Two notable demographic landmarks recently attracted more attention than usual, but not as much as they deserve. One was the census authorities’ conclusion that the population of the United States surpassed 300 million sometime this past October, having risen from 200 million in a mere 39 years. Rapid population growth is old hat, something most people have come to expect for the world long into the future. It is for this reason that the second landmark—that more than half the earth’s population now lives in cities—is so important.
Far less familiar a fact than world population growth is that cities seldom reproduce themselves. Since most of the accelerating urbanization going on today is happening in what used to be called the Third World—the same places where population growth has been most rapid in recent decades—this implies a check to population growth in times to come. This will be so even in the absence of some ecological disaster that might otherwise provoke a swift and sudden reversal of population growth.
Urbanization is about more than simple demography, of course. Beyond sheer numbers of people, cities have affected significantly how human populations have organized and governed themselves, and how their peoples have related to each other. No doubt they will continue to do so.
To be sure, cities are old. By becoming urbanized about 5,000 years ago, a small proportion of humankind launched itself on a new course. What we call “civilization”—a word derived, after all, from the term for a city—was the initial result. For millennia, all civilizations depended on a division of labor between a rural majority who fed not only themselves but also city folk by parting with a share of their harvest in the form of economically unrequited rents and taxes. In return, farmers got an always imperfect protection from divine and human disaster thanks to the efforts of priestly and military specialists.
What made early civilized society viable was the fact that nearly everyone—up to 95 percent of the total population—lived in villages of no more than a few hundred persons. Such villages proved very hospitable to human reproduction, so much so that, most of the time, villagers raised enough children to keep their fields in tillage for generation after generation while sending surplus young people off to live in cities or, more seldom, to pioneer frontier lands whose local inhabitants were unable to drive them away. Since such permeable frontiers were transitory as a rule, migration into nearby cities was the more common response to the fecundity of rural life.
Having thus arrived, most immigrants to pre-modern cities found marginal jobs and soon died of infections, leaving few or no heirs behind. Rural demographic growth and urban decay never balanced exactly, varying sharply from place to place, year to year and decade to decade. But thanks to villagers’ resilience, in the long run human numbers tended to increase, despite innumerable local disasters and eras of depopulation that sometimes lasted for centuries.
Cities sometimes disappeared entirely, as in the Indus Valley after 1500 BCE and among the Mayans after about 1200 CE, only to revive when local populations recovered. But rural villages always survived because that was where familiar routines of work provided food year after year. No matter what the disaster—pestilence, war, crop failure or a combination of all three—survivors gathered together and resumed work in the fields, thus creating enough food to keep going, and sooner or later started increasing their numbers once again.
Sexual instinct, of course, lay behind the way peasant farmers sustained population growth the world over. But there were supplementary circumstances that made marriage and children necessary and natural. Division of labor between men and women was universal, so farming and housekeeping required daily collaboration between the sexes. Infants required extra effort from mothers, but that did not seriously interfere with their other work. Quite the contrary, women could attend to small children and perform everyday chores at the same time, and they were repaid from the start by infant smiles and babble, and soon by full-fledged speech and lively questions about everything children needed to know. Moreover, from a very early age children began to contribute to family income by undertaking tasks within their powers—gathering berries and other kinds of wild-growing foods, and herding geese and other small animals, for example.
As they grew older, children helped their parents with heavier tasks, indoors and out, until marriage, when their parents’ fields and other property had to be apportioned among a plurality of children. This meant sending some away to seek their fortunes elsewhere if sufficient land for their support was not available within village bounds. Dowry negotiations between families and the division of land and other resources among competing siblings could be contentious. But custom and a modicum of sibling solidarity usually forestalled crippling quarrels, making generational succession almost always peaceable.
More generally, custom cushioned personal interactions of every kind within each village, and however hard the work or variable the return, everyone knew what was expected of him or her at every stage of life in all ordinary situations. Resilience and continuity, both biological and cultural, were thereby sustained, ensuring human survival and long-term population growth.
