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Urban squatters save the world

Stewart BrandThe Long Now Foundation

Stewart Brand is co-founder and president of The Long Now Foundation and co-founder of Global Business Network. He created and edited the Whole Earth Catalog and co-founded the The WELL. His books include The Clock of the Long Now: Time and Responsibility: The Ideas Behind the World’s Slowest Computer (Basic Books, 2000), The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at M.I.T. (Penguin, 1988), and Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto (Viking Adult, 2009).

Cities have always created wealth, and have always been a population sink. Still, a world now more than half urban and headed toward 80 percent urban by mid-century is something new in history.

Population will peak by 2050, probably below 9 billion, and then decline rapidly. That’s never happened before, either. Unless climate change or some other calamity intervenes, city-driven wealth and technology will accelerate worldwide, the bulk of humanity will continue its climb out of poverty, and peasant life dependent on subsistence agriculture will nearly disappear. Such a world four decades from now would reflect nothing more radical than a continuation of what’s been going on for the last four decades.

Villages all over the world are emptying out as people flood into cities in search of opportunity. They keep coming because they are succeeding in town. Every year there are 70 million new residents in cities, decade after decade, most of them in the developing world, the “global south,” where five out of six of us live (5.7 billion). The ex-peasants often start in nearby small towns to acquire urban savvy and then head to big city slums. When the existing slums are full, they build new ones—squatter cities. A billion people live in such places now, and another billion is expected.

It can be rough. New shanty-towns lack sanitation, water, electricity, and organization. In the early years, the place stinks, water and power are stolen and irregular, organization is improvised and sometimes criminal, and the homes are hovels. The whole community is always under threat of being bulldozed out of existence. But the outlaw citizens find themselves in a cash economy at last, and it is vibrant. Every lane among the shacks teems with food stalls, cafés, hair salons, clothing racks, temples, health clubs, and mini-shops selling everything. Cell phones abound. Most of the economy is “informal”—no deeds, no licenses, no taxes. Everyone works, including the children, many of whom are also getting some education, often from private informal schools. Rupee by rupee, shilling by shilling, peso by peso, real by real, squatter families are working their way up in the world.

As they do so, they lift the world with them. Mumbai, a city of 17 million, is half slums, but it accounts for one-sixth of India’s domestic product. The new city dwellers form a vast, young labor force, unencumbered by large families. They are ambitious, resourceful, and entrepreneurial. They buy goods and services and provide an enormous new market for cash-crop agriculture back in the countryside. The women, liberated from the strictures of village life, become economic players themselves—the preferred customers for microloans, for example.

According to urban experts, squatters are now the dominant city builders in the world. Over time the tarpaper shacks are rebuilt of masonry, four and five stories high. The homes eventually have refrigerators, TVs, washing machines, and computers. Motor scooters multiply. Air conditioners require new levels of electricity.

Meanwhile the marginal-land subsistence farms the squatters abandoned are growing back—the trees and shrubs no longer cleared for crops or burned for cooking, the wildlife no longer eaten. According to a 2005 UN report, fifty-five times more rainforest is growing back as second growth in the newly empty rural areas than is being cut down from primary forest. In town, the squatters are the world’s most efficient users of energy and materials. They recycle everything themselves, and provide extensive recycling services for the city at large. Dharavi, the biggest slum in Mumbai, has four thousand recycling units and thirty thousand ragpickers.

All the great cities in the world once began as shantytowns. The difference now is scale and pace. London, Paris, Berlin, New York, and Tokyo continue to grow, but the new great cities—Lagos, São Paulo, Mexico City, Jakarta, Delhi, Shanghai, Karachi, Manila, Tehran, and many more—are growing three times faster and nine times bigger. A 2006 UN report says that “fully 85 percent of the world’s working-age youth, those between the age of 15 and 24, live in the developing world.”

So what’s new? For the next three decades we will have huge, churning new cities full of young people pursuing opportunity in the global south, contrasted with sclerotic old cities full of aging populations holding on to what they have in the global north. Where do you think the action’s going to be?

  • Francesco

    Great article, thanks. I agree, the present and future of the world is big cities in developed countries.

    Now, which are the key implications of this trend? Which new skills has to be developed by national and local government to best manage megalopolis? Which new professions will arise? How to maximize the return of the investment spent in megalopolis? How to improve the efficiency of their networks of roads, communications, distribution? How to best manage the complexity of those mega-systems?

