My family lore holds that some of my forefathers (foreparents?) were Scots-Irish and the rest were English. There always seemed to be a divide in the extended family between the “rough side” and the “polished side” attributed to these genealogical differences.
As I understood it, the Scots-Irish were originally poor Scots who had no land and were persecuted by their lairds, the landholders. At some point, they immigrated into Ireland where they could farm and survive — well, at least until the potato famine. They then immigrated to America, moving inland and settling in the Appalachians. They were no strangers to poor land for farming and they found homes in the hills and hollers, becoming hillbillies.
However, after a while the hardscrabble farms produced less and less, due in part to the primary crops, tobacco or cotton, depleting the soil. So, they moved on south and west following the hills, settling and farming for a generation or two, burning out the land, then moving on again. Eventually, they came into Texas, where the farmland was marginally better if you had water. Since moving further west or south wasn’t much of an option, they stayed.
Throughout history, people have migrated to find a better place. War, famine, over-population, political or religious persecution, resource depletion and just plain curiosity have pulled us on into new places. The Vikings moved into Greenland to find more land to settle. They went on to North America, Vinland, and established a settlement. They likely would have stayed and flourished; however, about that time the Black Plague decimated the population of Europe, freeing up large swaths of farmland in need of farmers. There was no support for sending supplies or people to the new world, when there was plenty of opportunity back in Europe.
If you consider Maslowe’s hierarchy of needs, our first goal is to subsist. That means the basics: water, food and shelter. We can achieve the basic survival needs if we have the resources. Today that means having access and income, which causes us to live where we can work. This usually determines our living accommodations and lifestyle.
Basic needs met, we begin to look for ways to improve the quality of our lives. We thirst for a more natural setting, so we subdivide the green acres and cut down the trees to build tract housing, shopping malls and roads. The quest for the new takes us from rural areas to cities, and cities to suburbs in search of a better place. (“How ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm, now that they’ve seen Paree?”)
Wherever we go, a sense of place informs us of who we are. Everyone needs to find their place in the world, a place that they care about, that they are willing to defend. They need to become part of the community.
So Much For Manifest Destiny
Today, we know that greener pastures no longer necessarily exist somewhere off in the mythical west, beyond the horizon. We can’t just keep moving because there are few empty places left on the map in any direction. Even other habitable planets, if they exist, are currently beyond our reach. And, it’s going to get tougher in the future. There will be more and more of us needing the finite resources and filling what empty space is left.
Can we make the places that are left into the places we want — places where we want our future to be? An important aspect of making a place better is the need to create community and integrate more natural attributes into our everyday lives. Luckily, we can choose sustainable, alternative resources and manage what we have now a lot better. Our technology and our wisdom will help us to face the challenges.
However, the world is changing and the forces for migration will only increase in the future. War, resource depletion, natural disasters, and political upheaval have all caused mass movements of large populations in the last few years. These and future influxes of strangers will tax us and our communities. Since every major religion has a tenet calling for kindness to strangers and charity for those in need, our very humanity will be challenged.
We do need to shift our thinking more to community and less to ourselves, but that’s a struggle we’ve faced throughout our history. By thinking more laterally, more system-wide, we can see the opportunities to embrace a larger reality, a more inclusive community. We have the tools, the technology, and the intellect to face every issue that arises. Now we just need to let our humanness — and our empathy — guide our behavior.
I believe we are up to it. I hope so; I’ve seen those sci-fi movies of Mars, and it doesn’t look all that inviting.