The rise of the megacity



The stupid ones have gathered in a field in the center of the town. Every now and then a truck comes by, and all the men in the field rush to it with their hands outstretched, shouting “Take me! Take me!”

Everyone pushed me; I pushed back, but the truck scooped up only six or seven men and left the rest of us behind. They were off on some construction or digging job—the lucky bastards. Another half hour of waiting. Another truck came. Another scramble, another fight. After the fifth or sixth fight of the day, I finally found myself at the head of the crowd, face-to-face with the truck driver. He was a Sikh, a man with a big blue turban. In one hand he held a wooden stick, and he swung the stick to drive back the crowd.

“Everyone!” he shouted. “Take off your shirts! I’ve got to see a man’s nipples before I give him a job!”

He looked at my chest; he squeezed the nipples—slapped my butt—glared into my eyes—and then poked the stick against my thigh: “Too thin! Fuck off!”

Aravind Adiga’s wonderful novel of India, White Tiger, won the 2008 Man Booker Prize for passages like the one you’ve just read. Adiga’s protagonist, Balram Halwai, is an urban newcomer, recently arrived from the “Darkness” of village India. He counts himself among the “stupid ones” because he hasn’t yet given up (and won’t, even after he finds an abusive employer and ultimately murders him). The “smart ones”, recognizing their powerlessness, have given up already.

In The Real Population Bomb, P.H. Liotta, a member of the 2007 Nobel Prize-winning panel on climate change, and James Miskel, a former director of defense policy and arms control for the National Security Council, draw us into places filled to overflowing with people like Balram. They gather in the millions, facing one another in places controlled neither by themselves nor by the authorities nominally in charge. Those authorities are very often poorly paid, avidly corrupt and accountable to nobody.

A newcomer to such a setting will find that the payment of small bribes becomes as natural as breathing. With few or no enforceable legal rights, and very little power to straightforwardly earn money, what else is there to do? The great masses of new arrivals from the countryside are unable to buy or rent residential real estate visible to the legal system. They instead occupy and often tenuously “own” shacks (or mere sleeping space on open ground) in the great informal slums like Kibera in Nairobi, Dharavi in Mumbai, Sultanbeyli in Istanbul and the great, teeming favelas of Rio de Janeiro.

As Hernando De Soto never tires of reminding us, this is a great pity, since it blocks the formation of even the smallest reservoirs of capital assets among the poor. If no court will recognize my ownership of a shanty, it cannot become collateral in my effort to borrow even very small amounts of capital, perhaps to buy a food cart as the sole asset of a tiny business. The shanty, and those dwellings belonging to millions of other people, are for De Soto “dead capital.” These places are also notoriously subject to violence, infectious disease, drug addiction and coercion of every kind.

The megacities forming the population bomb are concentrated mostly in the so-called 10–40 Window of north latitudes across North Africa and Asia. Cities like Cairo, Lagos, Karachi, Lahore, Dhaka, Nairobi and Mumbai are not so much geographic places as they are explosive events. They are best understood as intense and unpredictable chains of events, controlled weakly if at all by relatively feeble states. People arrive from the countryside in vast numbers daily, crowding into extra-legal settlements, searching frantically for paid jobs, raising children without the necessary resources, too often becoming victims (and sometimes perpetrators) of violence. Liotta and Miskel take note of megacities outside the 10–40 Window, but aren’t able to give them the level of attention they deserve. Johannesburg, Mexico City and São Paolo especially come to mind as worthy of more attention.

The Real Population Bomb provides a vivid narrative of streets so loud that one cannot hear oneself scream, and slums so fetid one cannot escape awareness of other people’s shit. Access to clean water is unavailable to many, and requires enormous effort for the rest. When these compelling scenes are juxtaposed with the pallid pronouncements of Worldwide Wonkdom, the effect makes us cringe. For instance, a U.N. International Conference on Population and Development held in Cairo produces such advice, passed along to us by the authors, as this:

Increase the capacity and competence of city and municipal authorities to manage urban development, to safeguard the environment, to respond to the needs of all citizens, including urban squatters, for personal safety, basic infrastructure and services, to eliminate health and social problems, including problems of drugs and criminality, and problems resulting from overcrowding and disasters. . . . Improve the plight of the urban poor [and] promote the integration of migrants from rural areas into urban areas and to develop and improve their income-earning capability by facilitating their access to employment, credit, production, marketing opportunities, basic education, health services, vocational training and transportation.

These word-strings are as well-intentioned as they are useless. We can discern here no priorities among competing imperatives, and wonks are as usual tone-deaf to the frequencies sounded by actual human beings in many respects.

