Friday, February 25, 2011

Why Cities Will Save Us, Or Not.

You know, I’m really getting sick of people who fail to understand the meaning of ‘correlation does not imply causation’. It’s right getting on my tits. Prime examples of this daftness are scattered through an article in the Radio Times by a guy called Doug Saunders titled ‘Why Cities Will Save Us.


Apparently, after the shift of the peasant population to a livelihood based on large cities and commercial farms ‘the consequences were an end to starvation and large scale infant mortality … and a shift to smaller family sizes and small stable populations’. Maybe there’s some truth here concerning more efficient farming, but ‘commercial farms’ have been with us since money was invented. Anyway, to conflate better food production with ‘large cities’ and imply that both resulted in an end to the problems listed above is plain silly. But then the devil here is of course in the detail since this guy doesn’t want logic to get in the way of him singing the praises of the cities.

No, Doug, there was more money to be earned in the towns because of industrialization, less to be made on the land, for labourers, because of more efficient farming practices stemming from that industry and even less when the landlord started chucking them out because he wanted more wool to feed the looms. Those starving in ten-to-a-room hovels with shit running down the street outside carried on breeding and dying in large numbers. Industry drove the demographic changes that turned towns into the cities as we know them. Better technology (drugs and food production) cut down infant mortality and enabled smaller family sizes, and the populations were stable before the Industrial Revolution. The cities you love are an incidental result of industry and nothing more.

The next stinger is this one: ‘Village life is a major killer: according to the World Food Program, three quarters of the billion people living in hunger are peasant farmers.’ Did you spot the major confusion of correlation of with causation? Here, let me have a go with this kind of twisted logic: Fresh air is a major killer: three quarters of a billion people living in hunger live in the countryside. Apparently the positioning of a colon has a magical effect.

No, Doug, three-quarters of a billion people are living in hunger because they haven’t got enough food.

Then we get: ‘The move to the city, almost everywhere, results in a large improvement in rates of nutrition, longevity, infant mortality etc.’ No, Doug, that was the farming and the technology, remember? Oddly enough cities don’t spontaneously generate food or invent drugs.

Essentially the article continues in this vein. Apparently cities are the cure for the world’s ills, which would have come as a surprise to Alexander Fleming, Louis Pasteur, Jethro Tull, John Snow and others on a rather large list of names which should also include the inventors of the condom and the contraceptive pill.


vaudeviewgalor raandisisraisins said...

news flash:
solar system enhanced by orbits!

might be useful for Jupiter Warts? slick page.

Kirby Uber said...

"No, Doug, three-quarters of a billion people are living in hunger because they haven’t got enough food. "

this had me laughing out loud in my office. any doubts of my new co-workers on my sanity have now been confirmed.

vaudeviewgalor raandisisraisins said...

next article to hop on your tits-

city crowding: pandemic possibilities; a pop culture augment or grace saving fad for subway riding tourists?

Unknown said...

Doug is certainly talking about small towns like Mumbai, where 14 million live with large rates 'of nutrition, longevity, infant mortality etc.

Hey, what you said even has a Latin expression (I've just googled it): cum hoc ergo propter hoc. Cool. :P

Mark Newton said...

Worth suggesting, if I may, that both accounts contain inaccuracies.

There's an incredible book called STUFFED AND STARVED by Raj Patel, which rather expertly (and poetically, it has to be said) explains how industrialisation and the processes around it (not to mention the WTO) actually takes food out of the hands of the poor and into the rich. Suffice to say most famines are not caused by a shortage of food but the fact that people cannot afford to buy the food in the first place - a subtle but fundamental difference. Why? All sorts of reasons, including commodity speculation and hoarding (thus driving up prices) to the fact that people are growing food for western consumption rather than their own.

An oddity - a catastrophic one of that - that during the Ethiopian famine farmers were sending food for export to pour down the necks of Animals in a heavily subsidised European industry.