Friday, September 15, 2006

“Planet of Slums” Author Mike Davis Speaks

Gives Audience Bleak View of World’s Urban Future


Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • Used by permission

You don’t go to a Mike Davis lecture expecting to have a good time or to hear a rosy, optimistic vision of the future of the human race. The best-selling author of City of Quartz, Ecology of Fear and Under the Perfect Sun came to the First Unitarian-Universalist Church in Hillcrest September 13 to present the ideas in his latest book, Planet of Slums, and express a grim view of humanity’s urban future. According to Davis, not only does the majority of the world’s human population now live in cities instead of rural environments — for the first time in human history — but up to one-third of those city dwellers live in environments so squalid, and lead lives so far removed from the organized economy, that he feels it’s legitimate to describe them as living in slums.

“We’re accustomed to think that the earth is well explored, but until recently we’ve known as little about this new urban planet as our ancestors in the 1830’s and 1840’s knew about the slums of their time,” Davis explained. Most of what we do know about the worldwide slum environments, he added, comes from the studies of a United Nations program called Human Habitat, which regularly commissions case studies documenting the levels of income, poverty and deprivation in various human environments.

The group recently released a report called The Challenge of the Slums and held a global summit meeting in Vancouver two months ago. This study, said Davis, “gives us our first look at the new urban reality, comparable to the historical audits of the slums of London and New York, all this a testament to how invisible the poor are,” But if you rely for your information on America’s mainstream media, you never heard of the report or the meeting held to discuss it. According to Davis, neither the New York Times nor the Los Angeles Times published one word about this.

Davis also cited as a source “a Yugoslavian economist who works for the World Bank, who has sampled census data and done household surveys around the world, including the former Soviet Union and China.” This economist, Davis explained, came up with something called the GENI Index, which measures the distribution of wealth and income and thereby quantifies the gap between rich and poor both nationwide and worldwide. According to Davis, the current GENI Index for the world is 0.66 — “which is what would result if one-third of the world’s people consumed everything and left the other two-thirds with nothing at all.”

According to the U.N. Habitat report which Davis used as his primary source for Planet of Slums, “no fewer than one billion human beings currently live in slums. The U.N. report doesn’t get distracted by political correctness. It defines a ‘slum’ as a neighborhood or community of anywhere from 200 to half a million people characterized by substandard housing and basic lack of infrastructure: potable water, electricity or sewage.” Davis added that “the 19th century reporters also characterized slums as dens of vice and criminality,” but that isn’t necessarily true of today’s slums — and when it is, Davis added, it’s usually the result of the slum population’s economic marginality and what its residents have to do to survive.

“Not all people who live in slums are poor, but at least 90 percent are,” Davis explained. “The number of the actual urban poor, defined as those who make less than $2 a day — or the extremely poor, defined as making less than $1 a day — is larger because not all urban poor live in slums.” Davis compared the one billion slum dwellers described in the U.N. Habitat report to the people Dickens and Gorky wrote about in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and said the report “puts the problem of the slum at the top of the list of problems the human race will face.” Davis said the one million figure is, if anything, an underestimate. For example, he explained, the report says only 16 percent of urban Mexicans live in slums — a figure he questioned because Mexico is one of the few slum environments outside the U.S. he’s actually visited and he’s convinced it’s far higher.

One of the points Davis returned to again and again is that the world’s slum population exists outside the formal economies of the world as a whole or the individual country where they live. He explained that the reason earlier generations of slum dwellers were able to work their way out of poverty through what he called “sweat equity and hard work” was that they had the option of “squatting” on unused land around the city perimeter. Today, he explained, the earlier generations of squatters have become the new slumlords; once they acquired legal title to their properties, they began to rent them out to the new urban migrants.

