This is a grim post. Those easily depressed might want to give it a pass.
By the end of this century, our planet will have, depending on who you believe, and on the impact of any global catastrophes, between nine and fourteen billion people. North America’s population, barring physical and military blockades blocking access by billions of desperate immigrants, will soar to between one and one and a half billion, with all of the increase from today’s levels attributable to immigration. North America’s metropolitan areas will grow rather more slowly than those in struggling nations, but will on average be five times larger than they are now in population, and thanks to urban sprawl, seven to ten times larger in area.
Your reaction is probably to say “it will never happen, it’s inconceivable”. That’s what the planners said in 1980 when these kind of projections were made for Lagos, Nigeria. It was unimaginable that a city that in 1950 contained merely 300 thousand people would grow, in half a century, to become the world’s third largest and still fastest growing city at 15 million people, increasing by a million people per year.
But, as George Packer reports in a stunning report in this week’s New Yorker (not available online) this is precisely what has happened.
Lagos is a city that most of its own residents acknowledge to be hell on Earth, but still struggle and scrape through each day with the grim determination to survive and, just maybe, buck all the odds and climb out of destitution. This is a city of staggering inequality and inequity, with a Gini index nearing a ‘perfect’ 1.0 — almost all the wealth is held by a tiny minority of corrupt officials, criminals and mob leaders, and corruption and crime pervades all economic activity. This is a city of horrific and constant violence and the threat of violence — dead and mutilated human bodies are ignored the way we ignore roadkill. This is a city of absolute hierarchy — everyone is in thrall to those (ogas, — literally ‘masters’) one step higher in the pyramid, from whom they get ‘security’ and a chance at the few pitiful jobs, and to whom they pay 90% of what they earn. This pyramid is entirely unofficial, but ironclad — the cost of disregarding it is often your life. The struggle to survive is a 24/7 ordeal, so that, as one of the people in Packer’s report puts it, in Lagos, “if you sit down, you die”.
This is a city that doesn’t have slums, it is a slum, all fifteen million people in every quarter of the city. It is a city where garbage and sewage and toxic waste is everywhere, where clean running water and flush toilets are virtually non-existent. Where disease is everywhere and ever-threatening. Where pollution is so bad that residents’ faces are grey. Where police, authorities and gangs all extort money from anyone who wants anything or dares to enter their turf. Where fuel dumps and waste fuel spills lit afire constantly light up the night and choke the lungs with toxins. Where the only significant change from year to year are the endless streams of new immigrants and the building husks left behind from rampant arson. Where most of the population sleeps outdoors, often surrounded by mosquitos, garbage and sewage. Where gang wars between Moslems and Christians, often precipitated by trivial events, kill thousands.
Packer says “the human misery of Lagos not only overwhelms one’s senses and sympathy but also seem irreversible”. He quotes a city district senior administrator who describes the city as “an impending disaster…a powder keg…it’s just going to boil over” as it grows to 23 million people by 2015, and by another million a year after that.
When Packer asked the editor of the city’s largest newspaper what keeps the people of Lagos going, when they have no homes, no basic government services, no utilities, no jobs, and no order or security, he replies “They never believe there’s no chance”. Religion is big business in Lagos, and the people not only cling to the hope of salvation in the afterlife, they cling to the promise of capitalism and civilization that if they work hard enough they will succeed in pulling themselves out of their desperate situation. Both promises seem leaps of impossible faith, since there is no evidence anywhere to support either of them. This, it seems, is the nature of humanity — no matter how far we fall from the grace of a joyful, easy, natural life, no matter how grim and brutal and full of pain and suffering our lives are, we plug on, never seeing how far we are from where we once were, never giving up, never becoming so full of grief for what we have lost, and forgotten, as to diminish our faith that, despite the fact that what we have been doing has got us into desperate straits, doing a little bit more of it will somehow get us out, lead us to salvation.
We have no choice in this. This is who we are.
I read this report right after re-reading Tom Robbins delightful article In Defiance of Gravity, in which he describes how he overcame near-suicidal depression and weltschmerz and rediscovered crazy wisdom, “the wisdom that evolves when one, while refusing to avert one’s gaze from the sorrows and injustices of the world, insists on joy in spite of everything”. I have tried to embrace this wisdom, but it provides no protection against the bleak vision of the future that Packer presents to us.
If we are be joyful in spite of everything we must do it the way John Gray suggests: do nothing more than becoming more our animal selves — reconnecting with the rest of life on Earth and with our primeval senses and instincts, getting outside our heads, coping with contingencies, relearning to play, living in the moment, turning back to real, mortal things, and simply seeing what is. That means giving up trying to save the world, and just working to make things better within our own communities, and creating working models that might be useful for those of our species that survive the fall. To some extent that means we have to “avert our gaze” from the truth of what we have done and what is likely to come. If we are not insane already, staring too long or too closely at that horrific truth will surely plunge us over the edge. And then we won’t be of any use to anyone.
So here’s to seeing the truth and then turning away. We have so much work to do. And so much of life’s joys to experience, while we can.
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Dying of Despair
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Post Collapse with Michael Dowd (video)
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No Use to the World Broken
Living in Another World
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The Value of Conversation Manifesto Nobody Knows Anything
If I Only Had 37 Days
The Only Life We Know
A Long Way Down
No Noble Savages
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Too Far Ahead
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We Make Zero
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If You Wanted to Sabotage the Elections
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The Illusion of the Separate Self, and Free Will:
Bark Bark Bark Bark Bark Bark Bark
Healing From Ourselves
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Nothing Needs to Happen
Nothing to Say About This
What I Wanted to Believe
A Continuous Reassemblage of Meaning
No Choice But to Misbehave
What's Apparently Happening
A Different Kind of Animal
Did Early Humans Have Selves?
Nothing On Offer Here
Even Simpler and More Hopeless Than That
What Happens in Vagus
We Have No Choice
Never Comfortable in the Skin of Self
Letting Go of the Story of Me
All There Is, Is This
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A Canadian Sorry (Satire)
Under No Illusions (Short Story)
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Your Self: An Owner's Manual (Satire)
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