Skip to main Skip to sidebar

Hoping for an Urban Exodus

Any reflexive and reasonably informed person today, who takes time to ponder on the global dynamics of our world, is confronted with a highly perplexing situation.


When looking back at the past, it seems as if the urbanization of our planet, which has steadily been increasing over the past two to three centuries, is inevitable and is integral to history. Indeed, scores of official statistics demonstrate that the global population will keep growing, at least in the present century, and will most likely concentrate, as it does now, in larger and larger cities and metropolises. In other words, the growing urbanization of the world appears to be the “manifest destiny” of mankind.

But on the other hand, when one probes the future, and the environmental issues looming there—such as climate change, fresh water scarcity, soil erosion, biodiversity collapse, energy and material descent—, the continuation of this same process of urbanization looks not only unlikely, but literally impossible. Indeed, it clearly appears that the accumulation and concentration of capital that cities represent depend on an ever-increasing exploitation of resources (especially non-renewable), and that their outcome is a steady degradation of the conditions of life on our planet. In other words, the growing urbanization of our world now appears as a no go, or a dead end.

Such a paradoxical situation or evolution­—both inevitable and impossible—is extremely conducive to cognitive dissonance (or schizophrenia), and confronts reason to an almost unbearable challenge. So unbearable in fact, that people generally choose, consciously or not, to ignore one side of the equation. Taking up Charles Mann’s famous categories, one might divide them into two classes: the wizards and the prophets.[1]

Smart ≠ Wise

For wizards, the hard facts are statistical tendencies; representative of the way that people and societies have tended to behave until now and will most probably continue to do so. Hence, the task of science, technology and politics is to manipulate and trick reality (or nature) so as to clear and smooth the way for the inevitable.

In their view, history has always been made possible by those who fought to overcome, in the short or medium term, the predicament of mankind, and postpone the obvious limits to its development. Their credo is that the task of reason (namely science and technology) is to outsmart and disrupt those apparent limits. They basically rely on human “smartness” to turn every poison into its own remedy and make, for instance, “smart cities”.

Being solutionists, and adepts of the flight forward, they believe that only a new industrial or technological revolution may (and will) solve the problems engendered by the previous one. In that sense, they are progressists. In industrial societies, most people range, if only unconsciously, in this category.

It is indeed more comfortable (intellectually) to assume that mankind’s imagination and wit will endlessly find new ways, tricks and fixes to make its ways of living and developing still possible. This is how smart wizards function: they adapt their ways of thinking to their ways of living, so as to “push the limits” posed to (standing in the way of) the latter.

For prophets, it is the other way around. For them, the limits of the ecosphere, even though difficult to ascertain precisely, and endowed with a degree of elasticity, are serious boundaries that should be acknowledged as such (head first). In their view, the constant efforts made by wizards to push and overcome them (whatever their temporary successes) can only lead these limits to reaffirm themselves more violently in the end.

Prophets thus tend to think that humans and human societies should strive to live within these limits and in good intelligence with them. In other words, whereas wizards are smart, i. e. seek to align and model the way they think onto the way they live, prophets aim to be wise, i.e. to adjust the way they live and operate to the best understanding we may have of the limits and metabolisms of the ecosphere we happen to be part of.

Instead of instrumentalizing resources so as to satisfy and perpetuate as long as possible the modes of living that prevail in our societies (with their loads of inequalities), they strive to revise and redefine their modes of existence so that they may, as much as possible, maintain, sustain and stimulate the conditions of life in our ecosphere. 

As such wisdom is much more demanding in reflection and practical efforts, it should come as no surprise that prophets do not abound in industrial societies. But they do emerge, here or there, with growing conviction. People seriously involved in permaculture, for instance, are good examples, and their ethical principles (“care for the Earth, care for people, fair share”) might well represent a much sounder program for the Anthropocene than the famous “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité”. In any case, the dissemination of those prophets is probably one of the best hope we can nurture for the compromised future of mankind on our planet.

Dusk of Cities…

I would like to suggest that our current situation offers a good opportunity to meditate on the dusk of the metropolis, and start dreaming, in the wake of prophets, of the ways and means of a counter-exodus.

Since the primitive accumulation launched by the so-called Renaissance (fueled by enclosures and colonization), and much more so since the dramatic accelerations of the industrial revolutions, burgeoning cities and metropolises have progressively drained—in the guise of a massive rural exodus—the resources, people and lives of huge territories, whose eco- and agro-systems have been severely altered and degraded and turned into pure mining fields.

What is now at stake, if we really want to tackle the present environmental predicament, is not just to halt but to reverse this process of accumulation and concentration, by carefully planning an “urban exodus” that would disseminate blossoming and resilient “worlds”, able to supplant and dislodge, wherever possible, the deleterious hubris of industrial agriculture and mining.

Such are some of the important questions that I believe need to be addressed: Isn’t time ripe for abandoning the ethos of urbanization and the very concept of urbanism? Shouldn’t we replace it with a wholly different discipline (ruralism?) applied to cultivating resilient and self-sustaining life-places? What about entirely rethinking the articulation of the twin sisters of domestication : agriculture and architecture? And why shouldn’t we deliberately engage into the adventure of a new Medium Ævum?

[1] Charles C. Mann, “The Wizard and the Prophet: Science and the Future of Our Planet,” Alfred A. Knopf, 2018. The two main protagonists Mann contrasts in this book are William Vogt (the prophet), famous for launching the wave of post-war environmentalism with his bestseller “The Road to Survival” (1948), and Norman Borlaug (the magician), who received the Nobel Peace Prize for his pioneering role in the Green Revolution. It’s important to emphasize here that both developed their arguments and work from a deep concern for the state and impasses of agriculture.

Sign up to receive exclusive news and updates