  • An important perspective shift. However, it is also quite cynical, because city-builders in shanty towns, pay several times more for access to clean water, education, and health care than their official neighbors, evolution is wasteful! The reason why cities like London, Berlin, or Paris moved from slums to what they are now, was public policy (building codes, security, health insurance schemes, pension systems, collective bargaining, etc.). So just because on the individual level, it makes sense for humans to move to the city, we still are responsible to make things better for these new urbanists. Vulnerability in the city is clearly greater than in non-monetized village and therefore public policy is more needed than ever. Programs like Oportunidades in Mexico or a similar scheme in Brazil (and NYC) seem to point in the right direction, even though they are not a panacea.

  • Sandra

    This frightens me! How on earth are we meant to feed ourselves in this brave new world. Are we really so afraid of nature that we must all migrate to the city and leave the countryside behind? I live in a small village, grow some of my food (would like to grow more), recycle most things, rarely use my car because I travel by train, and have a view from (some) windows to remind me how beautiful our planet is. We all move into cities at our peril as a race with a long term future. With maturity as a race must surely come the belief in balance, and all things in moderation, but will we actually ever reach that point or end up afraid of the world beyond the walls (prison) we build for ourselves.

  • Your quote of “A billion people live in such places now, and another billion is expected.” estimates a figure very similar to a figure of the world’s malnourished.
    An official figure published by World food programme quotes “925 million” i.e. nearly a billion undernourished!
    Its time we start thinking,planning and implementing issues which will be pressing in the next decade!

    Nishant Arora

  • John McLane

    Stewart, thanks for yet another mind-blowing picture.

    You say that “fifty-five times more rainforest is growing back as second growth in the newly empty rural areas than is being cut down from primary forest”. Does this mean that the global rate of forestation is actually net positive, or are there other tree-felling activities pitching in to keep it in the negative?

    Although there are so many reasons to preserve primary forests, it would be good to know if as a species we’re being productive gardeners.

  • Nathan

    All the hope-filled optimism of this piece is unwittingly belied by three simple sentences:

    “The homes eventually have refrigerators, TVs, washing machines, and computers. Motor scooters multiply. Air conditioners require new levels of electricity.”

    This is the double-edged sword of development: in order to get people out of abject poverty, and to make some nominal progress on certain environmental issues such as deforestation (though I’m very skeptical of this), you have to provide economic development. But the process doesn’t end once people just have a cell phone or a scooter. It’s a never ending process and pretty soon you have billions clamoring for the lifestyles and level of consumption the West has had for the last 30-40 years.

    The scary thing is that now people don’t have to wait until attaining the same level of wealth as the average American to consume like one. Thanks to the uber-productive factories in China, a “middle class” person in Indonesia, where I’m living right now, making a couple hundred bucks a month can consume oodles of cheap clothes, shoes, and other junk from China. Check out a Carrefour “hypermart” in South East Asia sometime for a truly terrifying experience.

    And don’t even get me started on scooters. Those things are completely noxious—in every sense of the word—and feed the process of designing cities for motor vehicles. (And it goes without saying that every one of those tens of millions of scooterists will jump at the chance to trade up for a car as soon as they possibly can.) That, and scooters are only a nominal sign of economic development at best, as most of them are bought with no money down and completely on credit.

    There is also the issue of energy. Considering Peak Oil is now a thing of the past (2006, according to the IEA), we have now entered into the phase of terminal decline. Of the infinite effects this will have on our ability to maintain industrial civilization on this Planet, I don’t think I need to remind readers that the single thing that has allowed us become an urban species—from the dawn of the first cities in Mesopotamia until now—is agricultural surplus. And if oil is too expensive to turn into fertilizer and run the other accouterments of industrial agriculture, how do we expect to feed 9bn people—particularly if almost none of them are working in farms anymore, as they’ve all been abandoned in favor of shanty towns, scooters, and cell phones?

    It’s good to recognize the potential benefits of massive urbanization and economic development, but lets not blindly believe that it will lead all future 9bn of us into the land of milk and honey. For if we don’t recognize the downsides and act to preempt them, it will more than likely be the final chapter in the ongoing sage of planetary ecocide that we humans have been waging since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and the dawn of oil.

  • If “fifty-five times more rainforest is growing back as second growth in the newly empty rural areas than is being cut down from primary forest” have intelligent timber companies now focused their attentions on these easily accessed areas as opposed to the more remote logging territories? Or are they being used as wood fuel lots to provide charcoals to slum dwellers?

    In terms of intrinsic biodiversity value, implying an equivalency between primary rainforest and secondary pioneer forest regrowth on former cultivated plots is like setting a ferrari on a par with a lada.

