USA Today reports on the 26 million newly jobless Chinese people leaving the industrial cities of the Pearl River Delta and returning home to rural villages in the provinces, and of the strain this is putting on Chinese society.
For Lei Sanjun, 25, who spent seven years making sneakers in the coastal factory city of Dongguan in Guangdong province, government help will take too long to transform Bamboo Pole. “My hometown is backward. Just look at the poor roads and few factories here,” he says.
The average income for Chinese farmers is about $690 a year — less than a third of what is paid in urban areas. The shortage of well-paying jobs explains why as many as half of the laborers in Bamboo Pole, population 50,000, decided to seek factory jobs — and why their return is so problematic now.
“It’ll be a troubling year,” predicts Victor Shih, a Northwestern University professor who researches China’s economy.
“Population fan-out” is the process of putting people back on agricultural land because the resource-concentrating urban economy is no longer able to support them. It is an inevitable factor in the sort of massive economic decline that we are looking at in areas where the urban population becomes economically marginal. That is more of an issue where they are already relatively poor or exposed to risk, particularly food security risk and the ever-present issues associated with maintaining infrastructure when the economy goes to pot.
Facilitating fan-out without precipitous drops in standards of living is a core goal of the Hexayurt Project. One hexayurt is roughly equivalent to one room, and they can be insulated and brought up to “nice little cabin” standards without much expense as a way of getting people restarted on the land. Toilets, water purification etc. all come from the standard library of appropriate technology options (see Appropedia for some ideas.)
How seriously do we need to be preparing for fan out? My suspicion is that it won’t be much of a story in Europe – the shape of the countries and societies is largely defined by pre-fossil-fuel transport realities and so is well hedged against supply chain volatility. In the US, where the fundamental shape of the state was defined by fossil fuel transport, distances are long, and people live in uninhabitable climates (Minneapolis, Huston) it’s a significantly different situation. I would be unsurprised by large scale population migrations based on moving to places where people can afford to eat and heat/cool their homes within the next five to fifteen years if the global economy really does stall out. If we limp along, it’s less likely to be a factor, but very little in the current government reporting of the situation inspires confidence in non-cataclysmic scenarios.
We live in interesting times. Get ready.