BuildingConsumerismEconomicsPopulationSocietyVillage Development


As Sydney residents are being paid to leave the city, the case for compact, high-density settlement becomes clearer than ever.

by George Monbiot: journalist, author, academic and environmental and political activist, United Kingdom

For at least a century, governments have tried to urbanise their nations. Communist states sought to drag people out of what Marx and Engels called their “rural idiocy”. Capitalist governments – Mahatir Mohammed’s administration in Malaysia is a good example – tried to persuade and bully indigenous people into leaving the land (which then became available for exploitation) and move to the cities to join the consumer economy. Urbanisation was equated with progress and modernity.

While in a few nations like Britain there’s a significant middle-class flight to the countryside, in most places, as agro-industry replaces subsistence farming, as local marketing networks collapse and ecosystems fail, the countryside is emptying out and the cities are bulging. In 2007 the balance of the world’s population tipped from rural to urban.

It’s not all push. An ethnographer I know who worked among peasant communities in the Amazon found that many of the people he met were obsessed by the idea of moving to the cities. In view of the hellish nature of many Brazilian favelas – especially in the booming Amazonian towns – he wanted to know why. “You have a wonderful life here: the rivers are teeming with fish, your gardens are crammed with food, you work an hour or two a day to meet your needs. You can’t read or write: if you move to the city, you’ll have to beg or steal or sell your body to survive,” he pointed out. “What you say is probably true,” they answered, “but in the city you can dream.”

The result of these factors, in combination with population growth, is that in many cities the strain on both infrastructure (housing, water, sewerage, transport, electricity supply) and the quality of life (community, security, open spaces, air quality) is becoming unbearable. The New South Wales government in Australia – which has announced a $7000 incentive for residents to move out of Sydney – is not the first to pay residents to leave a city. At the beginning of the 20th Century, for example, the Japanese government, perceiving the nation to be overcrowded, paid people in both Tokyo and the countryside to emigrate to Brazil. In the 1980s Suharto’s government in Indonesia, with the help of the World Bank, both forced and subsidised a massive emigration from Jakarta to the outer islands. But it could be a sign of mass movements to come.

The environmental consequences depend on where you are. In the rich nations, urban living tends to have smaller impacts than rural living. Public transport requires a certain population density to be economically viable: otherwise people are forced to use their cars. The more widely distributed people are, the greater the resources required to provide their services. Most of the houses which, being off the gas grid, still use coal or heating oil in the UK are in the countryside.

But in poorer countries, where most rural people consume and travel very little, the relationship is often reversed. Only when they move to towns and cities do the poor come to rely on fossil fuels and join the consumer economy, albeit often at a very low level.

In countries such as Australia, the US, Canada, Spain and Italy, weak planning has ensured that the distinction between town and countryside is blurred. Here you can find the worst of both worlds: a wildly unsustainable, disaggregated urban nightmare, in which infrastructure is stretched across sprawling suburbs, people have no choice but to drive, and anonymous dormitory estates seem perfectly designed to generate alienation and anomie.

Sydney is not as bad in this respect as Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide, whose sprawl and low urban densities beggar belief, but the problems it now faces are the result of catastrophic planning failures. Without policies to keep cities compact and urban densities high, they will begin to fail all over the world: logistically, socially and economically. Remember that, whenever anyone argues that we should weaken the planning laws to stimulate the economy.

Further Reading:


  1. The failure of city planning is to blame for the massive ignoring of A Pattern Language the last 35 years!

    “Alexander tried to show that architecture connects people to their surroundings in an infinite number of ways, most of which are subconscious. For this reason, it was important to discover what works; what feels pleasant; what is psychologically nourishing; what attracts rather than repels. These solutions, found in much of vernacular architecture, were abstracted and synthesized into the “Pattern Language” about 20 years ago.

    Unfortunately, although he did not say it then, it was obvious that contemporary architecture was pursuing design goals that are almost the opposite of what was discovered in the pattern language. For this reason, anyone could immediately see that Alexander’s findings invalidated most of what practicing architects were doing at that time. The Pattern Language was identified as a serious threat to the architectural community. It was consequently suppressed. Attacking it in public would only give it more publicity, so it was carefully and off-handedly dismissed as irrelevant in architecture schools, professional conferences and publications.

