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In Defense of Urban Life

January 16, 2012

People are flocking to burgeoning cities like Lagos, Nigeria

A recent article of mine was criticized with the following:

I can barely believe how idiotic that statement is. City dwellers ecologoical footprint is generally more 10 times that of naturally living humans. The broad scale monoculture required to feed cities is massively destructive to the environment and vastly less inefficient than permaculture food forests.

Most city dwellers are completely incapable of long term survival in a wilderness. Is someone with a college degree who can’t keep themselves alive really more intelligent than a naked bushman?

As for wealth I’d have to go with the old adage ‘He is richest whose pleasures are cheapest’. Economic growth is a mostly a lie when you take into consideration the environmental degradation it causes. We have more extreme poverty and a far greater disparity between the rich and the poor than ever. Cities make a tiny minority super wealthy, many comfortable and leave billions in the third world starving. But thats okay because they’re hidden from view: Out of sight, out of mind.

The person who wrote that article should try travelling around Africa and Asia on the roads less travelled and see how most of the world really lives.

I encourage the poster to have a look at the original article as well as Glaeser’s book. In fact, the efficiencies created by cities lower ecological footprints, especially our carbon footprint, since people can bike, take public transit, and drive far less. Ed Glaeser’s work shows this with strong empirical evidence. If we care for the environment, we should head to cities, which we can build up instead of out and return vast tracts of forest back to nature instead of bulldozing them to build suburia.

I am strongly in favor of innovative ideas that lower the ‘monoculture’ footprint of cities like small-scale urban farming, which has already had some success near my home in Brooklyn. Window boxes for vegetables and rooftop gardens are all possibilities. One of the biggest barriers to bringing these ideas to full bloom are draconian zoning/licensing/building code restrictions. We need to give the entrepreneurs looking to make urban life more ecologically sustainable the ability to take action.

On a larger scale, this blog has covered ideas like progressive environmental trusts and dividend systems for the upkeep of natural parks and the restoration of those already damaged.

The skills needed to live in a city are different than those needed to live an isolated life in the wilderness. But why is one set better than another? Glaeser doesn’t assert that being an accountant is ‘superior’ to being a farmer. He’s talking about economic efficiencies of having people with many different skills and ideas nearby you. Even the Amish draw upon their neighbors to raise a barn.

Obviously economic growth is not everything, but it is a powerful enabling condition to allow people to achieve the kinds of higher pleasures that they truly want. People don’t want ‘a better clothes dryer’, they want to be able to spend less time washing clothes and thus more time writing novels or playing with their children or fishing or what have you.

Before condemning others for ‘not knowing about life among the poor’, you should consider how your argument against economic growth would sound to someone who lives in a low or no-growth economy in the developing world. You are effectively saying, “I do not care what you want, circumscribe your ambitions and accept ‘simple pleasures’ because economic growth isn’t everything.” I think you would find most of the world’s poor wants economic growth and the opportunities that it offers.

In fact, cities are currently the engines of economic growth and increasing prosperity in the developing world, especially because of their large informal sectors that employ the majority of the world’s poor. If it’s true that they only work for elite minorities, why is there such a massive exodus in the developing world to cities? People are voting with their feet against rural poverty and for the possibilities of urban life. We should respect these decisions, they are expressions of the poor’s autonomy.

As far as the personal dig, I have traveled in Africa though I admit not extensively. My own experience suggests that it is unclear that people in urban areas are worse off than subsistence farmers (or ‘naked businessmen’ as you say). Rural areas are more prone to famine and other shocks to the economy because they are isolated from trade networks.

Urban life brings people together for mutual aid, and it opens wealth-generating possibilities for specialization and trade. It can integrate otherwise contentious groups, and it melds culture together to bring about beautiful new hybrids of music and art. We shouldn’t write off cities because of a romanticized ideal of the pastoral.

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  2. Mac permalink
    January 18, 2012 7:26 pm

    There is little more amusing that two comments like these presented side-by-side:

    “As for wealth I’d have to go with the old adage ‘He is richest whose pleasures are cheapest’. … We have more extreme poverty and a far greater disparity between the rich and the poor than ever.”

    Well, which is it?

  3. January 16, 2012 7:14 pm

    The post actually said “naked bushmen” — not businessmen (though I initially misread it also; funny).

    I think that poster is a primitivist nut… or at least he’s trying to address too many disparate issues to make any clear points. While you contrast “urban” with “suburban” (which is a gimme, since the suburbs are just sprawling urban areas), he seems to be contrasting urban life with hunter-gatherer. That comparison seems to be so far removed from modern life as to be ridiculous. Maybe we could contrast urban life with small-town life… but hunter-gatherer lifestyse just isn’t an option.


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