We Earth Men have a talent for ruining big, beautiful things.
- Ray Bradbury, The Martial Chronicles.
The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead station.
- William Gibson, The Neuromancer.
Combine an almost universal fascination with dystopian fiction, a little environmental alarmism, some beautifully rendered graphs and graphics, a dash of selective demographics, countless economics omissions... and you've got the makings of a catastrophist's advertorial.
The most recent edition of the New Scientist -- a popular UK-based science magazine -- has a cover story called: Ecopolis: Last Hope for the Natural World. This cleverly executed bit of propaganda begins with an ominous description of megacities:
"The meteoric growth of megacities -- there are now twenty in total (...) -- has brought with it huge environmental and social problems. Cities occupy just two percent of the land surface of the earth, but consume three-quarters of the resources that are used up each year, expelling the half-digested remains in clouds of greenhouse gases, billions of tonnes of solid waste and rivers of toxic effluent. Their inhabitants are making ruinous demands on soils and water supplies for food, and on forests for timber and paper."
Begin the very next paragraph with the phrase "scientists calculate" (trust cue) and you've got the makings of credibility's veneer. And just what do they calculate?
"Scientists calculate that a sustainable ecological footprint that shares all the world's resources equally among its enhabitants would be 1.8 hectares per person. Today, the average in rural China is 1.6, in Shanghai it is already 7, and the eco footprint of a typical American is 9.7."
Getting scared yet? Feeling guilty? Good, good. Because your worries about the fungus-like growth of megacities across our fair green orb can be assuaged. That is, if you're willing to swallow The New Scientist's nostra. Regrettably, they're the same ones we've come to expect from mainstream environmentalism:
"Fortunately, governments, planners, architects and engineers are beginning to wake up to this idea, and are dreaming up new ways to green the megacities. Their approaches rest on two main principles: recycle whatever possible, and cut car use to a minimum."
Fortunately indeed. What would happen if we didn't have technocrats dreaming up new ways to recycle?
Pollution in Major US cities
While the New Scientist takes pains to mention US cities as "a scourge on the environment," only two of the three US cities "Ecopolis" picks on are actually considered megacities: New York and Los Angeles. Like other literature in this vein, the author of "Ecopolis" would like to cast the US cities as primary culprits behind global ecological destruction -- maybe because Americans love their cars. But according to the Economist, 16 of the world's 20 most polluted cities are in China. And the trends -- demographic, economic and environmental -- simply don't support any gloomy views of the US as either spawning megacities or ruining the environment.
In fact, according to the "Index of Leading Environmental Indicators (Air Quality)" -- a compilation of results from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and California Air Resources Board (CARB) -- air pollution has gone down annually in the US across the spectrum of major pollutants since 1960. In America, air pollution is steadily becoming a thing of the past -- even in major cities. Los Angeles, for example, has improved by leaps and bounds since its heyday as the capital of smog. You wouldn't know that from reading the recent edition of New Scientist, however.
Megapopulations and Poverty
In truth, most megacities are cropping up in the developing world. In fact 15 of the top 20 most populous "urban agglomerations" are not in the developed world at all, and the majority would be considered third world -- places like Dhaka (Bangladesh), Lagos (Nigeria), and Jakarta (Indonesia). Indeed, developed-world cities are more likely to slow in their growth trajectories. Why? A couple of reasons:
- Factoring out immigration, wealthier nations are experiencing an overwhelmingly negative population growth. People in rich countries tend to have fewer children. (Such is due to greater career options and upward mobility, as well as a move away from the culture that says children are meant to "help on the farm" or "care for parents".)
- Since rich nations have strictly enforced private property rights, real estate prices and other factors can be a stabilizing force for population growth. In other words, affordability helps people make economic decisions about relocation in cities. Shanty towns and other squatter problems are also far less likely to emerge in wealthy places.
The important question here is not so much why wealthy developed cities are less likely to experience rapid population growth and environmental damage, but what institutions will allow them to get rich. Which makes New Scientist's neglect of political economy all the more disappointing.
The Environmental Curve
OK, so if New Scientist is unfair to pick on the rich west for environmental issues, its concerns about megacities in the developing world are still warranted, right? Well, maybe. Consider the Environmental Kuznet's Curve (EKC). I've discussed the basic idea on TCS before:
"Here's a paradox for you: industrial output, levels of consumption, and incomes have all increased over the last 50 years, but measures of most major pollutants continue to show correlative declines. How can this be? This phenomenon is best described by the EKC hypothesis, which is a spin on the original Kuznets Curve that describes the relationships between income inequality and development. If the EKC hypothesis is correct... '[i]t implies that some environmental degradation along a country's development path is inevitable, especially during the take-off process of industrialization. Second, it suggests that when a certain level of per capita income is reached, economic growth helps to undo the damage done in earlier years. If economic growth is good for the environment, policies that stimulate growth (trade liberalization, economic restructuring, and price reform) should be good for the environment.'"
If the EKC is right, the massive metropolises of the developing world will someday get rich enough to green themselves. But first they have to be able to afford it. And that takes fundamental structural and economic change. (China appears to be nearing its greening phase, but it may take a while. Los Angeles, on the other hand, may no longer even make the top 25 of the world's most polluted cities.) The good news is technology will help countries get through the curve more quickly.
Cities are complex adaptive systems (scientists, even new ones, should know this). And they are most adaptive when they allow markets to work properly. The more economies act like ecosystems, the easier it will be for actual ecosystems to be protected. Concerns about overpopulation and environmental catastrophe may seem intuitive at first, particularly when couched in a dystopian offering like "Ecopolis." But the long term picture of global health is actually one of optimism. And what will ruin our half-full glass is talk of command-and-control environmentalism like that proffered by The New Scientist (under the trust-cuing rubric of "science"). In short, zealous focus on ancillary concerns like recycling and driving are counterproductive. Global economic reform is the "last hope for the natural world".
Why? Because wealthier is healthier.
Max Borders is TCS Daily Managing Editor.