Why cities are bad for you (and all living creatures)

Ninety years ago, we witnessed  the emergence of the public relations industry. In 1970, the 747 jumbo jet was introduced to the world, and the global travel industry exploded. During the whole of the 20th century, but particularly in the past 50 years, we have seen a mass migration of people around the world from the countryside to the cities and the birth of the first ‘megacities.’

Lonely Planet Hong Kong and MacauThese three converging factors have created  within the public relations arm of the travel companies a distinct group of writers whose job is to tout the glories and magnificence of the world’s cities. Glance at the front cover of any of the major travel magazines or the home page of the major travel sites, and you will undoubtedly see at least one article espousing the glories of a city. Often, an article will have a title such as, “Best nightlife cities,” or “Which city has the best museums.” The articles are recycled often, with just a few new restaurants and dates added to make them appear new and fresh.


It’s propaganda in its purest form. It is mind manipulation to achieve a number of aims. First, convince people that cities are cool, fun, exciting, happening, and just downright awesome places to visit, thus fueling the ever-expanding travel and hotel industry. Second, convince people who still choose to live in the countryside that they are missing out and that big cities are the only worthwhile places to live, thus continuing and accelerating the trend of the past 100 or so years. Finally, convince people that city living is a normal and rational way to spend one’s time here on Earth.

small-beautiful_0In fact, the truth is just the opposite. Living in the city can only honestly be described as insane. It’s just that now we have gotten so used to and inured to our insanity that we don’t even notice it. While it may be true that cities have improved in the last couple of centuries,   with advances made in the fields of sewage treatment, garbage pick-up, rodent eradication, disease control and so on, the basic tenets of living in large agglomerations remain essentially the same. As Aldous Huxley pointed out in “Brave New World Revisited,” humans are mildly gregarious creatures. We evolved over hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions,  of years living in small tribes. Biologically speaking, we are more similar to elephants or lions than we are to ants or bees. To live in crowded cities, squeezed together with millions more of our kind, goes against our genetic, biological, mental, psychological and spiritual being.

Humans grow, evolve, and thrive best when they are immersed within a small, tightly-knit community, or tribe if you will. Cities, by their very nature, go radically against nature in this respect. A city promotes the alienation and loneliness of the individual. It cuts him off from a connection to the land and bio-region. In fact, it demands that he sever all links to nature and place. The most obvious and stark example of this is the sky. With its heavy concentration of lights, the city obliterates the night sky. The same night sky that gave our ancestors the basis  for the development of their mythologies, not to mention a deep sense of humility and awe at the cosmic creation. City dwellers today take no notice whatsoever the sky and cannot even identify Venus or the phases of the moon.


How did we get to this place? Cities go hand in hand with ‘civilization,’ which according to mainstream history and archaeological texts, began around 10,000 years ago in the Tigris and Euphrates River valleys in present day Iraq. For some as yet unknown reasons, people started to farm, whereas before they had been content to be hunters and gatherers. Farming eventually led to surpluses. Surpluses led to guarded enclosures. Trade blossomed and with it the advent of money and currency. Soon, we had cities, and division of labor, laws, courts, armies , wars and all the rest.

Endgame-V1Derrick Jensen is one of my favorite writers and I like his definition of a city: ‘People living more or less permanently in one place in densities high enough to require the routine importation of food and other necessities of life.’ What he’s saying is that cities are structurally unsustainable. In order for the people within a city to survive, they have to buy (‘steal’) food and resources from other regions, often hundreds and even thousands of miles away. Stop the importation and the people will be starving and rioting in a matter of a few short days.



E.F. Schumacher’s “Small is Beautiful” was published in 1973 and was still quite popular when I was in college, especially among my hippy friends. In it, he talked extensively about cities and how the rise of big cities was contributing to the dehumanization of mankind. He postulated that any city that grew above the figure of 500,000 people had tipped over into an unnatural and unsustainable state and would be thenceforth be detrimental to the health of those living within it. Schumacher himself was a student of  Leopold Kohr, a giant of 20th century philosophical thought. Unfortunately, few have ever heard of him or his scholarly “The Breakdown of Nations,” one of the most thought-provoking books I have ever read. In it, he stated:

51N1F0637SL._SS500_“…there seems to be only one cause behind all forms of social misery: bigness. Oversimplified as this may seem, we shall find the idea more easily acceptable if we consider that bigness, or oversize, is really much more than just a social problem. It appears to be the one and only problem permeating all creation. Whenever something is wrong, something is too big. And if the body of a people becomes diseased with the fever of aggression, brutality, collectivism or massive idiocy, it is not because it has fallen victim to bad leadership or mental derangement. It is because human beings, so charming as individuals or in small aggregations have been welded into overconcentrated social units.

Unfortunately, the trend of people flowing from the countryside into the city continues unabated. People are attracted  by the promise of jobs, housing, and security- not to mention friends, culture, excitement, and stimulation. For every young person or couple trying to make a go of it moving ‘back to the land’ , 10 people pass them going the opposite direction into the bright glare of the city. And our so-called leaders? What do they think about these profound socio-economic trends which are altering every aspect of human existence and even the human being himself?  At the turn of the 20th century , the vast majority of Americans were still farmers. Now, fully 80% of Americans live in cities. They appear to be quite satisfied with the state of things. Governments and leaders have always been interested, even obsessed, with tracking, following, and monitoring their subjects. Cities enable this type of tracking much more efficiently than trying to do the same in the countryside. Orwellian security cameras are now ubiquitous in major cities, with Londoners now the most surveilled people in the history of humankind.


It has been shown in many studies that the onslaught on the human nervous system from the combined effects of dirty air, noise pollution, light pollution and stress has deleterious effects. In fact, we have moved so far away from our ancient ancestors, who walked upon and slept upon the ground, awoke and went to sleep with the rising and setting sun and had a deep and profound relationship with the stars, that we can barely be called human anymore. And even that is not enough. Now , they want to move us into the ‘transhumanist’ future. Stay tuned….




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