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Hinterland & Metropolis

The Land Behind

The notion of hinterland is an interesting sociological concept that’s been banging around my head, at varying degrees, for the past year or so.

The word is on loan to us anglophones from German and translates literally as the “behind land.” The thing these places are behind would be port towns—the urban centers of the Medieval world. Think town and country.

The Somerset Sourland Mountain Preserve is just under fifty miles from New York City by car. On a clear day it’s possible to see the skyline from the top of the ridge

To be specific, hinterlands are rural regions that feed into the consumption of an urban center. This economic relationship between the hinterland and metropolis is its defining feature.

Uninhabited regions such as Antarctica, while 100% rural, would not be considered hinterlands because they do export any goods or services. This would change of course if say the region became a center oil production—in that case it would be hinterland in relation to the markets where that oil is consumed.

The notion of hinterland comes from the age of colonization, and thus it is important to examine it with from a critical position of post-colonial thought.

What’s that got to do with the price of eggs?

Well for starters hinterland vis-a-vis metropolis need not always be a case of rural and urban differences.  Within a city areas and people can be divided up into these two groups—the people/areas where goods/services are mostly created/provided versus the areas where only consumption occurs. The posh commercial center of a city—with its working class, retailers, services, and manufacturers—would be considered hinterland when compared to an affluent neighborhood that produces nothing and provides no services.

Things are always shifting. At the current moment it would appear, for all intents and purposes, that the relationship between American consumption and Chinese manufacturing would fit nicely into the model of hinterland/metropolis. The products of their labor cover our feet, carry our messages, and fill our homes. But as their economy emerges from an era of communist despotism, a new middle class is shifting the Chinese economy away from this system of limitless exports.

Unless America finds a new way to provide for its deep-rooted consumerist, consumption will drastically contract. The sad realization is that tomorrow’s America might be more hinterland than metropole. In the next twenty years disruptive technologies will take the livelihoods from millions of people (millions of truck drivers alone).

If we don’t see a rise in real wages and employment in the next decade, an entire generation will be forced to cope with an unending and precarious quagmire of economic uncertainty. As China becomes more like America, we are staring to look more like China.

Life in the Borderlands

Figuring that at the moment I live in NJ, that world-famous turnpike with all the people and the traffic,  I found it kind of interesting to think about the relationship between places. NJ is a sort of crossroads between the high urbanity of New York City and the rustic values of middle America that can be found across the Delaware. My most recent adventure brought me to the Somerset Sourland Mountain Preserve, another local treasure.

The Somerset Sourland Mountain Preserve features some great uphill trails. On some of the more strenuous paths there aren’t really any switch-backs which makes it a pretty vigorous place to hike.

The takeaway, for me, from all this talk of hinterland and metropolis is the concession that such a dynamic is fundamentally incompatible system with a truly global economy. If the playing field has truly been evened on a global scale, then no particular place or nation will feed the fruits of it’s labor into the coffers of an imperial metropole.

That is to say the relationship between hinterland and metropolis is, as I see it, by definition parasitic and needs to be replaced with a symbiotic link.

After hiking only 100 yards or so I came across a pair of beeches with no small amount of graffiti etched on their trunks. While it’s not something that I would personally do, I do find it to be an interesting custom. I wonder where the tradition came from. I wonder how many of these couples are still together.

What would this look like in practice?

This is the part where after a year of pondering, I still get tripped up. So as an American, it’s good to see that domestic manufacturing has made a come back in recent years. I think self-sufficiency must necessarily precipitate any new system of exchange of goods, services, and ideas across places.

When two agents are both capable of fulfilling their own needs/wants without extraneous aid, therein exists the possibility for equitable exchanges.


Blue Sky and Barren Trees (Hillsborough, NJ)

The notion of place finds it’s way into our political discourse and social lives. It drives so much of our how we self-identify and see the world around us. A person’s hometown might give us insights into their experiences, but it should never serve as a placeholder for their values.  Let us not forget that place is hardly a controllable aspect of a person’s identity, and we should never truly draw lines between those of us from a “here” and the people from an “over there.” Despite our best efforts we all find ourselves hinterland of some higher place.

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