Byline: Mary de La Valette Georgetown Letters

Are rural areas declining, unable to support themselves, losing population and a drain on the provincial coffers? What solutions are proposed? Move out West? Move to the cities? Exploit the “natural resources” of the rural areas – somehow make them pay for themselves? Are cities the only viable areas now for people, and should rural areas be sacrifice zones?

For the duration of (modern) human life on earth, rural areas have been the foundation for our civilizations. They have provided us with food, water and materials for shelter.

With the advent of industrial civilization, 200 odd years ago, we have changed the way we live. Not content with the basic, aboriginal way of life – that revered the earth as the mother of all life – we want more… and more… and more… stuff.

More cars, more TVs , more gadgets, the latest iPhones, iPads – comfort and toys beyond anything our ancestors dreamed of. We call this progress.

The basic material for all this stuff is mined out of the earth. Fossil fuels tie it all together and make it work.

The cost is all around us: climate change, pollution, clearcut forests, cancer, dying oceans, extinct species, the horror of factory farming. Many scientists call it the Sixth Extinction, and it is human-caused.

While this information is widely available to anyone with a computer, any consensus on what to do about it is missing. The greed of the powerful pushes us forward on the same path. Our governments make GDP and growth their goals. We are as a giant juggernaut crushing everything in its path.

It would be convenient for industry and governments to have the population located in the cities, busy playing video games and shopping at the mall. Rural areas would then be open, without interference, to exploitation.

Only nature and wildlife would be impacted. New Brunswick could be dotted every square mile with well pads and open pit mines to extract every last drop of oil, gas and minerals out of the earth.

The nature poet, Wordsworth wrote in 1798: “Have I not reason to lament / What man has made of man?”

“Nature has painted for us, day after day, pictures of infinite beauty.” So wrote John Ruskin, adding “it is that which uplifts the spirit within us.”

This planet is still a wondrously, beautiful place. A walk in nature is the best medicine for anything that ails us. In nature, miracles surround us: spring after winter, a budding tree, a salmon run, the sun rising, the night sky.

We need to radically change how we think about our lives on this earth. Instead of the global infrastructure that now dictates that we get our hockey sticks from China, or our green peppers from Peru, because they’re “cheaper,” we need to build local infrastructures that builds jobs and businesses that produce food and necessities here for people here. Let Wal-Mart sell its Chinese goods in China.

Rural areas are the focal point of this new infrastructure, this new economy. The land is there to grow food, to nurture people. Every little village could have its own solar panel business – Europe does this; what’s wrong with Canada? – that could provide energy for itself with excess sold to the grid.

Every little village in Europe also has its own bakery. Why not here?

Each village could have its own Farmers Market. All that’s lacking is imagination. Where there’s a need, it could be filled locally and rurally.

Our rural areas presently support a healthy tourism industry, which employs many people. It is, however, a pretty well-kept secret.

It could be easily expanded to attract day trippers and evening excursions for dinner from our cities. The Laurentians in Quebec does it; why can’t we?

New Brunswick has a melting pot of cultures from First Nations to the francophone and anglophone populations to various immigrant groups. All have their own festivals and arts and crafts, that, given wider publicity, would attract tourists from all over the map. Such a flourishing diversity of cultures, languages and customs is not found in too many places on earth.

Where we are going in this province is up to us. If we have reached a point where we are so divorced from nature that we only care about “stuff,” there is not much hope. If we destroy the earth, we destroy ourselves.

Perhaps the nation of Bhutan can teach all of us Western peoples a lesson. Instead of a GDP index, to gauge how well it is doing, Bhutan has a GNH – Gross National Happiness – index.

It has enshrined the protection of Nature in its constitution. At the UN, a panel is now considering ways that the Bhutan GNH model can be replicated across the globe.

They have taken a different path from us. Again, John Ruskin, from a different century, wrote: “That country is the richest which nourishes the greatest number of noble and happy human beings”

I’d say Bhutan has made a more sustainable choice.

Mary de La Valette is the organizer of the Taymouth speakers series. In October, Prince Edward Island will host The Georgetown Conference: Redefining Rural, a symposium on the future of rural communities in Atlantic Canada. Since the conference is about bold ideas and recognizing the assets and innovation of rural communities, the Telegraph-Journal has committed to publish a series of thought-provoking commentaries on how New Brunswickers are re-defining small towns and the rural way of life.

Reprinted with permission from Telegraph-Journal (New Brunswick)