Here are some interesting numbers:
About one-third of the world lives in slums. In Buenos Aires, an estimated 300,000 to 500,000 of its 3 million inhabitants (roughly 10 to 17 percent) live in shantytowns that are locally known as villas miserias, or “neighborhoods of misery.”
Since 1997, over 25,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide because of crop failure, chemical fertilizers that render their soil infertile, loss of agriculture land, and global competition. Even though India is experiencing an economic boom from its high-tech service industry, 60 percent of the workforce remains in agriculture.
Although China’s average annual GDP growth rate has been 9.5 percent since it opened its economy in 1978, it ranked 128 out of 183 countries in highest nominal GDP per capita in 2006. The United States’ GDP per capita was 20 times that of China, and approximately 30 million Chinese citizens are living on less than $1 a day.
Is that a lot to process? Is that a lot to even imagine? Is that something worth caring about? My initial reaction to these statistics was: Dang. Yet these are the types of numbers and facts that I read and heard, saw and experienced in person during my four months abroad last fall.
As part of a group of 35 students, I literally traveled around the world to four cities in three countries to study and compare cities (I’m one of the few but proud Course XI undergraduate majors at MIT, by the way). In each city, I heard lectures from local experts who specialize in topics like economics, urban planning, culture, and public policy. I also attended classes conducted by three traveling faculty members and a faculty member from each city.
But when learning about cities and urban issues, there is no better classroom than the city itself. For example, one afternoon following a day of rain, I trudged through the unpaved roads of Villa 21, a Buenos Aires shantytown and interviewed church workers there. I’ve seen poor migrant workers wandering the streets of Beijing and Shanghai in hopes of securing a new life. I was part of a 10-student, four-faculty member group that was involved in a property dispute in Bangalore. After a violent two-hour showdown on the shoulder of the Bangalore Mysore Infrastructure Corridor, we ended up spending four hours filing a police report at the local station. The incident even made the evening news and the morning newspaper.
I thought this trip would provide answers to the fuss being made over rapid urbanization, income disparities, and environmental harms due to industrialization. Now, after six-and-a-half notebooks of lecture notes, journal entries, observations, reflections, and class discussion notes, as well as one month spent in the United States, where am I with regard to what I’ve learned? Although I definitely received more information, I feel like the number of questions I formulated based on new information far outweighed the amount of new information given to me.
The questions varied. Some brought me back to basics: What exactly are “development” and “globalization”? Who benefits and who is harmed? Why does this affect me? Some questions were theoretical: What is the public, and how can it be established to ensure a fairer society? Does modernization have to result in Westernization? Others drew on experience. For example, during the Bangalore incident, local police were at the scene but did nothing to stop the fight. We suspect that the corridor’s developer had paid them to look after the road. If this were true, then how does corruption affect who is involved in the process of politics — the art of getting things done?
Truthfully, I’m still processing everything from the eye-opening experience. I’ll most likely be learning from this experience until I die. But for now, my conclusion at the end of this trip is ridiculously and almost embarrassingly simple: This world is big, and a lot of crazy things are happening in it.
Therefore, I’m writing this column with three goals in mind. The first goal is to raise awareness about some pertinent global issues, because, again, a lot of crazy things are happening in this big world of ours, and even as students on the other side of the globe we are affected and affect others. I’ll be discussing, among other topics, poverty, global economies, global cultures, environmentalism and environmental justice, and activism. I’m definitely no expert, but I’ll offer what I’ve learned, seen, and thought about to a student body that I’m confident can do something.
The second goal is to question — to question what I’ve experienced and to encourage more questions. There exist many questions or problems that need answers or solutions, and there exist many questions that haven’t been thought of yet but are worth talking about.
The third goal is to encourage change as a collective and as an individual. This is something I’ve been thinking about since I finished the program in Shanghai. What are changes that I can make in my daily lifestyle now that I’ve seen how others live and how my lifestyle impacts the larger world? One small, simple example is doing less laundry to conserve water and energy (but not to the point where in become unhygienic or bothersome). I was able to live on two pairs of pants for four months, and really, it wasn’t difficult. Another example is reducing consumption. I’ve bought nothing but used books and food for myself since I’ve been home.
Hopefully I’ve caught someone’s attention. If those first three numbers at the beginning of this little spiel had any effect or meant anything, stay tuned. That is just the beginning.