Don't Miss Out

Subscribe to OCA's News & Alerts.

Cook Organic not the Planet Campaign

Jeremy Rifkin: The Risks of Too Much City in a Crowded World

We are heading for a world of 100-storey office buildings and
landscapes of glass and cement that will take humankind to a
watershed: the disappearance of the wild

By JEREMY RIFKIN

The coming year marks a great milestone in the human saga, a
development similar in magnitude to the agricultural era and the
Industrial Revolution. For the first time in history, a majority of
human beings will be living in vast urban areas, many in megacities
and suburban extensions with populations of 10 million or more,
according to the United Nations.

We have become "Homo Urbanus." Two hundred years ago, the average
person on Earth might meet 200 to 300 people in a lifetime. Today a
resident of New York City can live and work among 220,000 people
within a 10-minute radius of his home or office in midtown Manhattan.

Only one city in all of history - ancient Rome - boasted a population
of more than a million before the 19th century. London became the
first modern city with a population over 1 million in 1820.

Today, 414 cities boast populations of a million or more, and there's
no end in sight. As long as the human race had to rely on solar flow,
the winds and currents and animal and human power to sustain life,
the human population remained relatively low to accommodate nature's
carrying capacity: the biosphere's ability to recycle waste and
replenish resources.

The tipping point was the exhuming of large amounts of stored sun,
first in the form of coal deposits, then oil and natural gas.
Harnessed by the steam engine and later the internal combustion
engine, and converted to electricity and distributed across power
lines, fossil fuels allowed humanity to create new technologies that
dramatically increased food production and manufactured goods and
services.

The unprecedented increase in productivity led to runaway population
growth and the urbanization of the world. No one is really sure
whether this turning point in human living arrangements ought to be
celebrated, lamented or merely acknowledged.

That's because our burgeoning population and urban way of life have
been purchased at the expense of vast ecosystems and habitats.

Cultural historian Elias Canetti once remarked that each of us is a
king in a field of corpses.

If we were to stop for a moment and reflect on the number of
creatures and the amount of Earth's resources and materials we have
expropriated and consumed in our lifetime, we would be appalled at
the carnage and depletion used to secure our existence. Large
populations living in megacities consume massive amounts of the
Earth's energy to maintain their infrastructures and daily flow of
human activity.

The Sears Tower alone uses more electricity in a single day than the
city of Rockford, Ill., with 152,000 people.
Even more amazing, our species now consumes nearly 40 per cent of the
net primary production on Earth - the amount of solar energy
converted to plant organic matter through photosynthesis - even
though we make up only one half of 1 per cent of the animal biomass
of the planet. This means less for other species to use.

The flip side of urbanization is what we are leaving behind on our
way to a world of 100-storey office buildings and high-rise
residences and landscapes of glass, cement, artificial light and
electronic interconnectivity.

It's no accident that as we celebrate the urbanization of the world,
we are quickly approaching another historic watershed: the
disappearance of the wild.

Rising population; growing consumption of food, water and building
materials; expanding road and rail transport and urban sprawl
continue to encroach on the remaining wild, pushing it to extinction.
Scientists tell us that within the lifetime of today's children, the
wild will disappear from the face of the Earth.

The Trans-Amazon Highway, which cuts across the entire expanse of the
Amazon rain forest, is hastening the obliteration of the last great
wild habitat. Other remaining wild regions, from Borneo to the Congo
Basin, are fast diminishing with each passing day, making way for
growing human populations in search of living space and resources.
It's no wonder that (according to Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson) we
are experiencing the greatest wave of mass extinction of animal
species in 65 million years. We are losing 50 to 150 species to
extinction per day, or between 18,000 and 55,000 species a year.

By 2100, two-thirds of the Earth's remaining species are likely to be
extinct. Where does this leave us? Try to imagine 1,000 cities of a
million or more just 35 years from now. It boggles the mind and is
unsustainable for Earth.
I don't want to spoil the party, but perhaps the commemoration of the
urbanization of the human race in 2007 might be an opportunity to
rethink the way we live. Certainly there is much to applaud about
urban life: its rich cultural diversity and social intercourse and
its dense commercial activity.

But the question is one of magnitude and scale.

We need to ponder how best to lower our population and develop
sustainable urban environments that use energy and resources more
efficiently, are less polluting and better designed to foster
human-scale living arrangements.

In the great era of urbanization we have increasingly shut off the
human race from the rest of the natural world in the belief that we
could conquer, colonize and utilize the riches of the planet to
ensure our autonomy without dire consequences to us and future
generations.

In the next phase of human history, we will need to find a way to
reintegrate ourselves into the rest of the living Earth if we are to
preserve our own species and conserve the planet for our fellow
creatures.

- Jeremy Rifkin is the author of The Age of Access: The New Culture
of Hypercapitalism Where All of Life is a Paid-For Experience and
president of the Foundation on Economic Trends.