Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Planet of Slums

In the not too distant future, if it hasn't happened already, the majority of the world's population will live in urban areas. By 2015, there will be at least 550 cities with populations of a million or more. In 1950, there were 86. While the number and size of cities in the developed world has risen comparatively slightly, the urban slums are exploding. Dhaka, one of the worst slums in the world, was in 1994 a city of 16 million, up from just 400,000 in 1950. Mexico City went from 2.9 million to 22.1. Seoul-Injon went from a city of a million to one of 21.9.

Mike Davis' Planet of Slums, published by Verso in 2006, offers an unblinking vision of a growing world of surplus humanity, where Structural Adjustment Programs plunder the poorest of the poor and the Pentagon grapples with a blood-soaked future of guerrilla urban warfare spawned by extreme exploitation and unremitting, nihilism-producing, misery.

The conditions Davis describes are nearly impossible for those of us who have only known first-world luxury to grasp. One of his most appalling chapters, the Ecology of Slums, describes the sorts of hazards with which slumdwellers typically live. Their land is, of course, the least valued anywhere. This might be a hazardously steep, earthquake prone slope, a floodplain, or a landfill. It may well be a garbage dump. It is almost always a hazardous waste site of one sort of another, most often several at once. Some exist amid vast seas of human filth.
Today's poor mega-cities — Nairobi, Lagos, Bombay, Dhaka, and so on — are stinking mountains of shit that would appall even the most hardened Victorians. ... constant intimacy with other people's waste, moreover, is one of the most profound of social divides. Like the universal presence of parasites on the bodies of the poor, living in shit, as the Victorians knew, truly demarcates two existential humanities.
Twenty years ago, global geopolitics offered some measure of relief to the world's super-poor. Industrialized economies fought over the hearts and minds of the world's dispossessed. Those days are gone, replaced by International Monetary Fund and World Bank policies that enrich the global elite at the horrific expense of the poor. Davis describes this as "the brutal tectonics of neoliberal globalization." As free trade and economic opportunism devastate local agriculture, traditional lifestyles are destroyed and rural existence becomes untenable. People are driven to the mega-slums, where there are millions of poor people but little regular work or formal infrastructure.

Employment and population growth have come unhinged. The urban explosion is calculated to continue through the century. By 2050, ten billion people, the vast majority of the world's population, will live in cities. The urban slums will double in size within a single generation. The more affluent will live, as they often do now, in electronically-protected gated communities that, almost regardless of their place on the planet, somewhat resemble southern California. The Third World bourgeoisie
"cease to be citizens of their own country, and become nomads belonging to, and owing allegiance to, a superterrestrial topography of money; they become patriots of wealth, nationalists of an elusive and golden nowhere."
This is a frightening look at an unsustainable future, where the extreme misery of a surplus humanity becomes a breeding ground for the wars of the future, and the logic of unregulated capitalism produces ever new extremes of inequality.

While Davis's book is almost entirely concerned with slums in the undeveloped world, I found myself wondering how soon this comes home, or whether it already has. As property values in Seattle have recently skyrocketed as a result of dense vertical development, homeless squatters are being brutally pushed out of the City's public spaces.

This happened once in the Third World as well. Their poor were eventually pushed far enough to make the separation between the rich and the impoverished nearly total.

How long? Twenty years? Forty? Would Seattle still be Seattle if a sprawling megacity of poor squatters started ten miles south and went on for mile after horrifying mile? It's a long and bad ride to the bottom.

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