Elaine Meinel Supkis
Across the planet, we see the same process at work: all humans are pouring into a few mega-cities. This year, we reached the half-way point in this fatal process. This is a sign of overpopulation, habitat degradation or dying empires with the populations flowing into the capital because the countryside is dangerous. This historic force is another reason to fear a future war: annihilating populations concentrated in cities is how nature deals with overpopulation.
By Geoffrey Lean, Environment Editor
Published: 31 December 2006
Humanity is about to undertake the greatest change of habitat in its entire history. Authoritative international reports to be published over the next months will show that, for the first time, we will soon be a predominantly urban species, with more people living in towns and cities than in the countryside.
Official United Nations figures show that the world's urban population has more than quadrupled over the past 50 years. Almost half of us inhabit towns and cities: within a quarter of a century 60 per cent of us will do so.
There are two tiers of city-building going on here: the First World cities are dead in the center but extend across many miles of countryside thanks to cheap energy and private transportation. In places like the USA where private transportation has been kept deliberately cheap, whole sectors are actually one giant megalopolis that stretches from the imperial capitol of Washington, DC, all the way to Boston, Massachusetts. One can easily see these mega-metropolises from space at night for they light up the countryside. The Los Angeles area is another giant structure. Since poor people use public transportation and since older buildings are usually inferior to newer ones, the American middle class tends to live as far as possible to cut land costs and provide privacy and to barricade themselves from the slums where crime lurks.
The only real exception to this spreading out is New York City which has more an Asian look to it: namely, the center of the city is the most expensive and the slums are in the more distant older suburbs. This means the center is vibrant and has a lot of money invested in it and the outer perimeters are poorer and more diffuse.
The other force at work in the First World nations is the rush to the seas. As the oceans are cleaned of pollution, beaches have become prime property. I remember when the NYC harbor literally stank like a skunk in summertime. Human waste poured into it and it was truly disgusting to even look at it, much less swim in that cesspool.
Third world nations are more like NYC 75 years ago. Pollution pours into all the rivers and into the sea, as the slums explode across the land, the land degrades rapidly. In the past, there was an upper limit to this sort of overcrowding: disease. Regular epidemics swept the cities and sometimes up to 50% of the population would die such as in the Black Death plague of 1346 in Europe, for example.
Nigeria produces over 2 million barrels of oil a day (currently valued at roughly $40 billion per year) which accounts for 90% of its export earnings and 80% of government revenue. Nigeria also supplies 9% of US imports and is the pillar in the US post 9/11 African oil strategy of the Bush administration which anticipates that the Gulf of Guinea will provide perhaps 25% of US imports by 2015. A multi-billion dollar oil industry is however a mixed blessing at best, and for most Nigerians nothing more than a fairy tail gone awfully wrong. To inventory the 'achievements' of Nigerian oil development is a salutary exercise: 85 percent of oil revenues accrue to 1 percent of the population; over three decades perhaps one quarter of $400 billion in oil; revenues have simply disappeared; between 1970 and 2000 in Nigeria, the number of people subsisting on less than one dollar a day grew from 36 percent to more than 70 percent, from 19 million to a staggering 90 million. According to the International Monetary Fund, oil 'did not seem to add to the standard of living' and 'could have contributed to a decline in the standard of living'. The anti-corruption chief Nuhu Ribadu (one of the few bright lights on a dark political landscape), claimed that in 2003 70% of the country's oil wealth was stolen or wasted; by 2005 it was 'only' 40%. Over the period 1965-2004, the per capital income fell from $250 to $212 while income distribution deteriorated markedly. Since 1990 GDP per capita and life expectancy have, according to World Bank estimates, both fallen. This isn't pretty.
Venezuela has similar problems: high crime, the population in the countryside streaming into makeshift slums, attempts at coping with all this is pushing the government to the limit. In Nigeria, there is little attempt at doing anything, it is swiftly becoming Haiti.
Haiti is a totally degraded environment and nearly everyone now congregates in the vast slums, the difference between slum and countryside nearly wiped out as the land is systematically stripped of everything. Even as modern medicine prevents many epidemics, Mother Nature has stepped in and using Haiti as a home base, she has launched her latest attack on humans: sexual diseases that spread easily but kill slow enough to allow the host body to infect as many people as possible.