  • Agree with Nathan above. I am witnessing it right now in India. Process of shift from agriculture is not accompanied by rise in agricultural productivity. This is happening because the investment in agriculture (and in villages) is dismal. This is the real reason for the ‘emptying villages’. This is forced migration. Instead of a rosy future of urban future, the real issue will be food security.

  • In reply to Nathan above. Agreed. As the consumer adopts modern consumer lifestyles, they reduce the earths carrying capacity further.

    For readers interested in more on population and sustainable challenges, see:

    I put together some charts that show the trends in income and energy consumption for US, China, India and Brazil.

    Jay Kimball
    8020 Vision

  • Rajiq

    Rising commodity price coupled with climate change, corporate sector will takeup the agriculture production in future in the rural areas, which already started some parts of the Asia in terms of vertical integration by supermarket chains. Again there always a pressure on corporate against indigenius method factory type production.Once the corporate venture starts in full scale in rural areas, there will be again shift in the human migration.

  • Marc Brenman

    If squatter cities are so wonderful, why is Haiti such a mess, as are the squatter neighborhoods of Brazil? I used to think the old Stewart Brand was wonderful, but the new one, I dunno.

  • Dug

    “Which new skills has to be developed by national and local government to best manage megalopolis?”

    I think you’re trying to solve too many problems all at once, Francesco. If you direct government to manage it, you’re going to waste all your resources on bureaucracy and social planning. I think what Stewart is describing is a self-organizing system (one that will evolve regardless of our opinions about the environmental implications).

    Might it not be more effective to have government stay out of the way – let people continue to find their own solutions, let them choose the professions that are most useful to their neighbors – and direct the government’s resources to instances where people start to do one another harm, and to provide a venue (courts) for resolving disputes? Seems likelier to have a good outcome, to me.

    I find Stewart’s description of this potential future in the cities fascinating. Should be well worth the effort of checking some of his facts.

  • George Goldman

    “Rupee by rupee, shilling by shilling, peso by peso, real by real, squatter families are working their way up in the world.”

    How blatantly naive, this view! Of course, this is also the perfect excuse for enforced deregulation and globalization under the regime of a so-called meritocracy, the like McKinsey and other free riders of modern society like it.

    Fact however is that on one hand, every year, the growing percentage of poor people in this world gets even poorer per capita.
    On the other hand, the small percentage of super rich people accumulate more wealth from year to year. Any guesses where this wealth might come from?

    Get real! Or be at least man enough to point out the negative externalities in our economic exploitation system.

    If our “meritocracy” were a real meritocracy, things would level-out over time, unlike what we observe.

    Thanks for your consideration.

  • Sam

    In the ‘brave new world’ a few of us will eat more, and most of us will starve more, but all of us will endure varying stages of deprivation- in our cities and our villages. A farmer struggling to survive on a small patch of land that costs more to cultivate than it does to purchase cheaper produce abundantly made available from another village/country because of globalization cannot insist that his/her children satisfy their hunger by looking out of the window and soak in the picturesque countryside. Impoverished families and hungry children care less for their parents’ ecological concerns as much as they do for their next meal.

    We are all hungry. Most for food. Some for thought provoking insightful articles. Not all of us are satisfied.

  • Martin

    “Population will peak by 2050, probably below 9 billion, and then decline rapidly”. The second part is most concerning to me. I will most likely make it to 2050, but what about future generations? Should we not rather focus on a positive post-2050 outcome than how we can profit most from the coming 4 decades?

  • chands

    and what will those urban slum dwellers,without water, electricity or SEWAGE DISPOSAL … eat, while the forests are growing verdantly back?
    nuclear mushroom, factory chicken and lots of steroids
    sounds like my idea of hell, and im so glad i will be stone dead and beyond caring by 2050.

  • Abdelwahab Lotfy

    How i can get a full electronic version of the regional report as I working on a baseline survey for MSMEs in Egypt?

    you may contact me on my the following email address

    thank you very much in advance.

  • How can i learn more about how you operationally defined and
    categorized schools?
    Has this model of categorizing schools as functioning at
    given levels been replicated?
    Jonathan Cohen, Ph.D.

  • Colleen Evans McGrory

    Thanks for the article Sabastiian. I am interested to learn how you structure product development and management to meet these changing needs? Wuold you be prepared to share this ?

  • Hari Bahadur Shrestha

    Do I be able to learn it from Dubai as I working. Although I am Nepalese.

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