It's official, according to North Carolina State University: We're no longer an agrarian planet, now that more of us worldwide live in cities than in rural areas. More than one billion people live in urban poverty, according to the UN. As I wrote when addressing this prediction at the turn of the year, the slums are taking over the Earth. Outsourcing is making the problem worse by drawing ever-larger numbers of people into Third World cities in search of work that is too often elusive. That means we share the responsibility, economically and politically, for the problem and its solution.
The implications of this change are enormous. In his groundbreaking book Planet of Slums, Mike Davis chronicles urbanization's widespread and devastating human impact. There are now more than 200,000 slums in the world. Once transplanted from country to city, people becoming increasingly easy prey for economic predation. Land prices are skyrocketing in response to population pressures, making housing unaffordable to poor and working urbanites alike. A UN study showed that more than half of Nairobi's slum dwellings are owned by the politicians and civil servants who decide their fate.
Bizarre cultural phenomena occur, too, when urbanization takes hold. For example, Davis writes of the mass hysteria caused by extremist Christian preachers distributing videos of bewitched children and exorcisms:
... literal, perverse belief in Harry Potter has taken hold in Kinshasa, leading to the mass-hysterical denunciation of child 'witches' and their expulsion into the street, even their murder ... children have developed intense phobias about cats, lizards, and the long dark nights of power blackouts.
Nor is the impact restricted to the Third World. More than half a billion cars, trucks, and buses operate in these regions, many as a result of the transportation needs created by mass urbanization. The global environmental impact is devastating.
What can't be measured is the loss to individuals and the world that results from the wholesale elimination of local cultures, arts, music, and spiritual beliefs. A diverse, rich, and complex Third World culture is being ground under the heel of global pop culture, hegemonic religion, and mass production. I found on my trip to Ghana last year that high-life musicians, great musical artists whose work affected music worldwide, are unable to make a living. Street kiosks and record shops sell, almost exclusively, imitative rap artists and Christian music accompanied by tinny synthesizers. This may be a minor issue compared to this global scale of urban disease and misery, but cultural impoverishment robs peoples' lives too.
How should the United States react to this urbanization? I opposed NAFTA and believe it should be reformed. Those who are pushing for labor and environmental agreements should continue to do so, despite disappointing responses from the Democrats thus far. Serious thought should be given, however, to considering the needs of the urban poor when drafting or modifying modifying future trade agreements.
American businesses should set goals for the creation of outsourcing opportunities in rural areas, with the cooperation and support of the U.S. government. That means encouraging and supporting those technical initiatives that have been undertaken to create low-cost computers and wider wireless access in the Third World, and encouraging more.
Global urbanization is a massive tide that may not be reversible, but we must do all that we can to slow it down and mitigate its impact. We owe that to our fellow human beings, to our planet, and even to ourselves.
-- photos RJ Eskow, 2006.
(North Carolina State link courtesy Making Light)