    Now, 20 years later, computer scientists have discovered that the connections underlying the Pattern Language are indeed universal, as Alexander had originally claimed. His work has achieved the highest esteem in computer science. Alexander himself has spent the last twenty years in providing scientific support for his findings, in a way that silences all criticism. He will publish this in the forthcoming four-volume work entitled “The Nature of Order”. His new results draw support from complexity theory, fractals, neural networks, and many other disciplines on the cutting edge of science.

    After the publication of this new work, our civilization has to seriously question why it has ignored the Pattern Language for so long, and to face the blame for the damage that it has done to our cities, neighborhoods, buildings, and psyche by doing so.”


    Alos, a city cannot be planned, it has to be generated:

    I simply don’t think Monbiot has got into his head the processes of generative codes, as he continually calls for more planning. Complexity cannot be created through planning, it has to follow algorithmic rules, only algorithmic design is sustainable:

    One that gives a much better and in depth analysis of today’s situation than here, is James Howard Kunstler in the last issue of Orion magazine.

    Back to the Future. A road map for tomorrow’s cities:

  2. The countryside is emptying out and the cities are bulging, what a great excuse for more uranium exploration;

    I don’t know why Monbiot thinks it’s a bad idea, get the people out of the bush and it leaves things wide open for his bumchums in the nuclear industry to move in!

    Instead of more sidetracking from pro-nuclear Monbiot from his office in England, why not publish some of the real issues relating to the sovereign owners of Australia, not just the whitefella, cappuccino mob in Sydney?

  3. Hi Craig, just in case George is a bit busy and didn’t have time to follow both links, maybe you could email him with this excerpt;

    A solution to climate change?

    Arguably the two greatest threats to human existence are climate change and nuclear war. To pose nuclear power as the solution to the former only exacerbates the latter. Fatal risks are posed at every level of the nuclear industry; from uranium mining to nuclear power to atomic weaponry to radioactive waste.

    Aside from all the significant dangers associated with nuclear power, it is simply too costly, too slow, and too greenhouse intensive (when the whole production process is taken into account) to play any productive role in the move to a carbon neutral society.

    At the same time, real solutions to climate change, in the form of already existing renewable energy technology, make any debate on the potential role of nuclear power irrelevant and disorientating.

    The 2006 Switkowski report found that building six nuclear power reactors would reduce Australia’s overall emissions by just 4% if they replaced coal or 2% if they replaced gas. It also established that doubling global nuclear power output by 2050 at the expense of coal would reduce greenhouse emissions by as little as 3.1%. This would require the building of around 850 nuclear reactors with only a tiny reduction in emissions to gain. At the same time, these reactors would create more than 1 million tonnes of nuclear waste.

    A much greener, saner and more effective response to climate change is the fast and efficient shift to renewable energy. However, on the basis of capitalism it will remain in competition with the multi-billion dollar coal, gas and nuclear energy industries, and continue to lose out. We can’t wait for renewables to become commercially profitable.

    The profit driven system of capitalism cannot ensure a solution to climate change. We have to fight for massive public investment into renewable energy, under the democratic control of workers and the community. Only this approach will ensure decisions are made in the interests of ordinary people and the environment, rather than profit motives of big business, like the nuclear industry.

  4. Sydney residents are being paid to leave the city, meanwhile . . .

    The City of Sydney has voted to replace the words “European arrival” in the official record with “invasion”. The deputy lord mayor, Marcelle Hoff, says it is intellectually dishonest to use any other word in describing how Aboriginal Australia was dispossessed by the British. “We were invaded,” said Paul Morris, an Aboriginal adviser to the council. “It is the truth and it shouldn’t be watered down. We wouldn’t expect Jewish people to accept a watered-down version of the Holocaust, so why should we?”

    In 2008, the then prime minister Kevin Rudd formally apologised to Aborigines wrenched from their families as children under a policy inspired by the crypto-fascist theories of eugenics. White Australia was said to be coming to terms with its rapacious past, and present. Was it? The Rudd government, noted a Sydney Morning Herald editorial, “has moved quickly to clear away this piece of political wreckage in a way that responds to some of its supporters’ emotional needs, yet it changes nothing. It is a shrewd manoeuvre.”

