Cultural Gulfs in Developing Markets 9: Deliverance from Comics

"Dueling Banjos" composer Arthur Smith passed away this week, at the age of 93.  If you call me on my cell phone, the (originally titled "Fueding Banjos") song slowly erupts, and builds crescendo the longer I wait to answer.  When Arthur Smith was born, few Americans lived in cities.  When I was born, more than half of Americans lived in cities, and my Ozarks family was already in the minority.

I grew up very aware of the "cultural gulf" between USA's urban and rural families, at a time too many of us got our news about the world from comic books.   My future wife studied "Snuffy Smith" and "L'il Abner" from her home in Paris (Rosny was considered a kind of ghetto), and I learned about urban life from "The Cross and the Switchblade" comic, and "learned about" Europe from Richard Scarry, and about Africa by reading "Tintin".

Today, you no longer need to go to a college library to find out about what the world is really like.   But many of us hold onto our simplified stereotypes the way we hold onto comic books, hoping they'll become vintage collectibles.

The term "lesser developed country" or "LDC" was retired, and "emerging economy" is much more in vogue.  The same transition which occured in the richest nation on earth, the USA, is occuring everywhere.
"The world is undergoing a sustained urbanization process that's pulling more people into city centers and turning more places from rural outposts into denser urban organisms. A new report [PDF] from the United Nations projects that the world's urban population – roughly 3.6 billion in 2011 – will grow by about 72 percent between now and 2050, bringing the urban population up to 6.3 billion. That's about the same amount of people on the entire planet in 2002." - Nate Berg, The Atlantic Cities Blog
Those of us who see the world first hand, who travel from city to city, comparing Kinshasa, Cairo, Paris, Singapore, Kansas City, New Orleans, Paris, Copenhagen, Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Lima, notice more similarity than differences....  we see the world is melding and growing and culturally merging and mingling.   The internet, stoves, and the city traffic have more in common.  The music is in a state of free exchange, Soukous has rap lyrics, rap has sampled bluegrass.  African, Asian and European visitors to my home in the Ozarks are sometimes a little disappointed how similar it is to Vermont.  Having spent all that money on travel, they want to point their cameras at a hillbilly, the same as I was tempted to take snapshots of 'poverty porn' in city scrap markets in Asia, Africa and South America.

Comic books and photos are not substitutes for policy data.  Fortunately, there are far more people studying cities and urbanization than there are studying "e-waste".  Electronic scrap is an intellectual policy backwater compared to projects like NYU Stern Urbanization Project.   Billions of people are consuming and discarding in ways which make Annie's Story of Stuff seem oversimplified to an almost Biblical degree.

NYU SUP has produced 4 short Youtube videos to show the growth of cities, like modern art ink spots bleeding onto a white canvas.  Paris, Chicago, Sao Paulo, and Los Angeles... from space, they grow like fungus in the fingerprint of a petri dish.  Cities as they would be visible from space.

Cities recycle, and cities finance extraction of metals from rain forests and coral islands.  Cities repair and reuse, and cities discard.

The Report at the UN World Health Organization (where I studied the Nestle Infant Formula boycott and  Infant Formual "Action Networks" in 1983) shows how many people live in cities we don't even know the names of.   Cities the size of Fayetteville, Arkansas, or St. Louis, or Springfield, are all over the globe.  Sometimes, two cities seem to grow together from roadside development of the highway and electric lines that pass between them.
One hundred years ago, 2 out of every 10 people lived in an urban area. By 1990, less than 40% of the global population lived in a city, but as of 2010, more than half of all people live in an urban area. By 2030, 6 out of every 10 people will live in a city, and by 2050, this proportion will increase to 7 out of 10 people. Currently, around half of all urban dwellers live in cities with between 100 000 - 500 000 people, and fewer than 10% of urban dwellers live in megacities (defined by UN HABITAT as a city with a population of more than 10 million).
Go to Youtube, type in any world city, and add the words "traffic jam".   Here's Sao Paulo, Brazil.  Here is Lagos, Nigeria.  Cities have traffic, cities have electricity, cities have garbage trucks, and cities have used electronic devices.

Maybe the rural-to-urban cultural shift is more visible to those of us who grew up "redneck".  Maybe it's harder to see from Silicon Valley.

Those of us from the Ozarks and Appalachia know how our grandparents were described as "primitives" in Chicago and New York comics.  We have seen "Deliverance". And we read about the crime, drugs, and toxics in those cities.  The Cross and the Switchblade and Deliverance delivered us news about each other.

Since the late 70s, the "sustainability" question for environmentalists has been how to provide for the needs of poor people, and how the planet's growing population will fulfill it's needs for "stuff" without destroying rain forests and coral islands?  How do we educate people to stop "bushmeat" and "ivory" and "shark fin" trades, while helping them develop economically?   How do we meet the world's growing demand for hard rock mining - nonferrous metals especially - propelled by peoples demands for cars and electronic devices we use to deliver that education?

The little pinhole of information this blogger provides is that poor people don't need to be taught how to repair things by the rich.  The rich discard, and the poor profit.  The ecosystem of stuff is incredibly efficient, and the free market seldom sees the poor doing favors for the rich without coming out ahead.

Many of us entered the field of recycling not because it was considered a particularly proud calling, but because its efficiency offered a way to tell our kids we tried to slow the destruction of the planet without succumbing to either Malthusian views of human population, religious ex machina, or cultural isolationism.   Rejecting the "shiny conscience" of the peaceful monk, we find ourselves in a business, in a trade, making and spending money, to meet the laws of supply and demand.

I stuck with it.

It turned me into an "ewaste exporter" in the eyes of some, who use images worthy of 1960s comic books to measure the risks to the environment in the developing world.  The cognitive risk of trading with Africa is less about cities buying used cell phone tower networks, as the USA displaces those towers with newer digital equipment.   That's an important trade, and it's boring.

Here's some exciting footage of USA used television management from the 1960s.

And here's some from today's comic book equivalent, video games (Far Cry or Tomb Raider, I'm not sure)

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