What’s more, Davis added, the formal economies of the poorest areas of the planet, where the fastest population growth is occurring — like sub-Saharan Africa, particularly its southwest coast — are producing almost no new jobs. “In urban Africa, job growth is almost entirely outside the organized economy,” he said. “People create their own employment by renting a rickshaw or a pushcart from somebody. In certain parts of Africa they open a shabeen to sell beer from their living rooms, and have their kids work in trades based on child labor. In Taiwan rural women are turning to prostitution. Criminal activities and street gangs are universal parts of the subsistence economy. The U.N. found that the total number of people worldwide involved in the underground economy to be about equal to the total number of people living in slums.”

Davis put the blame for the world’s growing slum population squarely on the Right-wing economic philosophy variously known as globalization, neoliberalism or the “Washington consensus,” and on its international enforcers: the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF). “In the 1970’s former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara became head of the World Bank at a time when the world was overflowing with surplus petrodollars parked in banks which were eager to loan it to the Third World,” he explained. “The IMF ceded part of its role to the World Bank, which became intensely involved in lending money and then, when the countries went into debt around 1980, the World Bank and IMF started imposing ‘structural adjustment programs’ (SAP’s) to force Third World countries to readjust their economies according to the Washington consensus.”

That “consensus,” Davis said, “was that big government had failed and international lenders should give smaller amounts of money to the poor themselves.” That wasn’t such a bad idea in and of itself, Davis admitted, but it came attached to a wide variety of other demands imposed on these countries. They had to decimate their public sectors, slashing social services and closing “unprofitable” publicly owned industries that had nonetheless employed large percentages of these countries’ populations. Even worse, they had to revamp their agriculture, abandoning the cultivation of food crops to feed their own people and instead producing export crops that could be sold on the world market to help pay the countries’ debts.

“SAP’s shrunk both public employment and home market-based employment,” Davis explained. “People came to the cities when the job market was collapsing, the infrastructure was collapsing and the governments were abandoning any plans for new housing. This was when the slum explosion occurred.” This, Davis argued, put the Third World countries in a continuing cycle of dependency in which they were essentially in the same place, economically, they had been when they were still formal colonies of the European powers. Today liberal reformers still talk about “microfinance” and “microcredit” programs as the way to lift Third World countries out of poverty — but, Davis said, “the success stories of microcredit are dwarfed by the scale of the problem.“

Part of the problem, Davis added, is that the informal economy can only support a limited number of people. “It consists of a very small number of niches in which a large number of people try to fit,” he explained. “There can only be so many rickshaw drivers or street vendors. The economic competition among the poor is increasing as more and more people compete for the same scraps. This will not go on endlessly. Eventually there will be rules that only people who are Moroccan, or Muslim, or members of one political party, will be permitted to work. Thus the informal economy breeds sectarianism.”

It’s the dynamic of slums and the disappearance of virtually all opportunities for poor people to advance economically, Davis said — not a so-called “clash of civilizations” between the U.S. and Islam — that’s responsible for the resistance in Iraq, both its persistence against the U.S. and the increasing sectarian violence rocking Baghdad and other Iraqi cities. “I’m not claiming al-Qaeda, which generally consists of alienated middle-class Saudis, as part of this problem,” Davis said, “but nobody in the world today has anything serious to say to 15-, 16- or 17-year-olds in cities who are waking up to the kind of future they face.”

Towards the end of his talk Davis took two audience questions, one from this reporter and one from Activist San Diego founder Martin Eder, both of which gave him a chance to focus on what could be done to deal with the slum problem — and the sheer unlikelihood that what has to be done will in fact happen. “The only way the human species will survive this century and the environmental disasters brought about by indiscriminate capitalism is to make the cities our arks,” Davis said. “The only way to mobilize resources on a finite planet is to construct public spaces. If you’re a wealthy professor, you can buy books every day on, but my library will never be as utopian as a great public library. Privatized consumption turns us all into addicts of wealth. It can’t meet the sorts of needs public institutions can. So much of the literature points to a very dire destiny, but cities also have the potential to bring people together for public purposes.”