New Welsh Review

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John Barnie on the chaotic order and tangled underbelly of megacities, and the threat of overpopulation to our survival as a species

PUBLISHED ON: 03/08/22


TAGS: alienation, climate change, megacity, nature, overpopulation, travel

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A megacity is defined as a city with 10 million or more inhabitants. The largest today are Shanghai (24 million), Delhi (28 million), and Tokyo (37 million). I have only visited one, when I spent a week at a poetry conference in Istanbul, population 14 million. Seen from the air, it appeared to spread to the horizon in all directions, and the drive by taxi to the old walled city of Constantinople, where my hotel lay, took over an hour.

Constantinople, at the height of Byzantine power in the ninth and tenth centuries had a population of between 500,000 and 800,000. With its massive defensive walls and towers, and imposing palaces and churches, it was one of the wonders of the early medieval world. Today it is surrounded and diminished by the vast sprawl of tenement blocs, shopping centres, petrol stations, factories, arterial roads, needed to house and sustain its present-day population – a jewel in the head of a toad.

Copenhagen is a small city, by comparison, with a population of 1.3 million. I lived there for thirteen years and was part of its life, and we have returned every year to visit family and friends – except for the past three years when the pandemic made it impossible.

Returning this summer, I stood at the window of our airport hotel room on the eleventh floor. There was the Sound between Denmark and Sweden, one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, with cargo ships large and small, and massive cruise liners arriving at Oceankajen, to disgorge thousands of tourists. Passenger planes, too, flew in every couple of minutes to land. Goods trains moved slowly at the foot of the hotel, many waggons long. Beyond the line was a four-lane highway, with lorries, cars, vans, buses, speeding as if time was everything and there was not enough of it.

Riding the Metro into the city centre, on driverless trains, we were packed tight with other passengers, almost all of whom had white down-pointing earphones, with iPhones never out of their hands. I glanced surreptitiously, when I could, at what people were looking at. Mostly it was Facebook or Twitter, scroll-scroll-pause-scroll-scroll-scroll-pause, ‘distracted from distraction by distraction’, as TS Eliot put it, though he could not have imagined the means we have at our disposal today to shield ourselves from engagement with the world around us.

What we see of a city is only its superstructure. Wherever workmen dig a trench, a mysterious tangle of pipes, cables, wires, junction boxes is revealed, their purpose entirely opaque to passers-by; and somewhere below that, the city’s sewage system, its tunnels known only to the workers who maintain them, and to the rats. Somewhere far down, too, tunnels of the Metro with their thousands of rushing humans.

Cities are both highly ordered and wildly chaotic. Each inhabitant has a purpose, going about the streets with small meanings, small intentions which give coherence to individual lives. People tend to create ‘villages’ as well – circumscribed areas where they feel at home. Some of these were villages once, engulfed by the ever-expanding city. Yet these are like eddies or backwaters in the ceaseless rush of life, the reverberation of traffic echoing off walls, the power of so much kinetic energy – luxury stores – Gucci, Armani – all the foods of all the world – beautiful women and smartly dressed men – and pavement poverty, ‘I am homeless and hungry. Please help.’

Many thrive on what might be called the city’s chaotic order, especially perhaps if you are born to it. I taught a first-year student once at Aberystwyth University. She was from London, and deeply unhappy. She couldn’t stand the fact that wherever you went in town, you could see fields and hills or the sea. She felt exposed, and longed for the comfort of endless streets, bricks and mortar, fast-moving crowds, the moan and roar of traffic. I am not sure what happened to her as I only taught part-time for a term, but I would be surprised if she hadn’t given up and gone home.

London’s population is 9 million. It sprawls and sprawls, but is dwarfed by Tokyo which is four times the size. What would it be like living among 37 million people? I will never know, because I will never go there.

But megacities are the future, as more and more drift from the countryside, as refugees crowd and wander the world, attracted, in ever greater numbers, by the gravitational field of the great cities; and as the global population rises inexorably. For the Earth is overpopulated, a fact many are unwilling to acknowledge, preferring to concentrate on the threat of climate change. Global warming is, indeed, deadly serious, but it is a function of the far deeper crisis of overpopulation. The figures speak for themselves: 1930, 2 billion; 1961, 3 billion; 2022, 7.9 billion; 2050, an estimated 9.8 billion.

What to do? Nobody knows, but we are now a plague species, and evolutionary history suggests that plague species eventually destroy themselves. For the while, we are here, and the megacities grow each decade, many tens of millions of people cut off from, and ignorant of, the natural world on which all life depends. We are well on the way to creating a variant of Homo sapiens– a cultural subspecies, you might say – which knows nothing except the vast sprawl of megacity life, entirely dependent on high technology, and believing – or hoping – that technology will solve the problems created by our overwhelming numbers.

New technologies, however, almost always have unintended consequences. A hundred years ago, the motor car offered vistas of unimaginable freedom to those who could afford it; now millions of cars pollute the cities and the countryside, dominating how we live, whether we like it or not. (Electric cars, incidentally, are no solution, they merely create other problems of their own: rare metals are needed for their batteries, and vast amounts of energy are needed to produce them, while the demand for electricity to run them will be a burden on energy supplies at a time when nations are struggling to adapt to a carbon neutral environment.)

The answer is a dirigiste ban on the private car. Then there would be no need for motorways; city and town centres would return to a slower, more restful way of life; we would breathe more freely; we would have the opportunity to be more human.

That is never going to happen, of course. Any government, whether democratic or autocratic, that tried to introduce such a ban, even gradually and through encouragement, would be finished. Car owners can think up a dozen reasons why having a car is essential to their way of life and to their freedom. Impossible, the thought that perhaps they are the slaves of car culture, not its masters.

We continue on our way, sleepwalking to the edge of the precipice, febrile yet dissatisfied, undernourished, though we couldn’t quite say how, while the megacities expand across the face of the Earth, where the war of humanity against itself and against nature will be played out.

I am reminded of Ted Hughes’ poem ‘Boom’:


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Meaning Air Water Life
Cry the mouths

That are filling with burning ashes.


John Barnie’s latest books are two collections of poems, A Report to Alpha Centauri (Cinnamon Press), and a collection of ekphrastic poems, Afterlives, based on the Welsh art collection of Peter Lord (Cinnamon: Leaf by Leaf). A forthcoming poetry collection, Dunes of Cwm Rheidol, will be published by Cinnamon in the autumn of 2023. A response by Ed Garland, ‘The Trouble with Gloom’, which is followed by a response in turn by John Barnie, is published here.