But, most of all, to whom is such advice addressed? If the national governments containing these megacities have insufficient capacity to govern them, who is supposed to act on even the best advice? Liotta and Miskel search intelligently for regional authorities, for NGOs, for specially commissioned agencies to intervene. The most powerful message in the book, for me at least, is the systematic deficit in accountable and empowered public authority over these vast and dangerous cities.

If megacities are such shitholes, why are so many people running toward rather than away from them? Three wind streams are the most important driving forces.

First, people are being blown off the land by world commodity prices they cannot even begin to compete against. This applies if they are either small holders on their own land or agricultural labor on someone else’s, in which case mechanization must displace labor in order to meet world market prices. This phenomenon gathered its initial force in the 19th century in Europe, especially in England, when the Enclosure Movement transferred inefficiently farmed commons to private ownership, and invited the application of capital investment at ever higher levels of intensity to agriculture. Enclosure is lampooned brilliantly in the well-known yet anonymous poem, which begins thus:

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
But leaves the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from off the goose.

A second wind stream arises from the world demographic transition. Beginning by fits and starts around 1750 in patches of northwest Europe, death rates began to decline while birth rates stayed high. The resulting surge of population, most of it in the developing world, is still running toward and beyond seven billion. This is, of course, why there are so many migrants available to be displaced from the countryside.

The third force is the deployment of capital in these urban regions. Whether these capital clusters are domestically financed or represent foreign investment, this capital needs labor, and it meets labor available at wages not far removed from subsistence level. Labels naming Bangladesh, Pakistan, China or Vietnam in the relatively inexpensive stuff we wear and use and discard every day testify to the success of the bargains struck between capital and labor.

Liotta and Miskel draw a relevant and interesting link between the chaotic megacities of 2012 and the likes of London and Manchester in the 19th century, as they were reported by the likes of Marx, Engels and Dickens, and later by E.P. Thompson and Karl Polanyi, among others. Marx’s analysis of early industrial capitalism in the 1850s and 1860s reads surprisingly well in connection with today’s megacities.

Marxian economics as a general theory has long since been quite properly consigned to the ash heap of history. But as a specific account of one particular circumstance, Capital (1867) still works. That circumstance, prevailing in England at about the time he was writing his great tome, is the same as in the megacities today. Consider in particular that there is a large and self-replenishing supply of willing labor; capital is relatively scarce and very unequally divided; and there exists great demand for the goods being produced from buyers not subject to the low wages being paid to the workers in question (that would be us). Wages can be driven very low under these conditions, as would-be workers struggle against one another and against corrupt rent-seeking from above.

As Karl Popper, John Roemer and a few others have observed, the classic form of Marxian exploitation, replete with the opportunity for high rates of profit, blossoms under these circumstances. Marxian economics turns out to explain a lot in the peak phases of the world demographic transition, where a growing industrial “reserve army” arrives platoon after platoon from the agricultural hinterlands. For the same reasons, Marxian economics makes little if any sense in advanced economies where population is static and retirement-age cohorts grow at the expense of working-age ones. Virtually every advanced economy fits this latter description.

The “population bomb” so ably described by Liotta and Miskel is at once morally repugnant, socially wasteful and politically unmanageable. If 100,000 children grow up in the Kibera slum bereft of serious educational opportunity, it is a statistical certainty that many potentially large talents (and even more smaller ones) will be lost to the next generation of Kenyan society. What work can be found in places like Kibera is generally hazardous, paid not far above subsistence level, and proffers no realistic chance for advancement. These people are formally free to choose their employer, yet utterly without power to bargain for a better deal. As the late Joan Robinson correctly observed, however, there is one thing worse than being exploited by capitalists, and that is not being exploited by them.

It’s worth pausing briefly here to reflect on the major policy prescriptions at work offstage. The advanced capitalist economies all became advanced in large part through strategies that relied heavily on state action to clear the road for their own capitalist firms to compete and win: protectionism, subsidies for local champions, and gunboats as required. Indeed, capitalism calls for backing from government when businesses go searching for opportunities in other lands, and for governmental regulatory frameworks at home to protect companies and workers from the harshest aspects of market competition. These advanced states have preached the Washington Consensus of austerity, fiscal discipline, free trade, privatization and other good things, often without consideration or concern for the fact that developing states are administratively unable to comply. Advanced societies can do such things once advanced, even though they did not do them when they were in the stages now occupied by Kenya, Nigeria, Pakistan or Bangladesh. The historical path toward advanced capitalism and high per capita earnings—the one travelled by, say, the United States, Britain, Germany, France and the Netherlands—required a long surge of home-team support from government. In rethinking a Chicago-school script for countries harboring population-bomb cities, it is good to keep this in mind. Whatever improvements they could undertake, surely we cannot suppose that these states are muscular enough to straighten out the most toxic cities on the planet.

