Urbanization and Sustainability

By Paul Sullivan,
Georgetown University

The world is getting more urbanized by the day. The population of the urban areas of the developing world is expected to increase by about 72 percent by 2050, according to the United Nations. That is from about 2.7 billion to about 5.1 billion. There will also be an increase in urban populations in the more developed countries, but it will be slower given that urbanization has already grown quite a bit over the years in those countries. The world overall is now about 52 percent urban. By 2050 it will be close to 70 percent urban. In the 1950s it was just 30 percent urban. There are many implications of this vast increase in urbanization in the last few decades. One of the most meaningful ones might be the detachment of urbanized populations from the understanding of the sources of their food and water.
As a country is just urbanizing it is often the case that the people who just moved into the city from the villages and the countryside still get their food from their relatives or others from where they came from. After a while that connection starts to weaken as more and more from the villages move into the city. All cities are formerly countryside or rural places in some way or another if you go back in time. The logistics of food and water for cities is not the same for the countryside, especially those parts of the countryside that are nearly self-sufficient. Even for those who are not self-sufficient, countryside people have a better feel for sources of water and food, and what it takes to get bother, than most people in the cities.
Your typical city person gets his or her food in what way? She or he goes to the local market, gets packaged meats or good slices from the butchery, or that person gets vegetables and fruits from a bin or table in a market. I doubt very many people buying those foods thinks much about what goes into making them. That is a disconnection that could cause a significant problem with food supply chains in the future. In some places this disconnect has already happened. Many countries now import most of their foods from other countries. These same countries used to produce most of their food. As the land in these countries was taken over for industrialization and the development of cities the ability of the country to produce enough food became more limited than it would otherwise be. In some countries the best farmlands are to be found under city apartment complexes, industrial sites, hotels and the like.
Some countries still have prime food and fodder land near their cities. Egypt and China are good example of this. Industrialization and urbanization have eaten up these lands over the years. Maybe it is time for countries who are facing this devouring of their arable land and figure out new ways of development? Farm and fodder lands are also producers of cleaner air. This is especially so if the farm and fodder lands are connected with some forest area. Another loss from the disconnection between urban areas and the countryside is the loss of the sense that we as humans need green space, natural air cleaners, and also things that trap water in the soil instead of allowing the soil to simply blow away by too fast industrialization – and also farming and grazing methods that tend to cause deforestation and desertification. Chopping down trees to have massive cattle farms is a way to completely throw off the balance of nature in an area, especially if this behavior becomes chronic and vastly spread. This happens often to feed those who are growing wealthier in the cities, one of the main reasons why they left the countryside. As people get richer their diets often change. More meats are in demand. This has clearly been the case in the economic development of China, the United States, Europe and just about everywhere else. However, a big question arises: how much can we developed this demand for meats until the agricultural and natural systems literally break down. If desertification can happen in a place like the Sahel in Africa in part due to poor grazing methods and farming methods it surely can happen in other places. The agricultural systems of many parts of the world are growing so quickly one may wonder where this is all going.
A good example of the literal destruction of wildlife, water courses and more was in the United States as the country was growing. The demand for beaver pelts and bison hides and pelts lead to the denuding of millions, and sometimes tens of millions, of these animals. These were not exactly sustainable methods of production. Beaver and bison were slaughtered en masse. Most of these animals’ hides and pelts went to the markets in the cities of the United States and especially to cities in Europe later on as the beaver in that part of the world pretty much disappeared.
Some may say: how sad, so what? We needed the stuff to stay warm and dry. Indeed, for many that was the case, but this is a good example of an uncontrolled example of the tragedy of the commons. There was no sense of trying to make this a sustainable industry. Hunters and trappers just did their jobs to the maximum amounts without looking at the issue of replacement rates of the animals or at how they were hurting themselves in the long run. This is a lot like the fisheries example and the land example I wrote about a few weeks ago. When the true social and environmental costs of one’s actions are not part of the costs of one’s actions then often bad things happen.
