The Rise of New America: A Move Towards Rural America

Land economist Jack Lessinger predicts that the dominant lifestyle and economy of the 21st Century will spring from certain rural America areas.
By Alfred Meyer
March/April 1988
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Land economist Lessinger says that modern homesteaders and urban- to-rural migrants form the vanguard of the future.
PHOTO: PHIL SCHOFIELD
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The dominant lifestyle and economy of the 21st century will spring from certain rural America areas. So predicts Jack Lessinger. 

The Rise of New Rural America

Once a week in his house in Seattle, land economist Jack Lessinger, a serious amateur musician, cranks up his violin and, with three cohorts, embarks on an evening of chamber music. Professor emeritus of real estate and urban development at the University of Washington, Lessinger is almost the epitome of the dedicated city-dweller. Smart and cosmopolitan, he enjoys sophisticated restaurants, live opera, art exhibits, the well-stocked libraries, amenities that abound in this vigorous, often rain-swept city on the Sound.

At the same time, however, another part of him—the academic, theoretical part; the prophetic part, one might even add-sees Seattle and, for that matter, most major U.S. cities as dinosaurs caught in the grip of turbulent change. They are, he senses, less and less able to provide enough jobs, decent housing and basic services, let alone an uncongested, healthy living environment. Not only that, the suburbs—for decades now the embodiment of the middle-class American dream of security and contentment—are becoming equally outmoded as they fall victim to similar blights: heavy traffic, blue air, breaking and entering, the numbing sameness of nearby shopping malls and fast-food chains.

But these debilities are only symptoms. What caused them is a national economy dangerously out of kilter with its resources. As a result, says Lessinger, we are even now in the throes of discarding our current economic structure and defining its replacement. Put another way, we are at a crossroads. Not only that, the direction signs he sees posted there point quite specifically to America's more rural America areas. How he came to read those signs involves our comings and goings—our migrations as a people—over the span of our history.

What is distinct about Lessinger's conclusions is that they are not based on philosophic or subjective analyses, valid though these might coincidentally prove. Rather, he claims, they are based on objective criteria, on pure data, on unmistakable messages contained in the unfolding record of changing property values in America over the last 200 years. Moreover, those messages describe more than the face value of real estate. Indeed, they reflect not only the successes and failures of the economies in which that value arose and fluctuated, but also the assumptions, tastes and goals of the society itself.

In short, in a book published in 1986 (Regions of Opportunity, Times Books) Lessinger states he has detected the first signs of a major shift in current U.S. demographic patterns. Within the next decade or two, he foresees not only that certain of the most rural counties will experience the greatest growth in population and, consequently, in real estate value, but that they will also become the furnace in which the dominant lifestyle and economy of the twenty-first century will be forged. In other words, the back-to-the-land movement that spiked up in the '70s (and that to some degree typifies the MOTHER EARTH NEWS reader even today), rather than being an ephemeral, anomaly, represents instead the leading edge of a vast new migratory wave. Though still a mere ripple generated by back-to-the-landers, urban dropouts and even city and suburban residents who maintain a weekend house "in the country," it will soon be followed by a massive relocation in the same direction—from obsolescing urban arid suburban clusters to the more remote and spacious rural counties. Equally significant in his judgment, this coming migration will signal the failure and imminent demise of our current economic structure, while at the same time pointing the way to the emergence of a more appropriate successor. He has even given this vision toward which today's pioneers are drawn a name of its own, Penturbia. "The new migrants," he advises, "are already studying their maps."

The name penturbia derives in part from the Greek penta, "five," and was coined by Lessinger because the migration he anticipates follows on the heels of four previous ones, each closely documented by census data and real estate records and each following long periods of relative stability. What triggered these migrations, however, is not likely to be widely agreed upon. To Lessinger, each resulted from the exhaustion of a once viable social and economic strategy and the embrace of a more promising replacement. In his eyes, our history is a sweeping, dynamic procession involving the rise, reign and fall of different strategies, one after the other. Once a strategy begins to falter, a kind of migratory restlessness ensues, leading to a search not only for new habitats but for new economic directions and even for new rules with which to exploit them.

While the life history of each of these stages identified by Lessinger is obviously intricate, each can nevertheless be briefly summarized. For example, the first migration (1760-1789) followed the breakdown of what he calls the reign of the Mercantile Aristocrat, an economic system firmly in the grip of British and American blue bloods and requiring centralization, large plantations, government monopolies and rigid social stratification—all to assure the steady flow of raw materials to England.

Independence, democratic fervor and the rise of states' rights led to the rejection of this system and the formation of the second stage, that of the Bantam Capitalist (1789-1900). According to Lessinger, it was a time of Jeffersonian arousal, the heyday of the "common man" and Mom and Pop enterprise. Local markets flourished and Yankee ingenuity created a flurry of products—tools, utensils and housewares, most of them custom-made—as migrants pushed into the far reaches of the Mississippi Valley where land was plentiful and cheap. Wide-ranging, smallscale entrepreneurial farming took root and small towns arose and prospered.

