Monday, February 20, 2012

The Cult of Urban Density

I have to say, I get rather tired of hearing the gospel of urban density. (e.g. here, linked to by Sullivan). I have some tendency to think that the aesthetic preferences of the intelligentsia tend to get foisted off on us as if they were epistemic or moral imperatives, or well-supported conclusions. The intelligentsia tends to like big, dense cities. (Well, the intelligentsia tends to like New York...and, of course, European cities...) And what a coincidence...we ought to have denser cities! I know...there may still be good reasons for densification, and apparently there are. There are also reasons against it, which seem to get ignored, at least in the stuff that filters down to me. Life in a very dense city is a smelly, smoggy, unpleasant life, a life packed into crowded buildings, crowded streets, crowded buses, crowded everything. Don't agree? Well, reasonable people can disagree about this...and that's the point. Personally, I don't know how people can live that way. New York is really fun...for about 72 hours, if you're in the right part of it. And if you have a fair bit of money. After that...ugh. People really live there? And in the age of the internet? Jeez. Packed in like sardines. Packed in like rats. A grim, desolate concrete jungle, too full of people who are, one the whole, rather less friendly than I'm used to. I'd go batshit crazy if I had to live there, and I have to say, I'm a bit suspicious of what seems to me to be an insufficiently reflective push to squash more and more people into such conditions. Some folks like it, obviously...but the thing is: not everybody does.

The solution to the problems at issue is, as I've suggested before, not to force more people to live like ants, but to have fewer people. There's no need to push for a greater-than-ordinary degree of density if you've got a manageable number of people.

This is another aspect of a discussion that continues to baffle me. Instead of aiming at the one, obvious solution to a panoply of problems, we seem to be urged to ignore that solution and focus on radical and radically weird patches. We've got so many people that we've got to cut down the rain forests to keep 'em in beef. Solution? Stop eating beef! We've got so many people that we're running out of clean water. Solution? Recycle and drink our own pee! We've got so many people that we've worn out the soil. Solution? Pump it full of searing amounts of nitrogen! We've got so many people that there's no place left for the wildlife to go. Solution? Cram 'em all into superdense urban sardine cans.

Here's an idea: let's build down the population instead. We might still get good ideas from these other approaches. But it's just plain stupid to ignore the real problem that's driving all of this.

Well, there's my $0.02, at any rate, all stated with more certainty than is warranted.


Blogger matthew christman said...

Let's here some plausible ideas for how, exactly, we reduce world population growth? So far, the only thing that we know reduces population growth is a rising standard of living and the increased access to birth control and workforce participation for women that go along with it. Of course, increased standards of living require more resource use per person, which exacerbates environmental damage and resource scarcity. Other than that, nothing shy of a massive, world-wide family planning campaign carried out by the UN or something, is going to actually stop people from reproducing. It seems like these patch solutions at least have the benefit of feasibility.

2:36 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

It's a hard problem, of course. That's why we need to start working on it now. More resource use per person is fine, so long as the population drops and the proportions are right. You mention some of the easy ways to attack the problem, e.g. a better standard of living and better access to birth control. Better education for women also helps. But the most straightforward response is, of course, education. People aren't machines; they can, largely, be reasoned with. Simply acknowledging the problem and making it prominent in public discussions will help, and there's no doubt about that. Tax incentives can provide another type of incentive, though; I advocate cutting off deductions for dependent kids after three. And this is all before the real thinking has even been done. None of these approaches is in the least bit creative. In some places, governments have found that e.g. producing soap operas that highlight the problems of families with too many kids has helped to mitigate the problem.

And, the bottom line: none of the other band-aid approaches will work in the long run. There's no reason to doom the human race--and the rest of the planet--to a hellish future simply because we refuse to take this enormous problem seriously. Cramming millions of people into warren-like urban conditions is not a serious solution.

9:32 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Oh, and, furthermore, we've got to address the immigration issue seriously in the U.S. We all want to be able to throw the doors open to all the huddled masses yearning to be free, but, sadly, that ship has, as it were, sailed. We've got to acknowledge that we can't (or shouldn't) e.g. solve problems with Social Security by just letting in more people. Immigration is, currently, the largest driver of population growth in the U.S. (note that immigrants tend to have larger families, and that's one factor). So, actually, it is, in a sense, rather easy for the U.S. to take meaningful steps...though it would be better, of course, if we could make progress on other fronts as well, as there are obvious reasons to prefer that we be able to maintain some semblance of our historical commitment to taking in a fair number of immigrants. In this respect, perhaps oddly, illegal immigrants who come for awhile and leave are actually less problematic than legal immigrants who stay. IMHO, this aspect of the problem is one of the reasons why liberals and environmentalists have backed off of the overpopulation issue--they don't want to be seen as sympathetic to anti-immigration-ists, who are often racists...and such folk have even been known to gesture at overpopulation arguments in advancing anti-immigration cases. But good reasons don't become bad, of course, just because bad people use them to rationalize their bad positions.

9:41 PM  
Blogger matthew christman said...

Immigration is actually a potential solution to overpopulation. There are countries like Italy and Japan where the birth rate is below replacement level. Significant migration of people from high birth rate, third world countries to first world countries with declining birth rates would reduce their birth rates while bolstering those economies. And I guarantee that most of the Latin American immigrants who've come to the U.S. in the past twenty years have had fewer children than they would have if they'd stayed home.

9:29 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

The thing about that is, it encourages people in high-population areas to continue to have more children, because lower-population areas are serving as pressure-release valves for excess population that might ordinarily depress birth rates.

Also, even lower-population areas are generally overpopulated. Take the U.S., for example, which is generally not regarded as a problem area, and yet is, be credible estimates, overpopulated by about 100,000,000 people = by about 1/3.

This is one of those problems such that, though we have to take the whole world into account, we also have to get our own house in order first.

Needless to say, this has to be balanced with other considerations. I'd prefer shifting our emphasis to immigrants fleeing human rights abuses, and lower immigration quotas only until the population is under control, of course.

11:09 PM  
Anonymous Suzanne said...

One way to reduce population growth, in developed countries at least, is to stop giving couples financial incentives to have lots of children - like the baby bonus (in Australia) and various family support payments. Perhaps the latter could be cut out after a woman's 2nd child, though I imagine this policy would provoke much protest!

10:11 PM  

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