    The City of Sydney ruling is a very different gesture, and admirable; for it reflects not a liberal and limited “sorry campaign”, seeking feel-good “reconciliation” rather than justice, but counters a cowardly movement of historical revision in which a collection of far-right politicians, journalists and minor academics claimed there was no invasion, no genocide, no Stolen Generation, no racism.

    The platform for these holocaust deniers is the Murdoch press, which has long run its own insidious campaign against the indigenous population, presenting them as victims of each other or as noble savages requiring firm direction: the eugenicists’ view. Favoured black “leaders” who tell the white elite what it wants to hear while blaming their own people for their poverty, provide a PC cover for a racism that often shocks foreign visitors. Today, the first Australians have one of the shortest life expectancies in the world and are incarcerated at five times the rate of blacks in apartheid South Africa. Go to the outback and see the children blinded by trachoma, a biblical disease, entirely preventable, eradicated in third world countries but not in rich Australia. The Aboriginal people are both Australia’s secret and this otherwise derivative society’s most amazing distinction: the world’s oldest society.

    In its landmark rejection of historical propaganda, Sydney, the country oldest and largest city, recognises black Australia’s “cultural endurance” and, without saying so directly, a growing resistance to an outrage known as “the intervention”. In 2007, John Howard sent the army into Aboriginal Australia to “protect the children” who, said his minister for indigenous affairs, were being abused in “unthinkable numbers”. It is striking how Australia’s incestuous political and media elite so often rounds on the tiny black minority with all the fervour of the guilty, unaware perhaps that the national mythology and psyche remain culpably damaged while a nationhood, once stolen, is not returned to the original inhabitants.

    Journalists accepted the Howard government’s reason for “intervening” and went hunting for the lurid. One national TV programme used an “anonymous youth worker” to allege “sex slavery” rings among the Mutitjulu people. He was later exposed as a federal government official and his “evidence” discredited. Of 7433 Aboriginal children examined by doctors, just four were identified as possible cases of abuse. There were no “unthinkable numbers”. The rate was around that of white child abuse. The difference was that no soldiers invaded the beachside suburbs, no white parents were swept aside, their wages diminished and welfare “quarantined”. It was all a mighty charade, but with serious purpose.

    The Labor governments that followed Howard have reinforced the new controlling powers over black homelands: the strict Julia Gillard especially: a prime minister who lectures her compatriots on the virtues of colonial wars that “make us who we are today” and imprisons refugees from those wars indefinitely, including children, on an offshore island not deemed to be Australia, which it is.

    In the Northern Territory, the Gillard government are effectively driving Aboriginal communities into apartheid areas where they will be “economically viable”. The undeclared reason is that the Northern Territory is the only part of Australia where Aborigines have comprehensive land rights, and that here lies some of the world’s biggest deposits of uranium, and other minerals. The most powerful political force in Australia is the multi-billion dollar mining industry. Canberra wants to mine and sell and those bloody blackfellas are in the way again. But this time they are organised, articulate, militant, a resistance of conscience and culture. They know it is a second invasion. Having finally uttered the forbidden word, white Australians should stand with them.

    by John Pilger

  5. British Shenanigans

    It’s not just the Japanese. As the Guardian notes:

    British government officials approached nuclear companies to draw up a co-ordinated public relations strategy to play down the Fukushima nuclear accident just two days after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan and before the extent of the radiation leak was known.

    The Guardian reports in a second article:

    The release of 80 emails showing that in the days after the Fukushima accident not one but two government departments were working with nuclear companies to spin one of the biggest industrial catastrophes of the last 50 years, even as people were dying and a vast area was being made uninhabitable, is shocking.

    And – as the Guardian notes in a third article – the collusion between the British government and nuclear companies is leading to political fallout:

    “This deliberate and (sadly) very effective attempt to ‘calm’ the reporting of the true story of Fukushima is a terrible betrayal of liberal values. In my view it is not acceptable that a Liberal Democrat cabinet minister presides over a department deeply involved in a blatant conspiracy designed to manipulate the truth in order to protect corporate interests”. -Andy Myles, Liberal Democrat party’s former chief executive in Scotland

    “You will not be surprised to hear that the events in Japan have changed my view of nuclear power. You will be surprised to hear how they have changed it. As a result of the disaster at Fukushima, I am no longer nuclear-neutral. I now support the technology.”

    George Monbiot, Monday 21 March 2011 19.43 GMT

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