Hitting the Books: How the Silicon Valley mindset damages rural American communities

The second half of the twentieth century has not been kind to eastern Kentucky.

Mario Tama via Getty Images

America has always been a nation segregated into haves and have-nots with rampant inequity a seemingly natural aspect of our social order — the motif impacting towns and cities just as starkly as the people who live in them. But it doesn't have to be this way, argue authors UC Davis Professor, Stephen Wheeler, and Temple University Associate Professor, Christina Rosan.

In their new book, Reimagining Sustainable Cities: Strategies for Designing Greener, Healthier and More Equitable Communities, Wheeler and Rosan examine the steps municipalities across the country have taken in recent years in response to climate change, as well as their social and sustainability shortcomings, offering community-based solutions to ensure that urban development in the 21st century equitably raises the standard of living for all residents, not just for the rich.

In the excerpt below, the authors take a look at the myriad trials faced by residents of eastern Kentucky, a once thriving pastoral region ravaged by the intractable march towards modernization and distillation of wealth to the select few.

Reimagining Sustainable Cities cover
University of California Press

Copyright © 2021 by Stephen M. Wheeler and Christina D. Rosan. Reprinted with permission from University of California Press.

While this book is about reimagining sustainable cities, we pause here to connect sustainable cities with the larger national and international context in terms of spatial inequality. We live in a world that is deeply interconnected. If we want sustainable cities, we need to work on reducing spatial disparities between cities and rural areas, and between different regions worldwide. Linkages between communities need to be recognized, and resources shared and equalized. Situations must be ended in which some regions exploit others by giving them the unwanted by-products of production, such as pollution, waste, and labor exploitation, while simultaneously moving resources and profits from poor regions to rich ones.

In and around the towns of eastern Kentucky, where Stephen Wheeler’s ancestral family is from, people of English and Scottish descent lived for many generations as self-sufficient farming families. That way of life changed in the second half of the twentieth century. Better roads, electricity, and telecommunications connected Appalachia with the rest of the world. Urban job opportunities lured away the young. Farming families became part of the cash economy and acquired new desires for processed foods, appliances, motor vehicles, and personal accessories. But hill farms didn’t generate enough cash to buy such things, especially with rising federal subsidies for agribusiness in other parts of the country. So the people of eastern Kentucky became designated as poor and came to see themselves that way.

Environmental problems grew as well. Giant bulldozers scraped away hilltops and extracted coal, adding this region to the long list of others worldwide suffering from the “resource curse.” Runoff from coal mining poisoned wells and polluted waterways. Coal jobs left as quickly as they had come, leaving many even poorer.

A new, more globalized retail economy brought first Kmart and then Walmart, putting family-owned stores out of business. Fast-food outlets proliferated. But the new service economy jobs didn’t pay much. To make better money some people began growing marijuana in hard-to-reach locations in the hills. Drug use, alcoholism, and obesity spread. Fundamentalist religion gained adherents and combined with Fox News (starting in the 1990s) to promote reactionary political values. A region that had been Democratic until the late twentieth century now helped elect US Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). McConnell in turn played one of the largest roles in thwarting progressive legislation from Barack Obama’s administration, supporting Donald Trump’s presidency and fueling the rise of populism in the US.

If this tale of decline were one isolated example, it might not matter much. But spatial inequality persists and spreads worldwide. Some left-behind communities are rural. Others are urban. Entire countries are stuck in poverty due to the legacy of military or economic colonization. Spatial inequality is a core challenge to the development of more sustainable cities. Every community needs to be able to thrive, not just certain favored ones within a highly unequal global system. Instead of engaging in a zero-sum approach to development, with winners and losers, communities need to support one another so that all improve their quality of life and sustainability.

The so-called winners of today’s global economic competition have their own problems. At the other end of the spectrum from Appalachia is Silicon Valley. This forty-mile corridor in the San Francisco Bay Area is an economic dynamo envied the world over. Covered by orchards and agricultural fields in the 1950s, this beautiful area was known as “Valley of Heart’s Desire.” Now no orchards remain, and the region is a congested sprawl of poorly connected office parks, subdivisions, malls, and commercial strips. Incomes are high, but the price of a home is nearly five times that in the US as a whole. Many residents cannot afford housing near their jobs and so endure lengthy commutes or are housing insecure. Social inequality, traffic congestion, air pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions expanded greatly during the past fifty years, reducing the quality of life in the region and contributing to global warming.

The Silicon Valley ethic of “move fast and break things” has created dynamic companies, unprecedented technology, and great wealth for a few. But the new gig economy pioneered there often operates at the expense of workers and the environment. It often produces an enormous concentration of wealth that comes from the exploitation of others. One study found that one-fifth of San Francisco Uber and Lyft drivers earned virtually nothing when their full expenses, including things such as health insurance, were accounted for. The tech industry has also been heavily criticized for sexual harassment during the MeToo movement and racism during the Black Lives Matter movement. The combination of individualism, predatory capitalism, toxic masculinity, and lack of concern for the common good that Silicon Valley represents works strongly against a sustainable and equitable future.

Similar problems of unequal development exist in other successful urban areas worldwide, including Shanghai, Beijing, Tokyo, Bangalore, Singapore, Toronto, London, Amsterdam, Paris, and Tel Aviv. Though among the world’s economic success stories, on many dimensions of sustainability they are failures. The growing core-periphery disparities that produce left-behind communities and “sacrifice zones” on the one hand and wealthy but unsustainable and highly unequal job centers on the other are at the heart of recent global development patterns.

