Interview: Looking on the bright side of Earth's growing slums

A Stanford-trained biologist perhaps best known for publishing “The Whole Earth Catalogue,” Stewart Brand is co-founder of and managing director of the Global Business Network, a strategy consulting firm in California. In his most recent book, “Whole Earth Discipline: an Ecopragmatist Manifesto,” Brand lays out several self-described “environmental heresies,” among them the argument that megacity slums – far from becoming ecological and moral disasters – will instead prove to be an enormous boon for planet Earth.

GP: If there’s an intellectual shift underway regarding the perils of urbanization, why is the assessment of researchers changing?

Stewart Brand (Sean Kilpatrick)

Brand: It changes, apparently, when people spend time in the slums. And that happened with a 2003 United Nations report. The U.N. sent out a bunch of groups, 36 or so, to do field studies – going out and actually finding out what was going on in the slums. They were astounded to find, yes, there’s a lot of poverty but there’s also an enormous amount of economic activity – much of it in the informal economy.

There’s money in the slums, it’s moving around in the slums and – in the slums where people are gradually finding their way out of poverty – there’s a lot of cheerfulness. And I think that shocked the field groups.

The people that are in the slums, nearly all of them are there voluntarily, they came from somewhere else that must have seemed worse to them. They seize opportunity because that is what happens in cities. And that became the new story.

What’s the simplest way you could put it?

The old thinking was that slums are the problem and the new thinking is that slums are the solution.

That’s a sharp break with some prominent earlier studies of mass-urbanization. I’m thinking here of Mike Davis’s 2006 “Planet of Slums,” which uses phrases like “Hobbesian hell” to describe third-world slums. What do you think Davis was getting wrong?

He really has studied all of the relevant literature and refers to it broadly and comfortably. But there’s no sense in his book that he’s actually spent any time in a slum or squatter city. And so he’s able to maintain the old theory that these things are excrescences on the face of humanity and everybody is to blame.

What are the chief environmental benefits you see in the broad shift from the countryside to the city?

It differs in the developing countries versus the developed countries. In the developed countries, the main event is that downtown living is more energy efficient.

If you live in a small apartment in Manhattan and ride an elevator to your flat and a subway to work, you’re using drastically less energy and materials than someone who lives out in a suburb or out in the countryside.

In the developing world there’s some of that same phenomenon, but the main event seems to be people giving up on subsistence farming because it’s just too hard and too chancy. You’re not in the cash economy so you can’t buy fertilizer and so you continue to try and get food out of land that increasingly depleted.

Why is subsistence farming such a problem?

Typically it’s people who work like hell to get a few vegetables and crops out of pretty marginal land and they’re making it more marginal all the time. They’re burning the woody plants and the women often will walk long distance to get branches to come back and use for the cooking fire. So trees diminish, shrubs diminish and that means less for the animals to eat. And often they’re trapping or killing wild animals for bush meat.

When people move off a bad subsistence farm it grows back pretty quickly. Especially in the global south and in the tropical areas where you can get completely restored rain forest in about 20 years, if you’ve got some relatively nearby primary forest.

This is Part 4 of our five-part series looking at Dhaka, Bangladesh, and the rise of the megacity. Read (and watch) on:

Part One: Dhaka: the fastest growing megacity in the world

Part Two: The dreams of Dhaka's garment girls

Part Three: Disasters drive mass migration to Dhaka

Part Five: Who can solve a problem like Dhaka?

There’s a hell of a lot of landscape growing back in the areas in the developing world that are urbanizing. Ecologically that’s great, and in terms of climate that’s great. That forest and woodland growing back – and even savannas and scrubland growing back – is fixing a lot more carbon out of the atmosphere than farming did.



Do the benefits go beyond fewer farms and more efficiencies of scale?

Women are liberated by moving to town. They start to get much more choice on how many children they want. They don’t need six children - they can have two or three or one. And that’s diffusing the population bomb.

And that’s been the case, it turns out, all the way back. Cities have always been population sinks. So when you have a whole world that is more than half urban, part of that story is you’ve got a whole world that is having less than replacement birthrate.

If governments and policy makers can’t stop urban growth, what can they do to harness its potential upsides?

A vegetable seller at an informal riverbank market in Dhaka.
(Erik German/GlobalPost)

For a start they can stop bulldozing shantytowns and they can stop trying to empty the streets of peddlers. Instead of assuming those things are a blight on the economy, understand they’re part of the actual resilience and robustness of the economy.

But then it is infrastructure. Electricity, water, and sanitation – those three are probably top. Sanitation is horrifying for the women, if they can’t find a place to go to the bathroom in private. And there’s lots of diseases that result from poor sanitation.

There’s not a shortage of people looking for employment, there’s not a shortage of people willing to step up and help make these places better, especially in terms of the infrastructure. And once that’s in place, the people who are living there can spend less of their time simply trying to manage with infrequent electricity, infrequent or dirty water and they can bear down and be productive for themselves and the for the economy at large.

Editor's note: This interview was conducted by Erik German, who will join us for a live conference call on Sept. 24 at Noon (ET). The third world's sprawling megacities are typically viewed as hopelessly blighted. But could they actually be good for the environment? What German found is surprising. To join the call, become a GlobalPost Member today by clicking here.