“We live on the far side of a broken connection” Wendell Berry has written.  One of the greatest obstacles resulting from our current circumstance is our inability to make the necessary connections between various “problems,” seeing them as discrete and separate and attacking symptoms while not only ignoring, but persisting in deep ignorance, about underlying pathologies.

I was struck anew by how surprising some of these connections can be while listening to a discussion on NPR about the new book Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town.  I think that for many, high use of Meth in various small rural towns throughout America must be a sign of the desperation that comes from the dullness of life in those small places, and is seen as good reason to “escape” if the opportunity presents itself.   However, according to author Nick Reding, the high use of Methamphetamines derives (surprisingly) from the industrial consolidation of agriculture and the meat industry.

Reding says that the agricultural industry has consolidated over time, and the working class has had to work harder for less — which has made meth more attractive. As an example, he cites a meatpacking plant that was bought in 1987; the new company cut wages from $18 an hour to $6.20.

“If you’re a guy like Roland Jarvis … you’ve got to work extra hard to make less than you were yesterday,” Reding says. “Meth is often seen as a helpful drug in that instance because you don’t have to sleep. You don’t even have to go to bed before working your next shift.”

Reding explores the effects of a number of these policies that have contributed to the  decimation of the small town of Oelwein, Iowa.  His counter-intuitive discovery:  the use of these drugs are not because of the dull life in small towns, but because of agricultural and industrial policies of the past fifty years.  The use of Meth is an effort to compensate for the effects of punishing policies that encourage economic consolidation and “efficiency” – resulting in cheap food that turns out to be very expensive indeed for the people of Oelwien and similar small towns.  In describing efforts of police to crack down on the manufacture of the drugs (a bit more aggressive than “just say no”), one is struck by the fact that they are trying to play whack-a-mole against a problem that arises from bad political policies and a bad economy.  But, in seeking the to tamp down on Meth manufacturing and use, officials are altogether missing the more profound underlying reasons for its explosion in small towns across America.

When some celebrate America’s economic might by pointing to our agricultural productivity and cheap products, they need to begin adding in the costs of the devastation of Oelwein, including the ruined lives that cheap meat has fostered.  We need to start adding in a great many costs that we’ve all too conveniently separated – say, starting with the cost of running and imperial military including three recent wars in the Middle East and Near East that aren’t being fought because we believe in “democracy,” but because we believe in cheap oil. Until we start an honest accounting of the true costs of our “cheap” food and convenient shopping options, we’ll continue to be complicit in the devastation of places like Oelwein, and a bad culture of addiction that replaced a good culture of good work.

Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture


  1. As a man who once lived among the tweakers watching police haul equipment out of the basements and CPS haul out children from the backrooms of the meth houses on a regular basis I can assure you that this is both an overly simplistic and ridiculous explanation.

    Meth’s popularity in rural America is the product of three things:

    1)The disproportionately higher unemployment and underemployment of rural America.

    2) Meth is cheap

    3)Meth is fun

    It’s not too much work but rather too little that fuels the teeth and community destroying meth death wave.

  2. Exactly my thoughts, Dan. As one who spent some time around tweekers myself, I can assure you that their reasons for snorting those tiny little razor blades up their noses wasn’t because they just HAD to stay up to keep working to make ends meet. Most people who do meth habitually could absolutely care less if the ends met or whether their children had clothes to wear.

    They started doing it because it was readily available, it was cheap and it was fun. When you combine lack of education w/ a culture that doesn’t do so well w/ abstract thought and thinking ahead, well, you have a meth culture.

    Sometimes the obvious explaination is really the most accurate.

  3. Dan, Chad,

    Having lived in Mississippi, Arkansas, Illinois, and now Kansas, and having been a witness to lives destroyed by meth addictions, I sympathize with your harsh, direct judgment of those who indulge and spread the drug. I also have never heard of folks taking meth to help them stay up late and work two jobs to keep food on the table (but then, I also haven’t read Reding’s book, so I don’t want to dismiss his evidence out of hand). Still, I wonder if you’re missing the fact that Patrick’s condemnation of global agribusiness is directly connected to your point 1)…and, moreover, that the sort of dead-end service-oriented and assembly-line meat-packing jobs which remain are exactly the sort which discourage “abstract thought and thinking ahead.”

    No one can or should deny all the other factors which contribute to drug acctions: boredom, alienation, looking for fun, cheapness, the thrill of breaking the rules, family collapse, aimelessness, etc. But ignoring the enormous economic elephant in the room doesn’t help.

  4. “But ignoring the enormous economic elephant in the room doesn’t help.”

    Not trying to ignore it just trying to identify it. The problem, at least the economic one, is not one of exploitation, but of non-participation. Some of that non-participation is a result of changing economic realities and some of it isn’t.

    Bottom line is though many of these people never were farmers, their fathers were never farmers, and there grandfathers got out of the business to work at the local Hudson dealership. Agribusiness got nothing to do with it. They started using in high school to keep the barn party going another six hours, because their girlfriend was using (to loose weight), or because they were on the basketball team and that’s just how they rolled.

    ADM is a convenient scapegoat for an epidemic. It’s what NPR listeners are prepared to and want to hear. It doesn’t challenge the myth of “The Heartland” as the wellspring of the true, the good, and the beautiful. It allows people to continue to ignore the lives, the real lives, of the people who live there. It gives them a new myth, a myth of a class exploitation, hayseeds overwhelmed by forces outside their control. Hayseeds striped of their native innocence and degraded by faceless multinational corporations.

  5. I think that while some of the symptoms of the meth epidemic can be related to the economic, social and other things, in my mind there is something far more important question. This question does rely on an assumption, that the users of meth are trying to fill some need or hole in their life/spirit/soul, and the question is what has gone wrong in the traditional life and faith structure that has so starved these people that they fill it with meth? I remember a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon that had a discussion of weighty philosophy only to have Calvin state “Virtue needs more cheap thrills.” Clearly, tradition and faith structures stress the need for delayed gratification in many things and this is a good thing, but didn’t these structures also once offer at least something closer to “cheap thrills” to fend off vice. Are we forgetting the small pleasures and is the elimination of nearly all certainties causing the epidemic of drug use?

  6. I have friends that do or used to take stimulants, including meth, for work. One began using ephedrine, a component of meth, to work harder in a pay-for-productivity job, the other used it on the job, including I think to work long hours, but I’m not sure whether her primary use was for work or for pleasure/escape from her sucky life.

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