Saturday, January 20, 2007

How I'm Occupying My Time

Worldwide, 200,000 people a day migrate from rural to urban areas. That's 70 million people a year... 130 people a minute. World-wide, one in six people is a squatter; by 2050, it'll be one in three. Many cities of the future will be these illegal -or extralegal- cities piled up outside incorporated urban areas.

So, who cares? This trend may not be a bad thing. There's some evidence that the squatters themselves think this is a fine idea. If rural life were working -if legitimate urban life were working- there wouldn't be this head-long rush into squatter communities in the developing world. These communities, after all, can be thriving neighborhoods. I remain unconvinced that this is the best we can do for people, although I'm trying to keep an open mind. People's absolute right to self-determination vs. a minimum standard of living.... I'm evaluating where I stand on this. One of my most immediate concerns is what happens in the case of a natural or man-made disaster. It is always true -ALWAYS- that poor people have the hardest time in a disaster. But if you're living in substandard housing, on top of a pile of garbage, it doesn't take a terribly fertile imagination to figure out what's going to happen in a tornado or a mudslide or a hurricane.

The question comes down to, what do we think the good life is? In Mumbai, it's hard to miss the fact that there are squatter communities springing up on the highway median. I had a serious start when I realized that an extended family of 15 or so was sharing a space that was 7 feet on a side. They have to sleep and eat in shifts because there isn't enough room inside for them all at one time. Ok, I knew that people lived in poverty. I'm not completely naive. But some mathematical neuron fired, and I realized that my BED is almost 7 feet on a side. 15 people live in a space that is the size of my bed. I'm not kidding. (And I wasn't thrilled, back in the day, when that space was occupied for the night by me, my husband, and whichever child was claiming to be having nightmares.) And there is no access to services, sporadic electricity, and frequently there is a mountain of garbage upon which they live. Is that the good life?

Yes, these are neighborhoods. Or they can be. But so are the communities that have been left behind. Or so they might have been. Parents want their children not to be trapped by dire poverty, by social constraints, by illiteracy. So sometimes they move to these urban communities, to free themselves from -or hide from- the societal constraints that were entrapping them in the rural areas. Some parents, though, are trying to stay behind in the rural communities and make that work. They want not to have to sell their children into indentured servitude or downright slavery, but also to live where the family has lived for generations. It seems to me that there must be a place for both kinds of response to the universal human desire to offer our children more than we have.

This community organizing, building upon an expressed need and local expertise, is something I know about. And these are some of the questions on the table for the people I'm working with right now. Can rural, subsistence living be sustained these days? Can we offer our children safe, secure, and option-filled lives, in these rural communities? (Now THIS I know about from having raised children in a rural environment. It's not the easiest sell for me, but again I'm trying to keep an open mind.) Does education necessarily drive people "off the farm" and into the cities? Does education necessarily distance the educated young people from the less well educated parents and grandparents? Might there be a way to re-think that?

I don't know any of the answers. But I wanted all of you to know that at least I'm ignoring you for important questions. And, if you know the answers, you could... you know.... give me a little hint. Save us all some time ;)


Lisa :-] said...

Lots of interesting questions. Here's another: Are people gravitating toward cities because human society is increasingly dependent upon technology unavailable in rural areas?

Andrea Rusin said...

Not the squatter cities. Maybe more middle class people are moving to the cities for those reasons. But the people I'm working with are almost-literally fleeing slavery. Quite literally, it's indentured servitude of such an extreme that I'm not sure why we don't just call it slavery. They create these urban villages out of nothing, out of trash, so technology really isn't available on a daily basis.

Wil Robinson said...

Seems like many of the "academia" is telling the world that people will move to urban areas for those "high-paying" manufacturing and industrial jobs...

In reality, it seems that much of the prime land, historically used for small, sustainable farms is being taken by big corporations to grow exotic crops for export only, and meanwhile those people starving in Mumbai are being told to buy their staple foods from other countries and earn some money with exports...

All in the name of "globalization" and the "free trade/free market."

It seems humans are missing the spirituality and sense of community that binds us as families, neighbors and friends.