Bedtime in Paradise
Every night I tuck my son in with a warm blanket, with his trusty teddy bear, Red Bear, and perhaps a drink of juice, and we read books. Our own expression for this, commemorating a kid so tired he got his words mixed, is "go to books and read bed." It is one of the most pleasant things a dad and a boy can do.
One of our bedtime books is At the Crossroads by Rachel Isadora. It chronicles a special day in the lives of a group of kids in a South African shantytown. The day is special because they find out that their fathers are on the way home, bumping along in the backs of trucks, after six months of working in the mines. The kids are very happy. Their mothers draw water at the local hand-pump for their morning bath in an old metal wash-tub; they eagerly dress and open their school day with the singing of the traditional hymn. After school, they make guitars and drums out of things lying around and sing of their fathers coming home. Mr Sisulu closes his store and comes to join them on his drum. Then they proceed to wait for their fathers at the crossroads, all night long. Little Nomsa falls asleep, but the others stick it out til dawn.
There's nothing preachy or whiny about this book. Poor as these kids are, they are full of joy, riding home at dawn, at last, on the shoulders of their fathers. (The fathers are, likely as not, bringing fresh HIV infections home with them, but this is probably not the time to bring that up.) We see these families living a life that seems recognizable. Their privations aren't too gruesome for four- and five-year-olds to hear about, and it makes our comfortable life seem all the more precious.
I did a search and found out that At the Crossroads is no longer in print, although used copies are available. It should be reissued; in fact it ought to be required reading in first grade classrooms across the Great Country of Ours, in recognition of the fact that sometime next year our world will reach a terrifying milestone: the world's urban population will outnumber its rural population.
It is a kids' book, after all, so we might not have to dwell on the fact that the kids in At the Crossroads are relatively well-to-do by shantytown standards. They have at least one parent with them, they are not starving, and they even have access to minimal sanitation. In the poorer districts in Bombay, for example, there is estimated to be approximately one toilet seat for every 500 people. We hear a lot about HIV/AIDS -- and a truly frightful epidemic it is, too -- but the more mundane diseases also deserve mention: about two million children die every year of chronic diarrheal diseases caused by human and animal waste contamination in their drinking water.
Around the "third" or "impoverished" or "developing" or "debt-saddled" world, poor people are moving to cities by the hundreds of millions. They generally do not, however -- as was the case in past urban migrations -- have much hope of finding employment once they get there. Mike Davis writes, in New Left Review: "The global forces pushing people from the countryside -- mechanization in Java and India; food imports in Mexico, Haiti and Kenya; civil war and drought throughout Africa; and everywhere the consolidation of small into large landholdings -- seem to sustain unbanization even when the pull of the city is drastically weakened by debt and depression." This is an entirely new way for cities to grow. In fact, what is growing is not cities, in any way that "gringos" can recognize them, but slums -- on an unthinkably vast scale. Really, the statement that "the majority of the world's population will soon be urban" is a bland euphemism. It's more accurate to say that most of the people in the world will soon be squatters, without title or tenure, in slums that lack the most basic human services. I don't doubt that most of you reading this are pretty well insulated from this fact, but it is the shape of our world today.
This is not, of course, what cities are for. Writing in a more optimistic time -- 19th-century United States -- here is how Henry George described the development of a city:
Population still keeps on increasing, giving greater and greater utility to the land, and more and more wealth to its owner. The town has grown into a city -- a St. Louis, a Chicago or a San Francisco -- and still it grows. Production is here carried on upon a great scale, with the best machinery and the most favorable facilities; the division of labor becomes extremely minute, wonderfully multiplying efficiency; exchanges are of such volume and rapidity that they are made with the minimum of friction and loss. Here is the heart, the brain, of the vast social organism that has grown up from the germ of the first settlement; here has developed one of the great ganglions of the human world. Hither run all roads, hither set all currents, through all the vast regions round about. Here, if you have anything to sell, is the market; here, if you have anything to buy, is the largest and the choicest stock. Here intellectual activity is gathered into a focus, and here springs that stimulus which is born of the collision of mind with mind. Here are the great libraries, the storehouse and granaries of knowledge, the learned professors, the famous specialists. Here are museums and art galleries, and all things rare and valuable, the best of their kind. Here come great actors, and orators, and singers, from all over the world. Here, in short, is a center of human life, in all its varied manifestations.
George recognized, of course, that cities did not always happen this way -- that with all of these wonderful advantages come blight, sprawl, slums. Nevertheless, I think he'd have been shocked by the scale of today's hopeless urbanization.
Although it often brings out a kind of knee-jerk Malthusianism, this problem really has nothing at all to do with population growth. In fact, the utterly dire circumstances of many slum dwellers have the effect of lowering net fertility. The problem has much more to do with land monopoly and international debt. Nation after nation, saddled with unpayable debt, is ordered by the IMF and World Bank to implement "structural adjustments" that compel them to commit every available scrap of land to cash crops for export. They use the foreign exchange for debt service, the military and supporting the ruling elite. The farms are large and mechanized, often being run by multinational corporations. The results of all this "production" do absolutely nothing to benefit the vast majority of people in each nation. Instead, the process robs them of land and opportunities. They wind up in the city, with no prospects -- and the marginal wage level gets solidified at Absolute Zero.
It's all too tempting to throw up one's hands and take refuge in a fortress mentality -- and the rich nations will probably do more and more of that in the near future. But anyone who is willing to think clearly for just a few minutes can see that there is a solution. The land that has been stolen from the rural poor must be returned to them -- not by means of a divisive redistribution scheme, but by forgiveness of unpayable international debts and the public collection of land rents, which has long been understood as the right way to secure people's equal rights to the earth. It's a bold, brave step that no world leader today -- except for the United Nations Human Settlements Program -- dares to call for. But the alternative is truly unthinkable.
Lindy Davies is the Program Director of the Henry George Institute.
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