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.

-Gregor

  • http://notthatkindofoperation.blogspot.com/ hbobrien

    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.

    Hrm. This would mean your own estimate is 4/5 of the planet does not live in poverty, and that 5/6 do have access to safe drinking water.

    According to the US Census Bureau, world population is at roughly 6.8 billion.

    So, 5.44 billion do not live in poverty, and 5.67 billion have access to safe drinking water.

    World population passed 4 billion in 1975. The World Bank, in its report “The Assault on World Poverty” released in 1975 (quoted here), estimated poverty to effect 2 billion — or 50% of the world — in that year.

    Therefore, the number of people living in poverty has been cut by 640 million in absolute numbers, and the proportion living in poverty has been cut by 30 points, or 3/5.

    Meanwhile, the number of people not living in poverty is 136% of the total world population of 1975, and appears to be 100% of the level of world population as recently as 1994, or 15 years ago. That's probably the shortest such time lag in history (ie, using poverty as a trailing indicator).

    Has poverty been eliminated? No. But to discount the progress made since the 1970s would be, um… careless and absurd.

  • http://notthatkindofoperation.blogspot.com/ hbobrien

    To put it more simply, here's the ratio of poverty to non-poverty population in the world in 1975, in billions:

    2/2

    Here's the ratio today:

    1.36/5.44

    How can that be seen as anything other than progress?

  • Suzi-Q

    Robert Kaplan's The Coming Anarchy describes the social and environmental problems from mass urbanization in developing world.

  • Cindy6

    The world is overpopulated. Without addressing this issue, every other effort at fixing the environment is futile. Malthus will be vindicated.

  • OldStone50

    Comparison of “poverty” then and now requires that the measurement system be equivalent, something that is not indicated in either the blog or the comments celebrating “progress.”

    But the blog entry was not about poverty. It was about the increasing urbanization of human population and the consequent increasing use of energy. The increasing demand for cheap energy will make the transition into a non-carbon based energy system extremely difficult during a period of, yes still, exploding population size combined with imploding biological systems.

    The danger of a positive feedback cycle among population size, energy demand and biological systems is very real and very imminent. Of those three elements, I estimate that the most manageable and most humane way to break the feedback would be intervention in population size. Unfortunately, just as anthropogenic greenhouse warming denialists persist, there are many shouters who deny that population size has any impact.

    As the saying goes, “The future's so bright, I gotta wear shades.”

  • OldStone50

    Comparison of “poverty” then and now requires that the measurement system be equivalent, something that is not indicated in either the blog or the comments celebrating “progress.”

    But the blog entry was not about poverty. It was about the increasing urbanization of human population and the consequent increasing use of energy. The increasing demand for cheap energy will make the transition into a non-carbon based energy system extremely difficult during a period of, yes still, exploding population size combined with imploding biological systems.

    The danger of a positive feedback cycle among population size, energy demand and biological systems is very real and very imminent. Of those three elements, I estimate that the most manageable and most humane way to break the feedback would be intervention in population size. Unfortunately, just as anthropogenic greenhouse warming denialists persist, there are many shouters who deny that population size has any impact.

    As the saying goes, “The future's so bright, I gotta wear shades.”

  • OldStone50

    Comparison of “poverty” then and now requires that the measurement system be equivalent, something that is not indicated in either the blog or the comments celebrating “progress.”

    But the blog entry was not about poverty. It was about the increasing urbanization of human population and the consequent increasing use of energy. The increasing demand for cheap energy will make the transition into a non-carbon based energy system extremely difficult during a period of, yes still, exploding population size combined with imploding biological systems.

    The danger of a positive feedback cycle among population size, energy demand and biological systems is very real and very imminent. Of those three elements, I estimate that the most manageable and most humane way to break the feedback would be intervention in population size. Unfortunately, just as anthropogenic greenhouse warming denialists persist, there are many shouters who deny that population size has any impact.

    As the saying goes, “The future's so bright, I gotta wear shades.”