While urbanisation contributes to economic growth in developing countries, the price tag associated with it not only creates greater income disparity between the rich and poor, but also a greater ecological footprint (i.e. the area needed to support one’s current lifestyle) in the form of water contamination, air pollution, land erosion, overcrowding and waste accumulation. This sudden mass migration from rural areas to the city occurs partly due to the fact that developing nations do not have the means to subsidize their agriculture as heavily as their wealthier counterparts (the US spends 15 billion on farm subsidies, while the EU spends over 55 billion Euros— that’s 44% of its annual budget!). In the case of Latin America, a large percentage of a nation’s population now resides in a single major city, a phenomenon known as “urban primacy.” In Costa Rica, for example, in the hopes of replacing an expensive, unfeasible lifestyle farming with the possibility of economic opportunities in the service sector, 60% of Ticos (i.e. native Costa Ricans) now live in their capital, San José.
So how does this demographic trend towards urban lifestyles affect human environmental impact? In other words, as people abandon outdated household items, such as heaters and cookers, that use fuels inefficiently from their rural homes, does moving to the city with technological access to say God-forbid x-ray machines and public transportation, necessarily reduce or begin to reduce one’s ecological footprint overall?
Well, let’s first look at the three drivers of human environmental impact: population, consumption and technology. With mass migration from rural areas to the city, there is certainly an increase in population density and depending on governmental structures, either a chaotic or efficient use of land management is reinforced through these very numbers. In the case of Latin America, land management has only becomes chaotic, thus leading to a greater ecological footprint. With urbanization, consumption has only increased and because the countries where urbanization takes place are developing, access to technologies that can curb carbon emissions is minimal if not null, again leading to a greater ecological footprint.
Yet overall, wealthier nations have a larger ecological footprint than their developing counterparts. The ecological footprint of the US for example is 7.9 hectares per person while Costa Rica is 2.52 hectares per person. The world’s average is 2.7 hectares, which is .8 hectares more than what the earth can naturally sustain. While consumption and carbon emissions per person in cities of developing nations are small compared to those in wealthier nations, wealthier nations do have access to less carbon-intensive technologies and with the initiation of the Green Revolution, at least a temporary band-aid for increasing the carrying capacity of a world that is at a point that can no longer sustain itself.
In light of the first half of the twentieth century, industrialization and the invention and exploitation of energy and natural resources through technological and institutional innovations has created unprecedented, increased growth rates in cities of the world’s largest economies. To further demonstrate how rapid urbanisation is occurring, a proportion of the world’s population living in urban areas has gone from 15% in the 1900s to about 50% today. This can be both good and bad, considering that economic growth begets economic growth, which seems to be proportional to rapid urbanization while simultaneously, with higher population density, deepens any structural problems already existing within the city.
Of course, urbanisation has another double-edge sword alongside with it. While cities are the drivers of change in carbon cycle and climate change, their very existence are the means to the reversal of their negative environmental impact. Cities are centres of technological innovations, ideally enablers of governmental structures that would enforce a sustainable urban setting through the integration of environmental policy goals into their overall agenda. Governments can also assign economic value to nature, introducing structural tax reform or restructuring production and consumption in order to cut waste streams and integrate wastes back into production.
But here’s the problem: in Latin America, cities are unable to accommodate the growing labour force and the lack of resources to pay taxes, to cover the costs and maintenance of urban infrastructure, has led to cyclical structural problems. Thus, poverty, unemployment and underemployment result, ultimately constraining any government from making environmentalism a priority.
Hence, the so-called “ecological modernization theory;” that is, the idea that environmental problems can be solved through technological means, cannot be applied towards developing countries that do not have access to such technologies to begin with or the infrastructure supporting centres for technological innovations. Most inhabitants of developing countries do not even have the purchasing power of products derived from ecological innovations (the World Bank say 1.1 billion people live on less than a dollar a day, 2.7 billion live on less than 2 bucks) . Only the wealthy do. And ironically, they emit far more CO2 than their poor counterparts as they have relied on private car transportation. They are able to export their contamination into neighboring slums (ever heard of “not in my backyard”?) and afford healthcare in response to any health problems created by insufficient sewage treatment and poor sanitation induced by “shanty towns.” As the saying goes, the rich gets richer and the poor gets poorer, as demonstrated by the infamous enclaves (basically congregates of filthy rich people) seen in Mexico and Brazil today.
Furthermore, the rise of globalization has created decentralized patterns of urbanization. That is, the existence of more competent and effective cities has relocated foreign investment to neighboring, smaller cities in developing cities, reducing spatial proximity for industrialization and thereby contributing to an “urban sprawl,” namely the decrease of urban population and the increase of suburban populations. Consequently, with higher population density and increased motorization, there is less public transportation (a prime example of this is the privatization of Ruta-100), ridiculous amounts of traffic (think São Paulo), longer commuting time and overall increased rates of carbon emissions.
Most importantly, with corruption so rampant in developing countries, enforcement of any sort of environmentalism is nearly impossible. “Global convergence,” the pursuit of economic growth and technological change by developing nations in hopes of imitating the modernization that wealthier nations enjoy, in actuality backfires for countries in Latin America. Instead of public planning, market forces are the drivers of land management, which often result in more corruption and environment detriment, such as soil erosion and trash accumulation.
Thus, urbanisation in developing countries without good government structures is a great driver of human environmental change. Only with a competitive economy can there be any incentive to introduce less carbon-intensive technologies. Until socioeconomic equity is addressed in developing countries, however, perhaps it’s better sustainably-speaking to stay with one’s old, beat-up oven after all.