One of the defining aspects of our current civilization and one of the most worrying trends of modernity is our urbanization as a species. When we take the long view of human history, it becomes obvious that for 99% of our history, we have been a rural people, the majority of us making our living off the land and in small, agrarian communities.
Though history (especially the last 2,000 years or so) has been written by the pens of the powerful. Concentrated in urban centers, our collective dependence on rural areas and the people who lived and farmed there was a stalwart of our survival.
According to recent studies, we have recently crossed the threshold of becoming a majority urban-dwelling species. Over half of our more than 8 billion people live in urban centers around the world and that number is only expected to increase in years to come. What does this mean for our collective survival? Is our urban-ness sustainable and desirable? How can we forge a healthy, ecological civilizational paradigm that is built around billions of people living away from the land where the most basic necessities of our survival are found and cultivated?
To begin with, we want to recognize and affirm that it is imperative for us as humans to reverse the trend of increasing urbanization. According to UN Habitat, every WEEK, close to three million people migrate from rural areas into urban areas. If this trend continues, the crises that come with urbanization will only propagate and magnify.
While we can construct sustainable urban spaces with the amount of people currently living in cities, we simply cannot continue to depopulate rural areas where the natural resources for our survival are found. Agrarian thinkers Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson argue that we need to increase the “eyes-to-acre” ratio, meaning that we need more people populating rural spaces so as to ensure as healthy, sustainable and ecological management of the soil, forests, water, and other natural resources that are essential to our survival.
That having been said, we also want to distance ourselves from the frame of thought that argues that people need to be forcefully removed from urban areas in order to achieve a higher eyes-to-acres ratio. The majority of us living in urban areas grew up distanced from any sort of meaningful contact with the land, and we have lost the agrarian skills necessary for making a living from the land. Advocating for whole scale de-population of the cities and repopulation of the countryside might sound ideal on paper, but in reality, would lead to horrible consequences.
What is needed is a reconfiguration of the essential relationships between the rural and urban populations. Both urban and rural areas offer unique and necessary contributions to our civilization. However, the power balance has evidently tipped towards favoring the urban over the rural, often leading to injustice, inequality, and a fundamentally unsustainable civilizational paradigm. By re-imagining how urban and rural people can interact in a just and sustainable manner, we can thus envision the essence of urban survival.
From Relative Autonomy to Dependence
In a recent interview with Noam Chomsky and Ha-Joon Change regarding the benefits and drawbacks of globalization, the idea of “localization” was debated. While both of these renowned thinkers recognized that the current process of globalization has led to increased inequality, neither believed that localization was a viable alternative.
According to Chang, “I don’t think localization is a solution, although the feasibility of localization will depend on what the locality is and what issues we are talking about. If the locality in question is one village or a neighborhood in an urban area, you will immediately see that there are very few things that can be “localised.” If you are talking about a German Land (state) or US state, I can see how it can try to grow more of its own food or produce some currently imported manufactured products for itself. However, for most things, it is simply not viable to have the majority of things supplied locally. It would be unwise to have every country, not to speak of every American state, manufacture its own airplanes, mobile phones, or even all of its food.”
The question that never arose, however, was whether or not we need airplanes or cell phones or any of the other millions of things that have become necessities for our current livelihoods. At the most basic level, we need nothing more than food, water, and shelter for our physical survival. While most of us might think we understand that empirical reality, the fact of the matter is that many of us would feel simply lost without our cell phones, our $300,000 houses, and our credit cards giving us access to the world of consumerism.
We´re not advocating here for a return to a Luddite lifestyle characterized by a lack of modern day technologies and comforts. Rather, we are making it a priority to discern what the necessities for survival are and what are actually wants and desires fueled by our consumer civilization. The explosion of our desires (which are often falsely characterized as needs) has had some drastic consequences for our lives and for the ecological resiliency of our planet.
We consider it a need to eat meat twice a day, or to ride in an airplane once a month for a weekend getaway, or to maintain our homes at a constant temperature of 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Recently, my wife, daughter and I were walking into town on a crisp autumn morning. Even though it was only a 2-mile walk to the farmers market where we were headed, three separate drivers stopped to offer us a ride, all of them thinking it a symbol of depravity that a family would have to walk in the cold instead of ride in a heated car.
What few of us are honest enough to accept is that by increasing our supposed needs, we are also willingly accepting a loss of personal and community autonomy and increasing our dependence on an ever more unstable global economy. While the argument that localization would not be able to provide us with all of the consumer goods that we have come to appreciate is certainly true, who dares to question whether or not the global economy will continue to fulfill this role as well?
The elemental unsustainability of our globalized world rests on the fact that our global accounting system has simply left out any consideration of the wider, natural world upon which we all depend. How will we fuel all the airplanes our global economy produces once the oil runs out? How will we feed the cattle for the ever increasing meat industry when there are no more rainforests to cut down on pasture land? How will we feed ourselves when the topsoil is gone and the petroleum laced fertilizers are no longer available? How will we satiate our thirst when the aquifers under every major city are drained and the old growth forests which give rise to the springs and rivers have been turned into newspapers?
By geometrically increasing our wants (which we are led to believe to be needs and necessities) we ultimately are forced into pronouncing our loyalty and allegiance to the globalized economic system. Our lives and livelihoods become fundamentally dependent on a system that can produce for us the consumer goods that we demand and require.
While rural people don´t escape from this reality, one of the characteristics of agrarian societies was that they were closer to the effects of their livelihoods. The food they produced came from the fertility of the soil that they had to carefully manage if they wanted to eat next year. The water came from the springs that were fed by the forests on the hills surrounding their communities and people were able to comprehend that if they cut that forest they would be left without water. The proximity of their livelihoods to the natural world that provided allowed them to put limitations on their desires, differentiate needs from wants and allow the natural world to be the “measure” of how they could live.
With the urbanization of our species, we have subsequently tossed any sort of proximity to the natural world out the window. Indeed, the increasingly long and complex global supply chains make it close to impossible to understand where the products we use actually come from. Below we will look in more detail at the specific dangers of this dependence on distance and long supply chains. For now, however, we want to emphasize that the opposite of autonomy is dependence and that is dangerous when it comes to survival.
Unfortunately, the dependence on the globalized economic system has the illusion of abundance. Whereas the relative autonomy of our agrarian forebears was undoubtedly considered to be a life of poverty and privation, our modern-day dependence on the globalized economic system is deceptively abundant. One of the central aspects of constructing sustainable urban spaces for survival, then, is unmasking this illusion of abundance, understanding the unsustainable foundation on which it rests, and accepting the necessary limitations and austerity that is a part of creating more autonomy and self-sufficiency.