By comparison, cities remained parasitical sideshows where specialized skills supported religious and military wealth and power. Nonetheless, little by little, voluntary exchanges of goods and service between cities and their hinterlands increased in range and scale. Consequently, one-way transfers of rents and taxes from villagers to city dwellers gradually came to be supplemented by more or less voluntary market dealings, whereby rural folk sold something they had made, grown or gathered, and bought things they could not readily make for themselves—metal tools, for example. The resulting specialization of labor increased wealth for all concerned, as Adam Smith later argued so convincingly in The Wealth of Nations.
Yet until about 1000 CE, such exchanges between town and country remained slight. Most of what farmers raised went into their own stomachs and those of their domesticated animals, and a portion always had to be saved for seeding next year’s fields. Rent and taxes took almost everything else. That was how the great majority of human beings subsisted in semi-isolated villages, where everyone knew everybody else, sharing good times and bad as harvests fluctuated, and as epidemics, wars and natural disasters came and went.
In a few special locations, however, where sea transport was easily accessible, commercial farming came into being at least as early as 600 BCE. Farmers along the shores of the Indian Ocean may have been the earliest commercial farmers, raising a variety of spices for sale in distant markets, but we have no records to establish confidently when the spice trade first arose. But we do have written records (and cargoes of sunken ships) to show that by about 600 BCE farmers living near eastern Mediterranean coasts discovered they could increase their wealth by raising grapes and olives and then exchanging wine and oil for greater quantities of grain than they could possibly raise on the land they farmed. That required shipping their harvest to places where wine and oil were not as easily produced, and convincing local rulers and landlords to collect enough grain from their subjects and tenants to pay handsomely for the wine and oil they wished to consume. Phoenician and Greek cities pioneered this sort of long-range marketing; it undergirded subsequent Greek and Roman history, knitting town and country together more closely than was usual elsewhere and imparting a commercial cast to classical society as a whole. Thereafter, the sale of wine and oil in distant markets within the Mediterranean was never disrupted for long, though prudent farmers always needed grain fields close by in case connections with distant buyers were interrupted.
A second and more massive conversion to market farming occurred in China, beginning about 1000 CE when the Song government decided to collect taxes in the form of cash. That decision compelled ordinary peasants to find something to sell in order to pay their taxes. By that time, thousands of barges and small sailing vessels floating up and down the rivers and irrigation canals of China had created a cheap and reliable internal transport system. Small differences of price for objects of common consumption—even of rice—thus made it worthwhile to carry everyday commodities long distances. Large-scale marketing of specialized crops ensued. Soon millions of peasants found it advantageous to buy the rice they ate and sell silk or some other specialized crop, thus assimilating their way of life to city folks’ long-standing dependence on buying and selling to gain their daily bread.
China’s wealth and skills shot upward as the advantages of specialization were unleashed on a massive scale, and other parts of the earth soon began to follow suit wherever safe and cheap water transport allowed. The Indian Ocean coastlands and Southeast Asia, together with the Mediterranean, Baltic and Atlantic shores of Europe, were the principal places where commercialized farming began to take off within the next two or three centuries.
But wherever it took root, commercial farming put serious strains on village solidarity as some families grew rich while others lost their land and were reduced to working as hired hands in others’ fields. Where transport was more expensive, landlords often monopolized sales and reduced local villagers to harsh economic dependency.
Few readily appreciate how deep the stabilities of village life were planted, or how recently those stabilities have been uprooted. Not until railroads cheapened transport in the world’s continental interiors in the second half of the 19th century did commercialized farming become general practice. And not until the 1950s did old-fashioned village styles of life everywhere begin to collapse due to the encroachment of urban contacts. In particular, radio and television, flaunting the charms of urban life, administered something of a deathblow to traditional patterns of village society wherever these instruments of modernity reached.
The Next Global Demography
The consequences of so recent a major break with the past have yet to be experienced in full. No one can be sure, but there are bound to be far-reaching consequences of the protective frame within which humans lived and died for millennia being swallowed by city-based ideas and lifestyles, and there are bound to be global political implications from the regional unevenness of the process. Urban lifestyles, which are manifestly diverse, rivalrous and even hostile to one another, are unlikely to sustain anything like the biological or cultural stability across future generations that used to prevail. The image of a breaking wave, cresting as it rushes against the shore, comes to mind as we contemplate the changes rolling out before us. Older forms of human society—peasant ways, with all their limitations and hardships—are being left behind. The future is surely going to be different. Exactly how different no one can yet say, but two principal factors appear to loom large at least in the short run.