As they beaver were being denuded in the United States in the 18th and 19th centuries billions of trees were being cut down to build the new cities and towns sprouting up in the country. Parts of this country used to be so thick with forest that the settlers feared the “impenetrable darkness” they saw in them. So, then what was the solution? Cut them down for building, for heating, for light, and for clearing land for farms and pastures. There is nothing necessarily wrong with those sorts of activities if these activities do no net harm.
However, tilling the soil in the plains in the Midwest of the United States pulled up all of the weeds of the prairie grasses. Most of the farmers who were doing this had no idea what this might lead to. Rains in that part of this country are not consistent and sometimes there are vicious droughts. After a few years of digging up the grasses that were there for likely millennia and they survived as did the top soil, the area was ravaged by something that still sends chills up the spine of some of the older people in that region “The Dust Bowl”. The top soil of vast territories of the middle section of this country blew away. Farmers, herders, families and more were ruined, bankrupt and had to move from their dreams, which was often that modest farm they knew in the heart of hearts they were doing the right thing with. Part of the drive to till the soil came from the increasing population of the country and the demand for wheat and other grains, and the increased urbanization of the country.
Let us get back to the beavers. When the beavers were denuded that meant that they were not around to build the dams and pools of water that they normally do instinctiveness in nature. The water systems of the country that were naturally developed with this wildlife changed forever. Water that was captured by their dams to percolate into underground aquifers now more freely flowed into rivers and sometimes out to sea. What replaced in some cases the beaver dams? A large number of massive hydropower and irrigation dams that were developed to produce electricity for the growing economy and the increasingly urban country. Do not get me wrong. It is important to produce electricity and hydropower is a good source of it. However, these were often built with little consideration of how they might affect both the downstream and upstream environments. It could be that the net return from many of these hydropower dams is positive, but I have yet to see a good study on this. Our economy was growing quickly and we needed resources, and many natural resources, to keep moving forward. That was a given. It was not until in the middle of the last century that some of the problems associated with this to the environment were discussed at higher levels in the public discourse. Our Environmental Protection Agency started only in 1973 during the presidency of Richard Nixon. Normally, as countries get richer they get more in tune with their environmental and resource constraints and problems. The drive for food in the belly gets to be seen in a different light when there is enough on the table.
Another sustainability issue that the more I think about it the more bizarre it is relates to water being sent to major metropolitan areas in the United States like Los Angeles and Phoenix. Both of these cities, when you consider their actual local water resources, really should not be there. Both are sprawling metropolises that just keep on growing. Most of their water is sent to them from far way via pipelines, hydropower dam water redirection and more. There is even a Los Angeles River, which is really not a natural river at all. It is mostly a cement “river” that helps to bring water from other parts of California and even other states to slake the thirst of the people and industries of the city. A large amount of water is also taken away to grow farm products and to have giant dairies in a part of the country that could not have them if the water was not transported over huge distances and at huge cost (even though a lot of that water ends up being subsidized along the way).
It is not just the United States that has walked itself into some rather dicey long term sustainability issues with water and food, but there are many places in the world that face such issues.
When I person in LA or Phoenix turns his or her water tap on I wonder if they know the distances it has traveled and at what cost. A huge amount of energy is used in California to process, move and bring that water from far distances to the essentially naturally desert city of Los Angeles. Los Angeles is now in a legal batter with a place called Mammoth Lakes in order to get water to the city from this area in the mountains. This has been done before. If LA were a sustainable city they would not have to do this.
I wonder how many people in LA when they buy a nicely wrapped pound of chicken or beef know how much water, energy, land, and more went into creating that dinner.
When people were living in the countryside not so long ago they had a better feel for the sources of food and water than the citified people of today. That will make it more difficult for the politicians and others to figure out the new ways of doing things that will soon enough need to be done. For them moment, there seems to be serious cases of collective denial as our world’s cities grown and we all become more disconnected with the sources of our food and water.
(Some of you may want to read: Alice Outwater’sWater: A Natural History, Marc Reisner’sCadillac Desert, and Charles Fishman’s The Big Thirst for some more information on some of these issues.)

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Posted by on Jan 23 2013. Filed under Opinion. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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