A planet of slums

Planet of Slums, Mike Davis
Verso, 2006, ISBN 1844670228, RRP $38.00

Planet of SlumsConsider this: World urban populations will soon exceed rural populations for the first time in human civilisation; most of this growth is occurring in Third World cities that are overcrowded, insecure, impoverished and without sanitation or safe water. There are currently one billion people living in a Third World slum; there will be two billion sometime between 2030 and 2040.

In his new book, Planet of Slums, Mike Davis attends to the vast inequalities and social dislocations this entails. There is a long tradition of studies of the urban poor – Friedrich Engels’s examination of Victorian Manchester in The Condition of the Working Class in England is a well-known example. Davis updates this genre for a period of globalisation, investigating the causes and constructions of the emerging 'urban climeractic.'

As with his famous predecessor, Davis intends not just to document but also to shift understanding. We see how the Third World confirms and confounds our understanding of urban development. While industrialisation is meant to be the driver of urban growth, debt crisis and structural adjustment have meant that cities like Johannesburg and São Paulo have undergone exponential population increases while experiencing a kind of de-industrialisation.

It is sobering to read that the cities of the future will be mostly made of crude brick and scrap wood rather than glass and steel. 'Instead of cities of light, soaring toward heaven,' writes Davis, 'much of the twenty-first-century urban world squats in squalor, surrounded by pollution, excrement and decay.'

The challenges facing a study like this are that the scale of the problem is so large and the dimensions of the problem are so various. Davis ranges from shantytowns in Lusaka to squatter communities in Buenos Aires to a vast “megaslum” in Mexico City. Importantly, he recognises that the particular form a slum takes arises from the common misery involved in negotiating factors such as cost, security, shelter quality, location and safety.

If geographical range is important to Davis so is historical perspective. The post-independence programs of Castro, Nasser, Nehru and Sukarno failed to consider pre-existing social and community structures. The lost opportunity Davis identifies here allowed neoliberalism to engineer the withdrawal of the state and a drastic diminution of horizons. Self-help and incremental change might now pass for progressive reform but they have amounted to little more than slum upgrading.

For Davis, the tragedy of this situation is underlined by the way Third World elites utilise inherited colonial divisions. In countries with the greatest inequalities, the wealthy withdraw to gated communities and rely on zoning to deal with urban problems. Their governments direct a kind of social war against the poor: development authorities have targeted half a million squatters in Delhi for relocation; Robert Mugabe recently raized dwellings in Bulowayo to stifle political opposition.

Meanwhile, the 'bad geology' of many slums means the poor are subject to landslides in Caracas, floods in Manilla and earthquakes in Guatemala. Their location near toxic industries led to devastating consequences with the poison cloud release in Bhopal. Lack of sanitation means 10 million people in Kinshasa without a waterborne sewage system.

There is no real escape from the consequences of global poverty. The European middle classes in the 1830s and 1840s came to realise that they couldn’t separate themselves from the ravages of cholera and typhoid. Davis published a book last year, Monster at Our Door, that makes the same point about our ability to avoid diseases such as Avian influenza.

Planet of Slums reveals how the Third World is denied the kind of developmental measures and vision that helped Europe and America to modernise. Despite the promises of globalisation, the UN reports that 46 countries were poorer in 2004 than they were in 1990. Even successes such as China and India have come at a great cost: Bangalore now boasts golf courses and shopping malls along with a slum of two million people.

There is a justified anger in this book at the coldness and hardness of a world where slums are the 'implacable future' of the poor. Davis notes that at least during the Cold War the West maintained some vision of development for the Third World, if only as an immunisation against revolution. Slums have now become the dumping ground for more than one billion informal workers.

Davis aligns himself with the wretched of the earth and a refusal of their extreme marginalisation. The responses to this marginalisation can range from wanting to share in modernity’s promises to the atavistic rejection of modern life altogether. The danger is that West’s patrolling of borders between securitised areas and demonised spaces beyond might become part of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Davis provides a timely survey of all this, as well as an urgently needed pull of the emergency cord.



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