It’s a Planet of Slums

Humanity crossed a threshold in 2007 when for the first time in a history a majority of people became city dwellers. But if you read such books as the terrific Planet of Slums, by Mike Davis (City of Quartz), you’ll know that the composition of this migration has guided urbanizing populations not to modernity, but, to squalor, high densities, and trash. This is why it’s rather absurd for many to carelessly assert now that the concerns expressed in the 1970’s, about the future of food, water, and health were largely unfounded. Unfounded? Really? A fifth of of the planet lives in poverty now. And not just mild poverty. A sixth of the planet lacks sufficient access to safe drinking water.

population-graphicTopping off 2007’s milestone, however, the year 2008 ushered in yet another new era. For the first time ever, the developing world demanded and consumed more energy than the developed world. This finding came to light with the publication of the annual BP Statistical Review, in June. The advance in population, the migration to the cities, and the go-ahead in primary energy use in the developing world are all related. Of particular note is the composition of this new energy demand. While oil is definitely playing a new role in emerging economies, it’s the use of coal that has accelerated. This is not a surprise, as coal remains a cheap form of BTU and is the go-to fuel of the world’s poor.

Ninety-five percent of this final buildout of humanity will occur in the urban areas of developing countries, whose populations will double to nearly 4 billion over the next generation…The scale and the velocity of Third World urbanization, moreover, utterly dwarfs that of Victorian Europe. London in 1910 was seven times larger than it had been in 1800, but Dhaka, Kinshasa, and Lagos today are each approximately forty times larger than they were in 1950. –Planet of Slums, Mike Davis.

What Davis is pointing out in this passage, and in the broader scope of his book, is that while the urbanization in the developing world bears many of the same signs associated with Dickensian suffering–the speed at which this transformation is taking place is in fact something new. This buttresses and enhances the insight, among observers of the world’s energy supply, that the developed OECD nations no longer control the price of fossil fuels to the extent they once did. The current financial crisis and depressed state of the world’s industrial economy only makes this new structure more clear. While oil, coal, and natural gas are certainly quite cheap compared to their highs of the decade, only a recession of the current magnitude was able to pull them down in price as low as they are today. In a previous era, oil would be at 10.00 dollars a barrel.

lagos-slumThe tectonic changes in the world’s population and urbanization the last twenty years now begs a question. Is it possible that instead of the developing world ever reaching the living standards of the developed world, as many had once thought–is it possible that the developed, OECD nations are rather now on a course to meet the developing world somewhere in the middle? If that’s the case, it is very bad news for those concerned with climate change. Because in that middle place, where the new and the old world may be set to merge, it’s likely that the primary sources of energy will be wood, and coal.