One factor concerns the half of humankind still living on the land and still cultivating the soil. This half of humanity, overwhelmingly non-Western, is now increasingly aggrieved by poverty, monotony and hardship compared with the lure of urban wealth and comfort. These are the people who see their children hastening away toward the world’s cities in hope of improving their lives—more often than not only to meet disappointment in pullulating urban slums. Inhabitants of those slums, without regular jobs or reliable sources of income, constitute the other major human factor of our times. That human mass constitutes a pool of active discontent far more strategically located than rural dwellers, since their frustration and anger can readily be mobilized against oppressors living in city cores where everything they sought still glitters unshared and unattainable, temptingly close at hand. In short, the phenomenon of the subproletariat is being globalized amid technological conditions well-suited to the rapid spread of demagogic manipulation.
This precarious juxtaposition becomes further inflamed when ethnic and cultural differences divide the rich and privileged citizens from the slum dwellers surrounding them. Wherever urban population growth has flagged, as is now the case in approximately half the inhabited landscapes of the earth, cities cannot sustain themselves without attracting immigrants from across linguistic and cultural boundaries. Europe furnishes the best-known example.
Village autonomy has been eroding in the most prosperous parts of Europe ever since the Middle Ages, and France saw its population fail to reproduce itself after World War I. World War II generalized this phenomenon, breaking up village ways of life throughout central and eastern Europe (except among Albanians). Sharp declines in birth rates resulted as cheap and effective methods of birth control made it possible to engage in sex without risk of pregnancy. Simultaneously, medical novelties—most notably antibiotics, vaccination and pills to lower high blood pressure—lengthened lives, so populations grew older as children became fewer.
The decay of indigenous population, in turn, opened the way for the legal and illegal migration of millions of Muslims and other foreigners into European cities. In the beginning these newcomers retained their familiar ways, including birth rates far higher than those of the host population. But within a few decades, the strains of city living disrupted family patterns and other customary ways, yet without making immigrants into Europeans capable of merging individually and inconspicuously into their new homes. Segregated neighborhoods now widespread in European cities limit the possibility for children from different ethnic backgrounds to assimilate their behavior to a common norm, so something like a caste society has been emerging. All the tensions provoked by economic inequality, reinforced by outward differences in appearance and manners, are manifest. On top of that, fanatic religious hostility has found slender but real lodging in some Muslim circles, as recent acts of terrorism in Spain, Britain, the Netherlands and other European countries show.
All too obviously, the future is uncertain. The eventual disappearance of once-dominant ethno-linguistic groups may well lie ahead. But demographic trends can and do change, sometimes rather quickly, making prophecy risky beyond drawing the obvious conclusion that past patterns are no sure guide to the future. For example, villages can no longer be counted on to sustain human continuity because, with communication and travel as cheap and far-reaching as they have become, population decay in some places juxtaposed with continued population growth in others promotes massive migration.11.
This phenomenon is described in Philip Martin, “Be My Guest Worker?”, The American Interest (Winter 2007). Populations may be drawn from villages so quickly as to undermine their demographic vitality. Even strenuous police efforts to stop migration are unlikely to succeed under such circumstances, since diminishing and aging urban populations need imported labor to maintain their standard of living.
The harsh polarity apparent in Europe is, however, exceptional. Different balances between diminishing and still-growing populations prevail in other parts of the world. In general, however, the more urbanized the populace, the more strongly population decline comes into play. At a time when crowded rural landscapes in Africa, Latin America and much of Asia swarm with millions of youths who are eager to try their luck in far away places, migration will surely increase to locales other than Europe—and with it the difficulties arising from cultural gaps between newcomers and host populations.
The extent of those difficulties will vary widely, however. Clearly, cultural gaps are less wide wherever the recipient society is itself a relatively tolerant and diverse place. In the United States, for example, we are not much aware of diminishing segments of society, even though our cities are quite as hostile to human reproduction as the cities of Europe have become. The main difference between Europe and the United States is that the American melting pot still functions almost as well as it did when Europeans were being turned into Americans in the 19th century. Latinos, so-called, are now the largest ethnic group undergoing assimilation, and new Asian arrivals seem well launched on the same path. (The most stubborn social divide in the United States still lies between blacks and whites, and a gang culture of defiance among some young blacks in America’s inner cities resembles the disaffection some young Muslims in Europe feel for their host societies. Language and religious barriers between blacks and whites in America are trivial, but skin color still divides, and moral residues from slavery and segregation linger despite all efforts to bridge the gap.)
