Not long ago, demographers expected new technology to hollow out cities as people began to telecommute from tranquil suburbs, recounts Matt Ridley in ‘The Rational Optimist: How prosperity evolves’ (

Did such ‘hollow’ expectations come true? No, even in weightless industries like finance people prefer to press into ever closer contact with each other in glass towers to do their exchanging and specialising, and they are prepared to pay absurdly high rents to do so, he notes. “By 2025, it looks as if there will be five billion people living in cities, and there will be eight cities with more than twenty million people each: Tokyo, Mumbai, Delhi, Dhaka, São Paolo, Mexico City, New York and Calcutta.”

From a planet perspective, this is good news, says Ridley, because city dwellers take up less space, use less energy and have less impact on natural ecosystems than country dwellers. The world’s cities already contain half the world’s people, but they occupy less than 3 per cent of the world’s land area, he reasons.

Romantic mirage

Rural self-sufficiency is a romantic mirage, and urban opportunity is what people want, the author argues. “Ask a modern Indian woman why she wants to leave her rural village for a Mumbai slum. Because the city, for all its dangers and squalor, represents opportunity, the chance to escape from the village of her birth, where there is drudgery without wages, suffocating family control and where work happens in the merciless heat of the sun or the drenching downpour of the monsoon.”

Two quotes resonating with this, as the book cites, are of Henry Ford, who said he was driven to invent the gasoline buggy to escape the ‘crushing boredom of life on a mid-west farm,’ and of Suketu Mehta, that ‘for the young person in an Indian village, the call of Mumbai isn’t just about money. It’s also about freedom.’

Relative freedom

Observes Ridley that all across Asia, Latin America and Africa, a tide of subsistence farmers is leaving the land to move to cities and find paid work. If you fret that with trade drawing people to cities and swelling the slums, aren’t we saddled with something unacceptable, the author reminds that the mills of the industrial revolution may have looked satanic to poets but they were also beacons of opportunity to young people facing the unpleasantness and crowding of a country cottage on too small a plot of land.

Surely, to an urbanite, a Nairobi slum or a São Paolo favela is a worse place to be than a tranquil rural village, but not for the people who move there, he adds. “Given the chance they eloquently express their preference for the relative freedom and opportunity of the city, however poor the living conditions.”

Measure of economic progress

From 15 per cent in 1900, the share of world population in cities crossed the 50 per cent mark in 2008, and this is not a bad thing, instructs Ridley. He sees this as a measure of economic progress that more than half the population can leave subsistence and seek the possibilities of a life based on the collective brain instead, because ‘two-thirds of economic growth happens in cities.’

Though some came to town with hope and ambition, and some with desperation and fear, almost all were drawn by the same aim – to take part in trade – Ridley states. Cities exist for trade, and they are places where people come to divide their labour, to specialise and exchange, he describes. “They grow when trade expands – Hong Kong’s population grew by thirty times in the twentieth century – and shrink when trade dries up. Rome declined from a million inhabitants in 100 BC to less than 20,000 in the early Middle Ages.”

Slice of history

An interesting section in the chapter titled ‘The triumph of cities’ narrates a slice of history about how India played a key role in the prosperity of Rome. Thanks to the discovery of the monsoon, which reliably blew ships eastward in summer and back westward in winter, the journey across the Arabian Sea was cut from years to months; and at last Rome’s ships made direct contact with the world’s economic superpower, Ridley writes.

You can get a feel of the ‘economic superpower’ by reading that ‘the emperor Tiberius complained of Indian luxuries draining the empire of its wealth,’ and that ‘peacocks from India became a favourite possession of Roman plutocrats.’ Indian ports like Barigaza (modern Bharuch in Gujarat) seem to have blossomed through exporting cotton cloth and other manufactures to the West, Ridley suggests. One also learns that Arikamedu, on the east coast near Pondicherry, was exporting to China glass imported from Roman Syria.

Uruk tale

An engaging discussion in the chapter is about Uruk, ‘a large city, probably the first the world had ever seen, housing more than 50,000 people within its six miles of wall.’ Tracing accountancy as the first application on clay tablets in the city, with uniform marks meticulously indicating merchants’ stocks and profits, the author is of the view that markets came long before the other appurtenances of civilisation.

“Exchange and trade were well established traditions before the first city, and record keeping may have played a crucial role in allowing cities to emerge full of strangers who could trust each other in transactions. It was the habit of exchange that enabled specialists to appear in Uruk, swelling the city with artisans and craftsmen who never went near the fields.”

Uruk was followed by an endless series of empires on the same ground, informs Ridley. Each empire was the product of trading wealth and was itself the eventual cause of that wealth’s destruction, he frets. “Merchants and craftsmen make prosperity; chiefs, priests and thieves fritter it away.”

Good read to wrap up the year with, on a prosperous note.


More In: Books