Let us imagine instead a world where we are not content with the concentration of wealth and opportunity in a small number of global cities; where all communities have affordable housing and provide a decent quality of life; where cities meet the needs of people locally and regionally but do not drain wealth from other parts of the world; where no areas are left behind in the transition to a green economy, their populations increasingly alienated, despairing, and vulnerable to unscrupulous politicians and warlords; and where social dimensions of sustainability are well served everywhere.

Sources of the Problem

Today’s spatial inequity problems have long historical roots, illuminated by literature in fields such as economic geography, sociology, and environmental history. One starting point is physical geography. Some parts of the world have more fertile soils than others, more abundant mineral resources, more useful plant, animal, and fish species, and/or more benign topography and climate. Other places have been strategically well located to serve as trading centers and market towns or have been easy to defend against attack. Such communities have been able to accumulate modest amounts of wealth and power. The “chessboard” of geographical wealth is constantly shifting and with global warming is likely to shift in even greater ways in the future.

However, in other cases spatial inequities have resulted from military, religious, cultural, political, and/or economic systems that further centralize power and wealth. Typically these have drained resources from the periphery to the core of empires. Many parts of the world still suffer the legacy of colonization. Local traditions and cultures were disrupted, peoples were exploited, racism was institutionalized, ecosystems were harmed, and corrupt, colonizer-friendly governments were installed following independence. The damage has been so profound and long-lasting in many places that reparations may be appropriate. The need for climate justice may likewise call for reparations and repayments.

Twentieth-century economic development philosophies exacerbated spatial inequality on the assumption that economic globalization was to everyone’s long-term benefit. Various versions of “growth pole” theory, originating in the 1950s, sought to focus business development in particular geographical locales within countries on the assumption that this would leverage economic development in other parts. Such wider-scale progress was rare; growth poles instead often channeled resources to local elites, created isolated business enclaves, and harmed the environment.

The municipal economic development practice of chasing branches of multinational corporations has likewise undermined prospects for a more stable long-term economic base in cities worldwide. This “race to the bottom” competition leads suburbs to compete to host the newest shopping mall, central cities to compete for corporate headquarters, and states or countries to lower their environmental and labor standards to attract multinational corporations. However, the resulting businesses often don’t provide the expected number of jobs, pay the decent wages promised, or stay more than a few years. As Margaret Dewar has pointed out in her well-titled article “Why State and Local Economic Development Programs Cause So Little Economic Development,” politicians have an incentive in the short term to appear to be generating jobs by attracting well-known companies but little incentive to take into account long-term economic or environmental sustainabilIty. A recent example of the extreme lengths that municipalities will go to in order to attract development can be seen in the global competition for the second Amazon headquarters.

The Bretton Woods framework of post–World War II development assistance only deepened global spatial disparities, creating what economist Andres Gunder Frank termed “the development of underdevelopment.” Agencies such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund loaned funds to developing countries for megaprojects that created wealth for elites but left others poor and displaced, while countries accumulated enormous debt to lenders in the Global North. National governments focused on what sustainability-oriented NGOs refer to as “extreme infrastructure.” These dams, power plants, industrial zones, and large-scale agricultural projects sought to jump-start an export-oriented form of economic development that was often environmentally harmful and funneled capital created by Third World labor and resources into First World bank accounts.

Yet another source of disparities has been the structural adjustment policies that neoliberal governments in wealthy nations insisted upon as a condition for international assistance during the past forty years. These require developing countries to take actions such as cutting social programs, privatizing public assets such as utilities and railroads, reducing barriers to foreign investment, and lowering taxes on the wealthy. The effect has been to make life harder for the poor while enriching elites and international corporations. It is increasingly clear that structural adjustment policies need to be discontinued and policies that promote spatial equity put in their place.

Finally, the offshoring of manufacturing from wealthy nations to low-cost and less regulated parts of the globe during the past half century has had complex effects on spatial disparities. It has impoverished the US Rust Belt as well as the British Midlands, leading to the growth of right-wing populism in both places. Meanwhile, it has helped fuel the rise of megacities and megaregions in the developing world, leading to massive internal migration and expanding economic disparities between those urban areas and the countryside. Undoubtedly, these global economic shifts have improved quality of life for many. But they have harmed others, disrupted societies, contributed to the climate crisis, and widened the gulf between rich and poor communities (figure 7).

Figure 7
UC Press

Although spatial disparities are still expanding in many places, there is hope for the rebirth of left-behind cities and regions. Manchester, UK, the first industrial powerhouse in Europe, lost much of its manufacturing in the middle of the twentieth century but has since rebuilt itself by focusing on culture, education, physical regeneration, and its geographical role as a transportation center. The US steel capital of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, after losing 350,000 industrial jobs in the 1980s, reinvented itself as a center of renewable energy, health care, and education. Even the long-declining hulk of Detroit, one of the most hollowed-out American cities, is showing signs of a turnaround. Examples such as these indicate the possibility for left-behind places to rebound. But all of these cities had assets to start with, including a strong identity and an active elite that led revitalization efforts. Other communities and regions don’t have such advantages. And the pervasive problems associated with spatial inequality affect wealthy as well as declining places, necessitating holistic and imaginative solutions at higher levels of governance.