Megacities: Ozymandian Colossal Wrecks of the Future

The needs of the natural world are more important than the needs of the economic system.

— Derrick Jensen, Endgame Volume One: The Problem of Civilization

We can find the state of the environment through a quick survey of facts: Satellite photos tracking declining ice sheets, emissions monitoring showing the passing of the 400 p.p.m. tipping point1; the actual decline and near disappearance of key species like bees2; deforestization3; overfishing4;  clean water shortages5; the scramble for shale gas and tar sands oil extraction as industry reports show the passing of peak oil6; the World Bank Development Indicators surveyed between 2005-2008 that painted an accurate picture of a system and landbase so stretched that it would soon suffer crashes then collapse7; the madness of pushing current nuclear power models when the Fukushima disaster freshly reminded us of the facts behind its safety and waste8; It goes on. Science is telling us, evidence is telling us, that we are approaching disaster.

We can’t take anything with us when we die. If a certain balance of the current environment goes, our civilization goes, with a crash. And past another point, we go. If we go, everything else is moot. And, while I think challenging power structures gives us a better chance at lessening this crisis, any new system of political organization that continues with the same modes of development will go the same way. The needs of the natural world come first and must be the principal on which all others are judged. There are no politics now except Green politics, all others are irresponsible and dangerous pretenders.

I have spent the last twelve years living in Shanghai. It is an experience for the thinking person to behold and dread, to be at the centre of relentless urban development at dizzying speeds, cannoning into a model of development that goes against everything we have observed up until this point. It feels like a mass suicide enveloped in hysteria and it was born out of hyperbolic sloganeering and ideology when Deng Xiaoping proclaimed, “Development is hard fact.” He was, of course, just getting onboard with the emerging global ideology. We live in world of finite and declining resources, and all around me, culture and society was feverishly expanding a model where millions of people flooded into a landbase that could not possibly sustain them and therefore required constant mass import of resources from far away areas. Recently I saw that this idea had a name: Megacities9.

At some point across 2012/2013 megacities gained traction as a buzzword and started to penetrate mainstream mass media. I started to read articles, opinions and data-based features about megacities. Most of these pieces included projections and talk of being the model of the future. I learned there were around eight or so sites that featured in these articles and that I lived in one of them, although most of the barely contained excitement was focused on the Pearl River Delta to the south. What shocked me about the emerging discourse and tone of writing was how matter of fact they were about what I see as insanity. Before progressing to the myriad issues megacities throw up, pause to consider this: humanity, at the behest of our planners and leaders, is rushing to occupy and center all activity in areas that science tells us will be flooded and unusable anytime between now and fifty years from now. Think about that. Also, the current types of networks and resources we use to sustain this model are known to be in sharp decline. Megacities represent a rush in the opposite direction to the facts we have. They represent psychological denial at the deepest level, a refusal to admit our own mortality.

Megacities are not a think tank idea, thrown around the media echo-chamber to counter progressive thought. They are not a future strategy touted by governments or designers. Megacities represent what we are actually doing at the moment. And yet, despite extensive writing and reporting on the phenomena, alongside the facts of environmental decline and resource scarcity, I do not see any headlines or reports along the lines of, “Humanity suicidally rushes to build future in the world’s least sustainable sites, using a doomed model and dwindling resources.” It is also notable that while many of the world’s megacity growth sites are in developing countries, this growth is fueled by the involvement of the developed world. It is a global movement.

Most writing about the megacities in the general sense, take any news or articles about Shanghai,for example, tends to be in awe and throws around words like ‘future.’  I remember seeing the film Looper at the theater here. Following the popular notions of the megacity, it cast Shanghai as the city of the future. The Shanghai of post-2070 was shown as a sparkling wonder, apparently free from any form of major climate troubles or pollution. It seemed to me to be a fiction as strong as the other main element of the story, time travel. If we take a moment to reflect on the real state of the environment and our civilization, the emerging megacities of today are likely to be the broken relics of tomorrow, buried from view under the encroaching desert of rising water; a testament to our hubris, our denial and our fear of change.

  1. Global carbon dioxide in atmosphere passes milestone level, The Guardian []
  2. Bees in Decline, full PDF report from Greenpeace []
  3. European Commission Report on deforestization []
  4. 90% of large fish in the ocean gone since 1950, National Geographic)); ocean acidity ((Ocean acidity data, EPA []
  5. 2/3 of the world’s population in water stressed regions by 2025, National Geographic []
  6. Peak Oil is not a myth, U.K. Royal Society of Chemistry []
  7. Table of poverty rates for 2005, at head of page, Global Issues/World Bank Data []
  8. Hundreds of thousands of tonnes of contaminated water, The Guardian []
  9. Rise of the megacities, interactive data from The Guardian []

Andy Best Andy Best is a writer and educator from Liverpool, U.K. he is currently based in Shanghai. He can be found and contacted on the web via his Shanghai music scene blog. Read other articles by Andy, or visit Andy's website.