The success of civilization in China has meant it has been the host of more than one epidemic. Even if a disease comes in from the countryside via immigration into slums, passing germs in a low-density environment is difficult, in a city, a lark. Simple flu viruses get launched in cities which quickly pass them to other cities via trade. Just like AIDS probably started in Africa, it traveled to Haiti and then literally flew into New York City and when the carrier had sex with just two ballet dancers, it spread like wildfire soon after that...I knew one of the very first victims and his startling and unexpected death from a rapid moving cancer.
The point here is, the rapid transmission of this deadly plague would not have happened if it weren't for large city populations. This was just barely 20 years ago and now AIDS has circumnavigated the entire planet and is now ravaging the mega-slums in Africa as well as Asia. We don't know the level of transmission in many Islamic lands yet but it will spread there, too, just by the mere fact that mega-slums are growing in these lands just as it is across the entire planet. Sexual diseases are particularly hard to suppress because they nearly universally cause the infected person to desire reckless sexual encounters.
These diseases spread as they are 'contained' if doctors find no vaccines for them like with smallpox, for example. This is why so many fear the appearance of the bird flu, if it becomes epidemic, for example. On isolated farms, it would flare and then flame out. But in a mega-slum, it would spread like wildfire. Across Africa, for example, as well as other lands, men are abandoning women and children because the mega-slum shelters everyone sufficiently they can multiply without building a village-society, each is 'alone' within the teeming hordes, there is no negotiations of influence and family responsibilities between clans. This leads to even more degradation and ill health and poverty as we see even in our own mega-cities.
The Shimizu TRY 2004 Mega-City Pyramid is a proposed project for construction of a massive pyramid over Tokyo Bay in Japan. The structure would be 12 times higher than the Great Pyramid at Giza, and would house 750,000 people. If built, it will be the largest man-made structure on Earth. The structure would be 2,004 meters (6,575 feet) high and would answer Tokyo's increasing lack of space.
Japan essentially has only one city and it sprawls across a large landscape, several cities having merged just like on the East Coast of the USA. The population of Japan is one third that of the USA and it is all concentrated in a much, much smaller area. And within this area, vast sections are being systematically depopulated as everyone moves to the capitol. Most First World cities are not stressed out like mega-cities in third world countries due to the entire population ceasing to reproduce anywhere near the rate of replacement. In the USA as well as much of Europe, immigration from African, South American or Central American peasants is populating potential slums which makes these cities look more like the overflowing cities of the Third World.
Japan has made this nearly impossible. There is some inflow of foreign population but mostly, the country is now retracting and consolidating: even as people retire, unlike in America or Europe, instead of moving to the countryside, this is actually increasing the movement to the mega-city.
To Mumford, "the city was primarily a storehouse, a conservator and accumulator" and "by its command of these functions . . . the city served its ultimate function, that of transformer." Mumford’s container imagery is flexible, and is equally applicable to physical aspects of urban design and to other nontangible characteristics, including influential ideas. The city’s role as container of "storable symbolic forms" has coincided historically with its function "as a self-contained" entity. "Glyphs, ideograms, and script," along with "abstractions of number and verbal signs," contribute to the pliable notion of city as container (City in History 97).
Associated with the container metaphor is the notion of the urban power "implosion." As civilization progressed, asserts Mumford, "the many diverse elements of the community hitherto scattered . . . were packed together under pressure, behind the massive walls of the city." The chief, the king, or a comparable leader played a major role in this urban development. "Under pressure of one master institution, that of kingship, a multitude of diverse social particles, long separate and self-centered, if not mutually antagonistic, were brought together in a concentrated urban area." This mutually-reinforcing combination of king and container helped to produce a reaction that could not have occurred, according to Mumford, had there been no implosion. Living in close quarters had its advantages. "As with a gas, the very pressure of the molecules within that limited space produced more social collisions and interactions within a generation than would have occurred in many centuries if still isolated in their native habitats, without boundaries" (City in History 34).
From the very beginning, cities pulled in population from the surrounding countryside. The many daily advantages of living in a city are very great. But whenever a city takes over the countryside, the civilization collapses quite thoroughly such as ancient Rome which became a fat goose rather than a strong entity, when barbarians poured across the denatured landscape. Constantinople grew bigger and bigger as it rotted internally and externally sucked the surrounding countryside dry, eventually it was unable to defend itself without a surrounding empire big enough to literally 'feed' the teeming mobs penned up within.
We have no record of the last days of Rome. The cultural collapse as the place became a mega-slum, was so total, there really wasn't anyone capable of writing about events as they unfolded. The mega-city of Alexandria was burned down and the population slaughtered, too.