Whether white Americans will accept the loss of their numerical predominance within the United States with equanimity remains to be seen. But as long as census statistics record a growing non-immigrant population, alarm is unlikely, even though most of that growth today comes from naturalized Latinos and other newcomers. Since about 1920, most Americans of European descent have been urbanized and, like everyone else in that circumstance, they are not reproducing themselves. If that continues, a tipping point could come within a few generations, and the ethnic balance within the United States will shift. But newcomers living in our cities encounter the same pressures inhibiting childbearing that affect other urban dwellers, so are most unlikely to continue to have as many children as they do on first arrival.
Other places where indigenous populations are not reproducing themselves include Canada, Russia, Japan, China and urban pockets in Latin America, India and even Africa. Resulting migrations in India and China occur mainly within national borders, so newcomers are less conspicuous and more easily accepted by long-established urban dwellers. Yet slums on the fringes of Indian and Chinese cities are vast, crowded and just as miserable as slums anywhere else. Ecological risks from polluted water, air and soil are also severe, and recent efforts to restrict births in both China and India have led to a marked surplus of boys over girls that will create unprecedented social and perhaps political problems as they reach marriageable age.
We can be sure that demographic upheaval now pervades both India and China, affecting all or almost all villages. Migration to cities in both countries is very rapid. Rural customs break down in their cities, too, and lengthened life spans create new problems for young and old. The future of these two countries, as well as of other very populous countries in similarly transitional demographic conditions (Pakistan, Mexico and Indonesia, for example), is sure to outweigh what happens elsewhere simply by dint of numerical size. Whether urban economic growth will provide tolerable conditions and useful work for hundreds of millions of rural migrants remains uncertain. And whether demographic readjustment will work itself out mainly within existing political frontiers, as hitherto, or project massive numbers beyond them in consecutive waves of migration is also unforeseeable. If European history is any guide, persistent rapid economic growth amid stable political circumstances generation after generation is a most unlikely prospect.
Nor can stability be assured in countries rapidly losing population. Russia, which as recently as 1914 had a vigorously growing rural population, has undergone truly catastrophic demographic decay since 1950. Unlike almost every other country on earth, life spans have shortened as birth rates plummeted, so that today about 700,000 more Russians die each year than are born.
The Russians’ path to their declining present is unique and cannot be explained merely as a consequence of post-Communist malaise. Collective farms imposed by force superseded villages in the 1930s, and the ensuing disruption of family life in rural Russia brought old-fashioned population growth to a sudden halt. For a few decades state planning ensured construction and industrial jobs for everyone who could be spared from agricultural work. But when the rural surplus of recruits for the labor force ran dry, due more to collectivization than to the ravages of World War II, more efficient use of manpower became imperative. State managers, however, proved incapable of making necessary changes as both population growth and productivity fell. Then, swiftly, amazingly, the Soviet Union broke up, and public morale broke down. Shortened life spans—presumably arising from excessive drinking, smoking and other bad habits—were an unexpected accompaniment. They accelerated the rate of Russian population decay, but did not cause it.
Even in lands where rural majorities still sustain population growth, big cities constitute demographic sinkholes, just as they usually have. As effective sanitation spread among European and American cities after 1880, some cities began to maintain their numbers thanks to lowered rates of infection and large numbers of immigrants from the countryside who brought high birth rates with them. Some U.S. cities are still doing so, but this was and remains the historical exception. Intensified exposure to infectious disease was the traditional reason why cities did not reproduce themselves, and in Africa, Latin America and Asia today infectious disease continues to play a key role in urban demography. Indeed, the global risk of pandemic disease has been vastly increased by rapid urbanization in places that lack basic health and sanitation infrastructures.
