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Sustainable Rural Development: Is it Possible to Boost Rural Economies while Protecting the Environment?

Amidst rapid depletion of our carbon budget, the need to change our practices to be more in line with Earth’s limits has become important in every sector of our economy. From advances in renewable energy generation to the growth of urban gardening, people around the world are taking action to change the way they interact with our planet. However, growing concerns have been raised that protections for the environment will disproportionately harm struggling communities. For instance, rural communities in the United States already exhibit disproportionately high poverty rates, income inequality, and unemployment, as well as lower quality healthcare and public education. Accordingly, this research intends to understand some major social, economic, and environmental problems facing rural America and the ways in which they interact with one another, using that knowledge to inform policies that can encourage sustainable practices that will also enrich the rural quality of life. We looked beyond continuous growth while performing this research, focusing not on maximizing GDP, but on working within the planetary boundaries to ensure a proficient quality of life for all without over-exploiting natural resources. Utilizing these perspectives as well as successes from the case study of Costa Rica, we design policy measures to diversify rural economies, shift to sustainable agricultural production, and encourage community-ownership of renewable energy facilities. Ultimately, our findings show many possibilities to help strengthen rural economies while protecting the environment, but this research could be strengthened by further inquiries into ecosystem service payment programs, and possibilities to reintroduce other industries to rural communities.