"To achieve significant improvement in the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers By 2020" -Target 11 of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) -seems like a formidable task. However, for a group of experts on urban issues, this goal is not high enough. In 2002, Secretary-General Kofi Annan called upon development experts from around the world to develop concrete action plans to achieve the MDGs. Columbia University professor Elliott Sclar co-chaired Task Force 8, which was charged with Target 11.
Dr. Sclar and his team introduced a blueprint to not only achieve the goal of improving the lives of 100 million slum dwellers, but also provide infrastructure, services and alternative housing to an additional 570 million people who would otherwise become slum dwellers by 2020. The report says that financing for these improvements could come from national and local governments in developing countries (55 per cent), the international donor community (35 per cent) and slum and low-income urban dwellers themselves (10 per cent). It also provides success stories from cities in the developing world, including Porto Alegre, Brazil, Amhara, Ethiopia and Tirana, Albania.
First off: Target 11? Whenever I see magic numbers attached to things like this (New World Order-type stuff) my alarm bells ring. The ruling elites are going to fix the slums with what? Money? I seem to recall what that means in America: we are seeing it in New Orleans. Displacing the poor and recovering the slums by sometimes very violent methods. Attempts at bringing better health services only makes the ultimate problem worse if there is no great social change. Redistributing income via revolution or war has been the classic solution to these sorts of problems. The looting of Rome caused it to cease being a mega-slum, for example. The Mongol invasion of China cleared out many cities. Indeed, they literally eliminated a host of major cities across Asia and into the Middle East as well as parts of Europe, stopping at the Nile in Africa and Vienna in Europe.
For all their technological infrastructure and complexity, cities remain, above all, great concentrations of human energy and resourcefulness. Indeed, Eric Jones, an economic historian, has argued that the rise of the West since the Middle Ages can be explained in part by the ease with which Western societies have recovered from disaster, as compared with African and Asian societies. Yet the myth of terrible urban vulnerability endures.
It is worth noting that contemporary prognostication about the effects of limited nuclear war resemble earlier predictions for air raids: both assume that the destruction of cities would come early in a conflict, that a relatively small number of warheads or bombs would spread destruction over a large area, and that such a level of destruction would cripple an enemy’s economic and social systems. Obviously, nuclear war is a new kind of war, of a new order of magnitude. But given that fact, is it possible that we have simply updated our old assumptions about the importance of technological infrastructures in cities to keep pace with the nuclear age?
Josef W. Konvitz, a professor of history at Michigan State University, is the author of The Urban Millennium: The City-Building Process from the Early Middle Ages to the Present (Southern Illinois University, 1985).
Wars have destroyed many cities. Some are rebuilt again and again but many eventually literally disappear from the map which is why looking at only one or two wars is meaningless. Troy was rebuilt a dozen times and then it died completely. Knossos was destroyed by a volcanic tsunami and never rebuilt. Rome rose, fell and only rose again after over 1,000 years and this due only to the fact a major religion made Rome its headquarters.
Paris and London have been destroyed and rebuilt. Both are capitals of their kingdoms. Berlin is a newish city, same age as New York City, actually. It was not touched much until WWII. It remained an important city purely by accident: four empires divided it into four parts and then fought over this division for 50 years.
Now Berlin could reassert its power as a capitol thanks to this historic accident.
Nuclear wars aren't like regular bombings. Cities swell with refugees fleeing the countryside if there is an invasion. Then the cities are bombed and many die. Cities are then rebuilt and filled again from the endless wombs of the countryside. But the people in cities usually die in major wars. In a nuclear war that drops multiple hydrogen bombs on all the mega-cities in the First World, there will be virtually no way to rebuild except on the time scale of the Dark Ages: a thousand years or more will pass before anything big rises from the ashes.
The explosive growth of the mega-slums can lead to a catastrophic war. Wars are all about 'Lebensraum'---room to live. The horrors of Darfur are the same thing: the countryside is being destroyed by mobs of people herding animals, seeking water and food while others attempt to farm on marginal lands. Meanwhile, factory farming, the 'green revolution' is feeding ever more people while driving peasants and subsistence farmers off their lands, driving them into the bulging slums climbing steep mountainsides and across mudflats.
This isn't a local problem, it is an epidemic that seems endemic to being human. Just as we gather together digitally on the internet, we are physically flowing towards various galactic monsters, the great Metropolis. This Mega Metropolis is an inviting target. It is also inherently unstable. This is why nuclear disarmament should be a very powerful force within our own vulnerable lands.