This disconnect, unfortunately, plagues the rubber-meets-road conclusion of The Real Population Bomb. Liotta and Miskel bravely propose a dozen sensible policy fixes (only half jokingly titled the “12 Steps”). They lead with the idea that we should “take on the politics of plunder”, but without specifying the “we.” It turns out that each of their proposals, such as regional planning and channeling foreign aid intelligently, is dogged by the fact that many of the most dangerous megacities fall within the borders of weak, corrupt or failing states. Their final and most distressing proposal addresses this challenge: “charter cities” that would be managed by outside governmental, civic and commercial entities, akin to “a rescue mission after a natural disaster.” That analogy is very wide of the mark, since natural disasters strike fast while the megacity population bomb explodes over decades. Do they really think that governments will relinquish sovereignty over their own major cities, absent some cataclysm, for decades at a time?

Austin Troy’s Very Hungry City is lighter fare, perhaps because it is concerned with cities comfortably nested within affluent and mature states, mostly the United States, Denmark and Sweden. After slogging through the problems that plague Cairo, Lagos, Karachi, Lahore, Dhaka, Nairobi and Mumbai, it’s a relief to go looking for trouble in the likes of Portland, Phoenix, Denver, Burlington (Vermont), New York, Copenhagen and Stockholm. These cities and towns are not in any literal way “very hungry.”

Troy’s easygoing essays are mostly about the challenges of urban infrastructure in certain economically advanced societies. The Very Hungry City is something of an intermittent travelogue in which Troy, a professor of environmental studies and computer science at the University of Vermont, visits the dwellings of policy advocates in cities and other innovative urban housing developments. Between these dispatches, the author shares research and opinion on topics corresponding to each place. The connective tissue holding all this together is Troy’s concern for sustainability and environmental quality.

The most fundamental theme presented in The Very Hungry City concerns the degree to which American and Scandinavian infrastructure bakes in an enormous demand for energy. Troy reports walking along a Roman aqueduct near Tarragona in modern Spain. He observes, “Using gravity alone, the aqueducts for the city of Rome were able to supply its hundreds of thousands of citizens . . . with more than 250 gallons per person per day—more than many of America’s desert cities can feasibly supply today.” How far-sighted of the ancients to have built Rome only fifty feet above sea level. One imagines the Romans might have chosen to take a pass on Phoenix and the surrounding Valley of the Sun:

[T]he Central Arizona Project would become the icon of Arizona water supply, as well as one of the defining symbols of western water excess. By the time it was finished it would be the largest and most expensive water-transfer projects ever undertaken in the United States. Thanks to this massive project, water falling as rain and snow in the distant Rockies as far north as Jackson, Wyoming, would now be finding its way to golf courses and swimming pools in Tucson and Phoenix. . . . The Central Arizona Project was supposed to permanently free southern Arizona from its chronic water woes. But, as with the California State Water Project, it has inadvertently tied the water supply to the price of energy. Also like the California project, Arizona’s water is gravitationally challenged. Fourteen pumping stations are required to keep water moving along this 336-mile Crazy Straw, with its 3,000 feet of elevational lift.

One is reminded of Voltaire’s smart-alecky observation about the consistency with which divine providence had kindly supplied all the great cities of his day with convenient rivers. The most gratuitous use of energy noted in Troy’s book is a system of pneumatic tubes to remove garbage and compost from homes in the Hammarby Sjostad project in Stockholm.

Troy touches but lightly on the tendency of U.S. transportation policy to overlook major opportunities while pursuing locally saleable boondoggles, usually blessed by senior members of Congress. The “Champlain Flyer” rail service in Burlington, Vermont, a mere 13 miles long, is a particularly amusing example, as it closed down after only two years for a predictable lack of passengers. Much costlier is the $600 million busway covering 9.4 miles between Hartford and New Britain in Connecticut. Very few believe that the project, using a rail line already owned by the state, makes even a little economic sense (see for yourself at Proponents claim the busway’s construction offers 9,000 years of total employment; well, so would digging a vast hole with 4,500 years of work, and filling it with the other 4,500. Troy doesn’t mention the busway, but the point is clear enough.

My only major criticism of Hungry City arises from Troy’s relative inattention to the unique opportunity for energy efficiency presented by dense, compactly gridded cities. Good examples include David Owen’s 2004 New Yorker piece “Green Manhattan” and Edward Glaeser’s Triumph of the City, both of which argue that dense cities constitute a masterful strategy for resource conservation. To be sure, cities waste vast amounts of energy and impose huge environmental costs. But no configuration of human settlement provides greater potential efficiency in the use of resources than very dense cities with tight grids and effective public transportation. What makes wasteful urban infrastructure so important, so interesting and so maddening is precisely that much of the waste is avoidable. It is “wasteful waste”, if you will.