The Young and the Faithful
But it is the cost of raising children in all urban environments, not disease, that best explains why urban populations generally decline without immigrants from rural areas. Wherever adults go off to work in factories, shops and offices, and small children are not allowed to accompany them, who looks after the young? How can they be readied for gainful employment? Public education and pre-schooling are seldom available in urban slums, particularly outside Western countries, but occasionally even within them, too. Grandmothers and elderly neighbors can sometimes do the job, but extended family coherence is not as prevalent in cities, and often such caregivers are not available. Professionals of various descriptions must then be found. That renders the cost of children’s upkeep high, and the nurturing that such professionals usually offer rarely matches their large fees.
Even as children are more expensive in cities, they are less economically useful at an early age. There are few berries to be picked, no small domesticated animals to herd. There is a much longer wait until children can begin to contribute to family income in urban settings.
As long as children remain expensive in urban environments, and public institutions do not nurture children more comprehensively, urban reproduction will surely falter. And with it the ills of contemporary urban society—crime, drugs, alienation and youthful rebellion—will continue to distress us. The underlying reality is that we have not found any satisfactory substitute for village communities as nurturers of the young (and sustainers of the old). Most urban encounters are with strangers, and strangers do not nurture or sustain others; the size and mobility of city populations make that inevitable.
But the effort to recover stability like that of a rural community goes on, and in cities urban mobility permits like-thinking persons to come together and agree to enforce explicit moral standards of behavior among themselves. By far the most common and powerful basis for such voluntary associations is religious commitment. Yet the costs of religious commitment are also real, especially when it sets the community of believers against the rest of the surrounding society.
There is, in other words, a differential human geography to religion in traditional village life on the one hand, and in urban environments on the other. Consider that mere distance and infrequent communication once kept villagers safely apart from surrounding strangers. But that protective barrier crumbled when modern transport and communication brought frequent contact with strangers into nearly all the villages of the world. Urban religious sects can keep strangers at bay only by accepting one code of conduct for fellow believers while embracing different manners for dealing with outsiders. Shifting back and forth and reconciling differences between the two codes is bound to be awkward.
It also means that sectarian cohesion is under constant strain, for in urban settings the ubiquity of choice among beliefs becomes unavoidable. Joining a religious group becomes a deliberate act, departure a perpetual possibility. Lifelong stability and adherence to unquestioned, inherited custom, nearly universal in village life, is unattainable under such circumstances. Instead, the very fragility of bonds invites a fevered intensity among successful sects. Demanding more from true believers and dividing them more sharply from outsiders are what sustain urban sects as their leaders seek to make it more difficult to abandon fellowship. Is it any wonder, therefore, that what is often termed “fundamentalist” religion is overwhelmingly an urban phenomenon?
Can urban society on a global scale endure an indefinite multiplication of close-knit, sometimes fanatical sects? That is what the rapidly advancing urbanization of the planet may portend, with most of that multiplication occurring in its non-Western regions. Religion in urban settings need not be fanatical or violent, of course. Perhaps because their origins were not urban, all the really successful urban religions—Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam—have managed to inculcate peaceable behavior toward outsiders. But this took time. Governments upholding certain religions have often persecuted dissidents, and sects within each religion have resorted to violence, as well. Even where such behaviors have become rare, however, religious groups operating in urban settings still have not found a way to mimic the nurturing and supportive roles that came naturally to semi-isolated villagers. American Protestant megachurches notwithstanding, no cakes of custom within which millions of strangers can comfortably conduct their lives have yet shown up. Perhaps they never will.
The sociological question of whether we will learn in time to make cities truly thrive is now matched by questions about the ecological sustainability of the high-energy lifestyle prevalent among us. The long-term survival of high-tech urbanized humankind thus remains in question. But, of course, the fact that human societies have never long been able to reproduce themselves while living in cities does not mean they never will. Humans are intelligent and amazingly adaptable, after all. Who could have foreseen our initial, triumphant expansion around the globe beginning 100,000 years ago? Or the material comforts of daily life we take for granted, yet were unknown a mere century ago?
One thing we do know: Innovations that really make urban living sustainable will spread rapidly if they arise anywhere on the face of the earth. In the meantime, the problems caused by the increased but uneven urbanization of the planet will challenge us all. They will do so in some ways we can reasonably guess at on the basis of past experience, and in many ways we probably can’t. We can only wait, and keep looking for promising new ways of living well and peaceably with those around us, both near and far.