Saturday, March 21, 2009

Planet of Slums

The first article concerning Mike Davis’s Planet of Slums begins with a description of the worldwide trend towards urbanization. Due to an increase in urbanization and a shrinking countryside population worldwide, “cities will account for all future world population growth” (p.1). It is significant that most of this growth will occur in the cities of developing countries, in which “there is little or no planning to accommodate these people or provide them with services”. (p.1-2). Not only are supercities becoming larger, but small villages are becoming cities, and small cities are becoming larger cities, likely resulting in increasing inequality within and between cities of different sizes. However, this urbanization is not due to expanding job opportunities from industrialization; rather, agricultural deregulation is resulting in a surplus of rural laborers who flock to urban areas. Because urban areas are suffering from an increase of debt and depression rather than an increase in employment opportunities, these laborers end up in urban slums. While other sources blame nations’ governments for global slums, Planet of Slums blames globalization, neoliberalism, and inequality. Davis compares Slums’ warning about the disastrous effects of growing global urban poverty to the dire consequences of global warming, which I believe is an effective way to illustrate to the reader just how serious this problem is.
Slums are defined as “overcrowding, poor or informal housing, inadequate access to safe water and sanitation, and insecurity of tenure” (p. 5) and make up a third of the urban population worldwide. While classic slums were located in inner cities, modern slums are more likely to be located on the outskirts of cities. There is a trend towards slums being greatly undercounted. As a result, many of the statistics in this article are preceded by “there may be…”, indicating that many of the statistics are closer to guesses. For instance, there “may be more than a quarter of a millions slums on Earth” (p.6). Davis’s argument would benefit from more accurate statistics, but unfortunately they seem to be unavailable.

Many slum dwellers occupy their land illegally, making eviction a constant threat. To make matters worse, many slum dwellers lack adequate sanitation services (the worst of which are those in Africa) which lead to the death of at least two million urban babies and small children every year (p. 7). They are also prone to flooding, mudslides, and pollution from neighboring factories.

According to Davis, the 1980s inevitably led to an explosion of slums when the International Monetary Fund (IMF) implemented a Structural Adjustment Program (SAP) in which world economies were restructured through privatization, using the debt of poor countries as leverage. People in rural areas could not compete with global corporations. Thus by taking away state control, the rich are becoming richer, while the poor are becoming poorer, all but eliminating a middle class. Davis describes strategies that women desperately devise to survive and contribute income to their families, including factory work, piece work, and prostitution, among others. It seems that once again, minorities and women get the short end of an already short stick. Despite immense expansion of worldwide trade in the 1990s, urban poverty continued to worsen.

Davis compares globalization to the original creation of the Third World. In the latter, peasants from around the world were forced into the global economy to their own detriment. Globalization is causing a similar phenomenon, leading millions to struggle to survive as members of an informal working class consisting of “unskilled, unprotected and low-wage informal service industries and trade” (p.11), resulting in the perpetual
reproduction of absolute poverty.

Unfortunately, uprisings by these informal workers tend to be “episodic and discontinuous” and are usually focused on immediate issues rather than the overall picture (p.14). This perhaps depressed me most of all—that they are not finding significant ways to fight back against their appalling situation. Davis emphasizes that we cannot use past revolutions to predict the behavior of those living in slums today, as “history is not uniformitarian” (p.14). As an example of how the current situation differs from the trends of the industrial revolution, Davis describes an increase in religiosity in developing countries in contrast to the secularization of the working class during the industrial revolution. Some, such as Jean Comaroff, argue that this turn to religion is a form of resistance, as many of these churches organize ways of helping its members to meet their survival needs.

The second article, “Slum Ecology: Inequity Intensifies Earth’s Natural Forces”, emphasizes the poor living conditions of people living in slums. People are moving to scarier conditions out of sheer survival, conditions in which “the destructive power of natural elements leaves today’s slum residents in an ever more vulnerable state” (p.22). These conditions include toxic waste, ground collapse, flash floods, and landslides, sometimes in seismically active areas. A more immediate fear is fire. A slum’s “mixture of flammable dwellings, extraordinary density, and dependence upon open fires for heat and cooking is a superlative recipe for spontaneous combustion” (p.23). Often, these fires are set by landlords who do not feel like waiting for (or paying for) court demolition procedures. As a horrific example, Filipino landlords prefer to douse a rat or cat in kerosene, set it on fire, and let it loose in the slums; it will set several shanties on fire before it dies, after which the fire will spread easily. It sickens me that human beings can have such little regard for life, human or animal.

In addition, poor cities do not have sufficient urban planning, which would provide open spaces and a separation of industry from inhabited areas. Instead, poor cities are mixed in with factories and do not have open spaces to provide room for recycling the massive amounts of waste they produce. There is a large gap between waste generation and disposal in poor cities, leading to an overflow of waste. In fact, “digestive-tract diseases arising from poor sanitation and the pollution of drinking water are the leading cause of death in the world, affecting mainly infants and small children” (p.25). Finally, the restructuring of poor urban economies around the world has left them with no way to fight against their conditions by taking away public healthcare. Thus natural forces and human forces have combined to limit and even exterminate millions of impoverished people around the world.

1 comment:

  1. The others have pointed out most of the important issues concerning this article. It seems crazy that 95% of the population growth will happen in urban areas of 3rd world nations.
    What I got from the author is that one of the main problems with all of this growth is that there is little focus on these rapidly expanding areas. Davis writes about how there is no structural adjustments being made for these areas. Instead of growth and prosperity in urban locations, it has just become a dumping grounds for "surplus population", which I find to be a unhealthy way to look at people living in these slums. If there was more focus on these areas, they might be able to be more than just piles on shit situated in hazardous areas next to giant cities. If these people were able to receive basic necessities to survive, they might not be such bad places. But most of these people have no access to water and sanitation which is sad. It all kinda goes back to the population argument we have been discussing all semester. With decent living conditions and living wages, the population growth in these areas wont be so explosive.