Tuesday, October 7, 2008

In One Short Lifetime

In an antique store last week, I purchased a Colliers Atlas and Gazetteer from the year, 1942. That’s the year I was born, and I wanted to see this snapshot of the world as it was then, to compare with my world of today, and try to grasp the magnitude of change that can occur in one short lifetime. The continents have changed not at all. Several of the national borders have changed in the years since the end of WW II, and many of the names of the nations today are entirely different from what they were back then. The real difference, however, is in the populations of the cities of the world.

In 1942, the largest city on earth was greater London with a total population of 8.3 million, followed closely by New York City with 7.4 million. The rest of the top twelve, in order, were Tokyo (6.4M), Berlin (4.3M), Moscow (4.1M), Chicago (3.4M), Osaka (3.1M), Paris (2.8M), Hamburg (1.6M), Los Angeles (1.5M), Sydney (1.2M), Warsaw (1.2M), and Rome (1.1M). It’s no coincidence that these same cities represented all of the major players in the war at that time, hence the term, WORLD War II. The war decimated much of the population of all but the American cities of New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, with the result that most of these cities (especially the European cities) are not substantially more populous today than they were in 1942.

What the gazetteer population charts showed in these cities was a demographic very similar to what we see in the same cities today— with one dramatic exception. The city of Los Angeles, 1.5 million in 1942, is now over 20 million for the greater L.A. basin. This puts L.A. into a class with the next set of cities that I want to mention. Here are the population numbers for a second group of cities that were only marginally involved in the Second World War. At that time, these cities were all considered, Third World.

Bombay (1.1M), Cairo (1.3M), Calcutta (1.2M), Mexico City (1.5M), Sao Paulo (1.2M), Rio de Janeiro (1.8M), Shanghai (3.2M), Tientsin (China) (1.4M), Chunking (635,000), Johannesburg (554,000), Delhi (347,000) and Nairobi (20,400) — these were relatively small cities in 1942. Today, all of them are at or near the 20 million level, and Mexico City with its 30 million inhabitants is now the largest city on earth. That’s a huge change in one short lifetime, but more than the numbers have changed. The quality of life in these cities has changed as well, as might be expected.

If you think that providing water and sanitation to a brand new group of 20 million people presents a challenge, you’re right. My wife and I have spent time in each of these new mega-cities to expand our expertise on living conditions in Third World slums, and I can tell you that the smell of human excrement is never far away in these places. Mexico City has a phenomenon called, “fecal snow.” Many of the 30 million people use open land that gets sporadic rainfall (the city, however, sits on onetime swampland), and their human waste desiccates into dry powder that gets carried aloft in the wind. I mention this because I often wonder about those folks who disagree with the notion that overpopulation is a problem. Would they change their mind if their own backyard became a community latrine?

In my short lifetime, the global population has skyrocketed from 2 billion to 6.5 billion. The next 65 years simply cannot handle a comparable gain in the number of human beings here on earth.

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