World Urbanization: Part 1

Wilfred Hahn

We continue our series of “ripening trends” of prophetic significance. We live during a time of great and accelerating change in the world. Unfortunately, many do not see the significance of these many developments. They are caught in the maelstrom of worldly confusion. Bible-believing Christians, on the other hand, are charged to be “watching”; to be on the alert for “significant” world trends.

Why? Because the Bible instructs us to do so. We are expressly mandated to recognize the season and to “watch.” To recall, Jesus said: “[…] keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come” (Matthew 24:42). Therefore, let us keep watch. We know that the “last days” are treacherous and will close like a trap (Luke 21:34).

During the course of this series, we have periodically laid out the criteria for identifying such prophetically “significant” trends (most recently, in the November issue of Midnight Call). To date, we have described five such trends. In this column, we present the sixth—world urbanization. 

Grasping for Prosperity
Economists and policymakers around the world have begun to realize that economic growth and prosperity will be leaner in the future.  Many of the causes and factors that contributed to the great global wealth explosion over the last century (accelerating during the post-WWII period) have waned, disappeared or reversed. This is attributable to an abrupt reversal of population growth trends. (In this series, we have already discussed the demographic development, which also qualifies as a “ripening trend.”)

Policymakers ponder, just how can global prosperity then be boosted? A main source of hope (among a few other factors) is this: accelerating world urbanization. Many international organizations and economic thinktanks, such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and a host of others, all identify this development as an engine of economic hope. 

What is urbanization? Wikipedia says: “[Urbanization] refers to the population shift from rural areas to urban areas, the gradual increase in the proportion of people living in urban areas, and the ways in which each society adapts to this change. It is predominantly the process by which towns and cities are formed and become larger as more people begin living and working in central areas.”1

The biggest contributor to prosperity is population growth (everything else being equal). To the modern humanist, this may sound like an old-fashioned notion. Yet, this is an inviolable fact of economics. Why? Economics is about “humans.” It couldn’t be any other way. The slower the population growth, the slower the economic expansion. The maximum wealth and prosperity that can exist in the world is mostly defined by total labor output. And, as reviewed in this series, population growth rates are collapsing around the world. 

Therefore, policymakers encourage urbanization, because it stands to boost economic growth. The more people living in cities, the more the need for infrastructure … roads, mass transit systems, bridges, etc. Moreover, activities in cities tend to attract higher wages, consumer spending and housing values.

Given that world population growth is waning, policymakers hope that by concentrating the world’s population into cities, the negative impact upon economies can be offset somewhat.

The Rapidity of City Life
We therefore observe that an ever greater share of the world population is moving from rural areas to urban ones … to the city life. Today, more people live in urban areas than in rural, with 55 percent of the world’s population residing in urban areas in 2018. By contrast, in 1950, only 30 percent of the world’s population was urban. 

According to UNPD (United Nations Population Division) forecasts, by 2050, 68 percent of the world’s population is projected to be urban. As such, some 13% of the world’s population will move to a city over the next 30 years. Assuming this forecast is correct, more than two-thirds of the world’s population (or 6.3 billion people) will then be living in cities.

Readers will note the rapidity of spreading urbanization and the growth of large cities. But, how was it in the distant past? Looking over history, it was more the norm to have lived in rural areas. To be sure, urbanization has an ancient history, beginning quite early in Mesopotamia (4300-3100 BC).

Crucially, however, it was not until the early 1800s that urbanization truly began accelerating. Then, the world urbanization ratio was only 7.3% (for the US at that time, only 6.07%). It has soared rapidly ever since. Given this speed and that it is a phenomenon that has occurred so recently in the timeline of humans on earth (basically, within only two centuries), we are alerted to the possibility that urbanization is a “significant trend.”

The Boom of Large Cities
The outgrowth of increasing urbanization of course is more cities … and specifically, big cities. That means greater agglomerations of people. While there were only 18 urban agglomerations with an excess of 5 million people in the world in 1970 (Tokyo, New York, Mexico City, Sao Paulo, Paris, Bombay, Calcutta, Los Angeles, Chicago, Seoul and more), there are 67 or so today. The UNPD forecasts that there will be 109 cities with a population of 5 million or more by 2030. Most names of these large cities will likely be unfamiliar to the Westerner; for example, Ningbo, Abuja, Harbin, Belo Horizonte, Jinan, Shandong, Luanda, Douala … and many more.

Most cities mentioned in the Bible would likely have had less than 3,000 inhabitants. Cities were historically filthy and unhealthy places to live, given that there were usually no adequate sewage systems. The incidence of disease was high. This was generally not the case with the Hebrews, as their strict Levitical laws served to avoid such risks.

A few large cities are mentioned in the Bible, among these Nineveh, said to be 120,000 in population and to be a “very large city” (Jonah 3:3); Babylon, which would have even been larger; and most certainly, the ancient metropolis of Babel. Compare this to city sizes of 25 million and more in our time today. (Tokyo has the largest population—37.5 million, twice that of New York-Newark.)

As cities become larger and more dense, the logistics of administrating them become ever more challenging. Consider the traffic systems. These must be well planned … and, far in advance. It is well documented that even though modern-day automobiles can drive at speeds of 200 KPH and more, the average speed in large cities and major interstate highways has become ever slower. For example, the average highway speed in Los Angeles during rush hour is now 17 MPH (Hwy 101).

Similar challenges are evident in other large cities. For example, in Dhaka (capital of Bangladesh) according to the World Bank, the average traffic speed fell from 12 kilometers per hour in 2008 to 7 kph in 2018. It is one of the densest populated cities in the world. It now has no choice but to ban rickshaws.

The Trouble with Big Cities
How large was Babel’s population? No one knows. Yet it stands as an example of an agglomeration of people of which God did not approve. Was it the size of Babel’s population that caused God to disperse this city? Not likely for that fact alone. Rather, what incensed the Lord was susceptibility to immorality and, the emergence of the humanist spirit … the brazen attitude of self-determination that prevailed in Babel. 

According to the Bible, the inhabitants said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth” (Genesis 11:4). 

We note that the people had built Babel expressly so they would not be “scattered over the face of the earth.” But, to recall, originally God had commanded otherwise. 

God said to Adam and Eve, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28). This human mandate was again confirmed with Noah. “As for you, be fruitful and increase in number; multiply on the earth and increase upon it” (Genesis 9:7). 

As a result of Babel’s waywardness, God intervened: He dispersed the people of Babel “over all the earth” (Genesis 11:8) with a confusion of languages. In the end, they were all thrust to rural life.

In the next issue, we will complete our examination of this prophetically significant world trend of urbanization.

ENDNOTE
1 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Urbanization

Midnight Call - 02/2020

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