Great Problems: The Unceasing Growth of Third World Slums

Every year the slums around Rio, Johannesburg, Lagos, Kolkatta, Mexico City, and dozens of other cities grow larger. More people cram into tightly packed, noisy, polluted conditions.

Some of these cities, such as Rio, Lagos, or Johannesburg, suffer incredible levels of violence. Police rarely dare to enter the Rio favellas. In South Africa, a survey revealed that one in four men admitted to committing rape. In Monrovia, locals have forgotten the basic rule of life, “don’t shit where you eat”. The Indian slums do not have a violence problem, but they continue to be more and more of a dung hole (here and here). The combination of bad sanitation and overpopulation is so bad that it’s breeding outbreaks of drug resistant super bacteria.

Guatemala is riveted with gang warfare and now has a higher violent death rate than when it was in civil war. Drug cartel battles in Mexico spill over into United States. Arizona citizens have been kidnapped and brought back into Mexico for ransom. Drive-by shootings by El Salvadoran gangs lead the news reports in San Francisco.

The Congo remains hell. South Africa is turning into what the Congo was 20 years ago. Brazil is turning into what South Africa was twenty years ago. Southern California is turning into what Brazil was. And the rest of the U.S. is following California.

The reader of this blog is most likely an upper middle class resident of a developed country. To you, it may appear that the Malthusian age is over, that technology has brought us a new age of plenty for all. You may read with hope the latest Thomas Friedman bloviation about Prius driving Chinese or iPhone addicted Nigerians. But in fact we may simply be repeating the cycles of the past. New technology allows for great output, and temporary riches, but as the generations pass, the poor breed and fill the slums, while the rich live in childless plenty. As the s-curve of technological growth flattens, the average person is just as poor as ever. In fact, they may be even worse off. As Jared Diamond points out the transition from hunter-gatherer to agriculture left the next generations poorer and less nourished than their ancestors. In China, the great technological works to irrigate the land led to a rise in output in rice. The narrow gain in rice output led to a massive population that lacked the protein intake and balanced nutrition to live a healthy, energetic life. Similarly the denizens of the third world slums might have cell phones, mopeds, penicillin, and a higher GDP on paper, but the quality of life in the noisy, smoggy, sewage filled city may be worse than the life of their ancestors.

While life is good for us first worlders, our life style is dying out. In Brazil, the fertility rate of the poorest fifth is 4.8, while the richest fifth average a mere .7. A middle class American woman averages 1.7 children, while the average woman in Ethiopia produces 5.9 kids (source and source).

My approach to political thought is somewhat Rawlsian. Imagine we were summoned behind the veil of ignorance, and randomly re-born into the current world. While it might seem like the world has become richer, due to the birth differential between the rich and poor of the planet, you have a much better chance of being born into a third world slum than into a middle class developed world household. The combined decadence of the first world rich and the irresponsibility of the third world poor is leading to a great squandering of the technological surplus of the modern age.