morning:

“I realized this morning that my piece of yesterday gave no hints at all of the fourth era! What I was describing was the tail-end of the industrial era — the accumulation of super-metropolises. (I was very impressed with a recent David Brook op-ed, but it wasn’t the one your refer to, “The Fertility Implosion”. I’ve now read it. It parallels my own thinking on the matter in recent years that although world over-population is serious enough at present it will look after itself in the time-honoured ways of all over-populating species. If anything, the collapse of populations in the advanced world (to start with) is more serious over the slightly longer term.)

“Some recent world-wide surveys and conversations by researchers at the Poverty Action Lab, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, have been an eye-opener to me. Poor parents in the shanty cities are reducing their family size at a rate of knots but not in order to enjoy a more varied (more expensive) diet or (apart from a minority of parents) to afford to educate their children. They are doing so in order to buy TV, video players, dish aerials and the like. (In many of the larger shanty cities they are usually able to tap into the electricity grid for free and, usually, the city government/utility corporations turn a blind eye to this for fear of social unrest otherwise.)

“To turn to your question: In 50 or so years’ time (in the advanced countries) metropolitization will be largely complete, I guess. (There’ll still be many smaller cities and towns surviving if they can offer unique attractions [architectural history for tourists, academic for the young, festivals for the arts] and many existing picture book villages and hamlets [week-end pads of the city elite].) The metropolises that remain will all be losing their populations. The ones that can keep their heads above water will be those with a good mix of industries and scientific research. If I’m right in thinking that biological industries will then be far more important than now then I can envisage two consequences at least.

“Economically successful metropolises would be able to top up their less than replacement birth rate (if indeed this continues) by means of IVF and IVG (In Vitro Gestation) and the placing of babies with infertile couples and well-paid foster parents. This would undoubtedly be expensive but this would probably be one of the most important items in a city’s expenditure. Secondly, one of the greatest lessons that evolutionary biology is already teaching us is that man is still a small-group social mammal. This is when he is most effective. So, yes, I can foresee small, highly specialized businesses starting to migrate out of the more successful metropolises and recolonizing the countryside. I can foresee many biological businesses making special carbon-based materials using DNA-type algorithms, as well as many others using highly automated procedures which will allow shorter production runs and more versatility in relatively small factories compared with today’s.

“I can foresee a three-stage life pattern rather similar to that which already happens (rumspringa) in Amish and Mennonite communities in the US. Children would be raised in secure pleasant surroundings in highly specialized production villages in the countryside, then as teenagers migrating to the metropolises for further education (and to have a much wider choice of future partners) and then, after graduation, and wanting to start a family of their own, returning either to their home village or migrating to a more appropriate one according to their speciality.

“So this could be the real start of the fourth era — a repopulating of the countryside which, by then (in 50 years’ time), will be almost exclusively owned by farming syndicates and corporations, or set aside as nature reserves.”

Keith Hudson

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