But inefficiency, duplication and the lack of standardization, says Lessinger, handicapped this system in the newly emerging, highly competitive worldwide industrial marketplace. Enter mass production, the consolidation of capital, the formation of corporations and the booming rise of mighty cities. Migrants flocked to Chicago and Minneapolis to staff new factories or headed farther west to work in mines, quarries, timber lots, fisheries or newly mechanized, large-scale farms. The economy of the Colossus (1846-1958), the third stage, had taken hold. Saving was still a virtue, machines elicited reverence and productivity became the na tional rallying cry. Urban real estate soared in value.

However, productive capacity not only gradually outstripped demand but became an end in itself, leading to overproduction and to the Depression of the early '30s. By then it had already become clear that the markets for the increasing array of manufactured goods—whether appliances, automobiles or home furnishings—were limited by an ingrained consumer attitude favoring savings and thrift, by the modest amount of disposable income available and by periods of widespread unemployment. After World War II, which had seen a tremendous output of materiel as well as an unprecedented spurt both in industrial technology and in wages, the need to stimulate these domestic markets and fuel the postwar economy became acute. The growth of mass media and the increasing sophistication of product advertising, coupled with a change in banking policies making consumer credit almost universally available, did the trick. From a society of producers we had become a society of consumers, ushering in the fourth stage, the Little King (1900-2010). Housing developments proliferated on city outskirts. Credit cards came into vogue.

"As the new consensus washed over the mind of America," Lessinger writes, "the economy devoted to spending became a roaring reality. Americans migrated to suburbia by the millions to preside as Little Kings and Queens over their one-sixth-acre domains. They filled their single-family palaces with freezers, vacuum cleaners, air conditioners, TVs, electric blankets. Their royal carports and garages bulged with cars, boats and RVs of every description." For the most part, they also found themselves deeply in hock.

However, just as excess in one way or another doomed the previous economies, overconsumption is unraveling that of the Little King, says Lessinger. Not only are the royal nests being fouled as the suburbs become increasingly urbanized, but the acquisitive "buy now, pay later" formula driving the domestic economy also drives the nation's fiscal policy. Equally taken with the ease of borrowing against the future, the U.S. as a result finds itself facing a federal deficit that makes it the largest debtor nation in the world.

Granting that a major economic restructuring looms and that we are a population in the early throes of migratory flux, the question arises: migrating to where?

Geographically, "Penturbia" is simple enough to locate, as the adjoining map indicates. In general, it is at least three or four hours from metropolitan hubs and more or less economically independent of them. Rather than concentrated in a single town, it is distributed around a regional network of small towns. Community centers, schools and universities are sprinkled throughout, as are flea and truck markets, specialty shops and light industries, though in low profile. Above all, the setting is rural and lies amid farms, forests, lakes, streams and mountains, locales that provide easy access to nature.

But what distinguishes Penturbia as an economic system that is preferable, if not superior, to that of the Little King? Conservation is Lessinger's answer, an ethic he believes works both as a lifestyle theme and as an economic strategy, one he calls the Careful Conserver. What he means is that both the migration and the low-density communities predicted to take shape as a result will be animated by values directly contrary to those of the Little King—conserving will take precedence over consuming, bartering over buying, nurturing over exploitation, frugality over self-indulgence.

Lessinger's Penturbia is a post-industrial Arcadia whose inhabitants pride themselves on self-sufficiency, thrift and quality of life, values already familiar to the vanguard migrants. The new economy, in addition, demands a curb on waste and pollution, an emphasis on personal, community and environmental health, and the careful tending of resources. By these he means human resources, including the elderly, the handicapped, the poor and minorities; physical, cultural and natural resources like historic buildings, artworks and forested parks; and capital resources for investment in infrastructure (roads and bridges), education and renewal of national productivity.

While it will seem to some that Penturbia is merely a way of describing—and in some measure a rationalization for-an America floundering in straitened circumstances, it will seem to others as the arrival, long overdue, of an America that is not only less frantic and gluttonous, but also a place where life can proceed at a slower but more fulfilling and humane pace.

The handwriting is on the wall, and so are the numbers. "The great turning point was 1970," he maintains. "Suburban counties, which began growing after the century mark and especially after World War II, began declining, and the decline continues in the 1980s. The core penturban counties peaked in the nineteenth century and then declined, but after 1970 accelerated."

But the thrust of Lessinger's findings—and of his predictions—goes well beyond mere real estate speculation or the decline of the suburbs. What he is saying is that his figures provide him with an index to the important linkage between changing rates of settlement and growth and the social and economic realities they reflect. According to his theories, life in America is on the verge of a dramatic sea change. A new America, a new consensus is beginning to form.

Alfred Meyer is editor of AMERICAN COUNTRY magazine.


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