Book Review: Readings
Reviewed by Spencer Parsons, Fri., April 7, 2006
Planet of Slums
by Mike Davis
Verso, 256 pp., $24As densely footnoted a projection of apocalypse as you could ever read, Mike Davis's Planet of Slums overwhelms as much for its research as for its terrifying and heartbreaking implications. Where a free-market Pollyanna like Thomas L. Friedman would draw sweeping conclusions about globalization's horn of plenty from a couple of cheery conversations with an Indonesian Web designer, Davis is an impeccably well-sourced Cassandra with a stack of reports to show how that lucky Web designer's job depends on a "new" economy derived from an "old" colonialism rigged to keep millions of others literally living in shit.
Charting the growth of cities in developing countries over the last century, the book examines processes and pathologies behind the massive urban expansions that will soon see more of the world's population living in cities than in rural areas for the first time in human history ... and more of those living in the slums, shantytowns, and refugee camps of the ever-expanding periphery than in the cosmopolitan centers. Of course, the miseries produced by such intense concentrations of poverty point to an untenable humanitarian crisis with effects on social and economic sustainability, as well as public health that can't long be ignored by the rest of us (though we're certainly trying). Taken with Davis' previous book, The Monster at Our Door, which concerned urban poverty as incubator for an avian flu pandemic, the possibilities are very grim indeed. When one additionally considers the avoidable human catastrophe brought forth by Hurricane Katrina in relation to the book's warnings, it all hits shockingly close to home.
Still, Planet of Slums' chief task is illuminating the complex of social, economic, and political failures that cause or institutionalize the situation. Though unapologetically leftist, Davis attacks decades of policy by both capitalist and socialist governments alike, while not surprisingly reserving his most withering critiques for the "structural adjustments" of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. That probably goes a long way toward accounting for the staggering documentation, quotation, and reference for what seems like every punctuation here, perhaps an overcompensation to forestall the usual complaints of naïveté or preaching to the choir, delivered with petulant condescension, that pass for defenses of neoliberalism's putative "war on poverty." It may make for a more difficult read than Davis' justly celebrated Los Angeles books (City of Quartz and Ecology of Fear), but in many ways, this book's invitation to argument may be his most urgent yet.