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Is urbanization our only option for sustainable futures? In defence of rural living

By Emille Boulot

Increasing urbanization is a demographic mega-trend. Fifty-five percent of the world’s population currently lives in urban areas, and this is predicted to increase to 68% by 2050. Most of that increase will be in Asia and Africa as low-to-middle income countries significantly increase their urban population. This urban/rural restructuring has been the result of a deliberate process over centuries with economic policies enclosing the commons, de-valuing local and traditional practices and knowledge, farm labour, the land, and the lives of non-humans. This needs to be undone.

Urbanization has been heralded for having a strong association with economic prosperity and increased GDP. But GDP is not a measure of wellbeing. While urban areas offer improved infrastructure and services, high levels of urban poverty, food security concerns and high infant and child mortality remain. One only has to think of the COVID-19 pandemic to see examples of these concerns. In low and middle-income nations one-third to one-half of urban populations live in illegal settlements lacking adequate water, sanitation, healthcare and schooling and are always at risk of eviction. In high income countries, urbanites are more susceptible to stress, depression and anxiety, metabolic disease and respiratory illness, than their rural counterparts.

So why has the world urbanized? The history of urbanization is one of state expansion and population coercion. Parliamentary acts of the 18th and 19th centuries in Britain enclosed common lands, forcing much of the population into urban areas (see Federici’s Caliban and the Witch for more on this). In the US, Indigenous peoples were forced into cities under the Urban Indian Relocation Programme. Such programs are ongoing with examples from Israel where the Prawer-Begin Plan is shifting nomadic Bedouin peoples into urban areas.

An increasingly urban populace has a multitude of benefits for liberal capitalist systems. It allows for unhindered access to mineral resources and land for large-scale agribusiness, as well as concentrates labour for industrial and service economies. With most of the world's GDP generated by industry and services, 65% of the world's economically active population is required to work in the predominantly urban industrial and service centre areas. Highly populated urban areas, therefore, provide ideal business environments where urbanites, dependent upon goods and services provided largely through a capitalist market, make for economically vulnerable and insecure populations. Urbanization also increases the assimilation of peoples into a dominant, westernized, metropolitan culture, entrenching the city as the site of civilization, economic productivity and culture, branding the village as ‘backwards’, an economic wasteland and redundant.

While cities are often labelled the more environmentally friendly option, people in dense urban settings are vulnerable, not only to rising temperatures, but also to other climate change-induced food shortages or staple food price increases; water, sanitation and healthcare risks. Again, vulnerabilities arising from the COVID-19 pandemic come to mind. Increasingly internationalized systems of production and distribution draw upon large and complex global supply chains with large ecological footprints and catchments for food, fuel and carbon sinks. Urban populations are vulnerable to disasters in locations that either supply or buy their products. This vulnerability is concentrated in the urban poor, particularly in women and children.[1]

Furthermore, urbanization might not be possible in a resource constrained world. Despite the agribusiness land grabs that often accompany urbanization, family farms continue to produce over three-quarters of the world’s food. Smallholder agroecology can feed 12-15 people with one person’s year-round labour, yield higher economic returns, outproduce conventional agriculture[2] as well as absorb carbon-dioxide, maintain some level of biodiversity and be more resilient to climate change.

And finally, do we want an urbanized future? Often divorced from ecological cycles and the production of our food and basic necessities, urban life can be stressful, tiring, socially and physically isolating. Despite its promises of economic success, urban life for many people is precarious. Reversing the urban share does not necessarily mean a return to agriculture for everyone, however, ensuring that such work is made as attractive as possible, inviting people to choose it freely, and de-centralizing cultural life and social infrastructure would certainly make it more enticing.

Bread & Butter Farm. Vemont. Photos: Emille Boulot.

[1] Enarson E. & Meyreles L. (2004) International perspectives on gender and disaster; differences and possibilities. Int. J. Sociol. Social Pol. 24: 49–93; Bartlett S. (2008) Climate change and urban children: implications for adaptation in low and middle income countries. Environ. Urban. 20: 501–520 [2] Altieri, M.A. (1999). Applying Agroecology to Enhance the Productivity of Peasant Farming Systems in Latin America. Environment, Development and Sustainability, 1(3/4): 197–217.

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