Whole Earth Optimists


Edge marks the new year by asking 160 notables what they're optimistic about these days. Here's part of Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand's answer:

Cities have always been wealth creators. Cities have always been population sinks. This year, 2007, is the crossover point from a world predominantly rural to a world predominantly urban….

Hence my optimism. Cities cure poverty. Cities also drive birthrates down almost the instant people move to town. Women liberated by the move to a city drop their birthrate right on through the replacement rate of 2.1 children/woman. No one expected this, but that's how it worked out. As a result, there will be another billion or two people in the world total by midcentury, but then the total will head down—perhaps rapidly enough to be a problem, as it already is in Russia and Japan.

Poverty in the megacities (over 10 million) and hypercities (over 20 million) of the developing world will be highly visible as the disaster it is. (It was worse out in the bush, only not as visible there. That's why people leave.) But the poor who were trapped in rural poverty create their own opportunity once they're in town by creating their own cities—the "squatter cities" where one billion people now live. They recapitulate the creation of cities past by generating a seething informal economy in which everyone works. The dense slums, if they don't get bulldozed, eventually become part of the city proper and part of the formal economy. It takes decades.

Globalization and urbanization accentuate each other. Medical care that couldn't reach the villages can reach slum dwellers. The newly liberated women in the slums create and lead CBOs (community based organizations, some linked with national and global NGOs) to handle everything from child care to micro-finance. If the city has some multinational corporations closely surveiled by do-gooders back home, their pay rates and work conditions will raise the standard throughout the city.

The sudden urbanization is a grassroots phenomenon, driven by the resourcefulness and ambition of billions of poor people busy getting out of poverty as fast as they can.

Brand overstates the extent to which people are leaving the countryside voluntarily—he notes that China "helps the process," but doesn't mention that one way it does this is by seizing people's farms—but his larger points about the benefits of urban life, and of do-it-yourself neighborhoods run by the people who live in them, are well-taken.

Another former Whole Earth editor, Howard Rheingold, answered Edge's question as well. Here's an excerpt:

The tools for cultural production and distribution are in the pockets of 14 year olds….The eager adoption of web publishing, digital video production and online video distribution, social networking services, instant messaging, multiplayer role-playing games, online communities, virtual worlds, and other Internet-based media by millions of young people around the world demonstrates the strength of their desire—unprompted by adults—to learn digital production and communication skills. Whatever else might be said of teenage bloggers, dorm-room video producers, or the millions who maintain pages on social network services like MySpace and Facebook, it cannot be said that they are passive media consumers. They seek, adopt, appropriate, and invent ways to participate in cultural production. While moral panics concentrate the attention of oldsters on lurid fantasies of sexual predation, young people are creating and mobilizing politically active publics online when circumstances arouse them to action.

As an increasingly cheap and portable Internet penetrates the Third World's squatter cities, expect lots of fascinating surprises as Brand's favorite trend intersects with Rheingold's.

Elsewhere in Reason: In 2003, I interviewed Rheingold about smart mobs. Later that year we named Brand one of our 35 heroes of freedom.