Mega-Cities and the Environment

November 23, 1994|By WALTER T. ANDERSON

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Sometime between now and the end of the decade, say the statisticians, the world will cross an invisible boundary line -- over half the population will live in cities and towns, rather than in the country. This shift is already sending shock waves through the environmental movement, challenging its ideas about what it means to ''protect the environment.''

The urbanizing trend has been under way for tens of thousands of years but its pace is now unprecedented. The urban population is growing at a rate of about one million people -- enough to make a good-sized city -- per week.

Nowhere are the growing pains more evident than in the huge ''megacities'' of 10 million and more rising up in many developing countries. These are the cities of the future, where the vast majority live under conditions far worse than those of medieval villages.

As urban problems -- particularly the plight of the urban poor -- push their way onto the global agenda, some people are calling for a shift of emphasis in environmental policy away from the traditional preoccupation with rural problems -- wilderness areas, rain forests, endangered species.

In a carefully calculated speech at a recent environment conference here, World Bank President Lewis Preston announced his organization's commitment to ''a people-centered environmentalism which must focus on cities, because that is where the majority of humanity is going to be living.''

The conference was billed as ''The Human Face of the Urban Environment'' and featured participants not usually seen at high-level environmental gatherings. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Henry Cisneros gave the keynote address to an audience made up largely of mayors, urban ministers and activists from around the world.

For veteran observers of the environmental scene, Mr. Preston's speech signaled not just a new international push by a major player in global policy making but the opening salvo in a new controversy about environmentalism. The World Bank has long been a target of mainstream environmentalists for its financing of big dam projects and other ecologically questionable developments. Its new choice of priorities was bound to be greeted with profound skepticism.

What most offends Green sensibilities is not so much the word ''urban'' as the word ''human.'' Environmental canon has long held that environmental policy must be ''non-anthropocentric'' -- not focused on human beings but concerned equally with all life. In this view, the survival of plant and animal species and the integrity of natural ecosystems are as important as the needs of people.

Environmentalists of the non-anthropocentric type tend to favor a non-urban, low-density vision of the future, in which the human population is small and decentralized, heavily into agricultural and rural lifestyles, cautious about technological change.

This vision isn't compatible with a world in which the great majority of people live in huge cities, and in which a constant series of technological changes, construction projects and energy developments are harnessed to respond to their needs. Although some of the objectives of the new drive toward urban improvement are acceptable to almost all environmentalists -- clean air and water, improved sewage treatment -- many will balk at any explicit expression of preference for the needs of cities and people.

To a bystander, the argument seems specious. In the long run, we can't sustain the needs of urban populations without protecting the rural ecosystems that provide their air, water and food. But governments and quasi-governmental organizations like the World Bank are having to confront choices here and now for a global constituency that is soon to be predominantly urban. Their decisions are bound to go against the grain of nature-oriented environmentalists.

Walter Truett Anderson is the author of ''To Govern Evolution.'' He wrote this commentary for Pacific News Service.

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