Reflections in August

It’s August, a slow month if any months are slow these days, and minds are on recreations recently enjoyed or eagerly anticipated. So, herewith, a few more idle and rambling observations for consideration during highway traffic delays, airport waits, or quiet moments in the mountains or at the beach. 

The Cities of Man Expand:  According to London’s Financial Times, more than half of the world’s 7 billion people today live in cities.  By 2030, over 5 billion of us will live in cities. The business consulting firm McKinsey estimates that by 2025, the world’s cities will need to construct new or replacement floorspace for residences and offices equivalent to 85 percent of all current urban floorspace. That means that cities will have to add to their building stock the equivalent of the square footage of the continent of Australia.

Urbanization is not a new phenomenon, but the scale of this wave is unprecedented. It will put substantial pressure on all forms of services, including water and electricity, health care and law enforcement, entertainment and food supply.

It will also put extraordinary pressure on the Church. On the one hand, urbanization tends to go along with economic growth, and recent years of urbanization have also seen a worldwide decline in poverty. That might reduce the need for the Church’s services to the poorest of the poor if more of them are able to join the economic progress. 

More likely, of course, the absolute number of needy in cities will rise, and the Church’s relief agencies will be busier than ever – where they are allowed to operate.

The need and opportunity for evangelization will also skyrocket. The pressures of urban life, bearing down on a population that moved to the city to seek economic advantage, will be severe. But collecting so many people in densely occupied spaces will create opportunities for the Church to reach more people in fewer square miles.

In some cities, the Church may make the difference between a dystopic future and a relatively benign one. Amidst the urban explosion and its dislocations, small personal communities sharing the faith will be more attractive, and essential, than ever.

And if you thought the highways out of the city were crowded this holiday season. . .

 Urban expansion: Mexico City

Technophile, Technophobe: Urbanization is associated with increasing levels of technology. Cities are usually thought of as centers of innovation, for good and ill. 

Since the earliest innovations of wood, bronze and iron, we have had an ambivalent relationship to the technology we create. “The machine” promises to liberate us and threatens to oppress or destroy us. Wheaton College Professor Alan Jacobs has noted that J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis saw a close connection between technology and dark magic, with shared pretensions to human power over nature. The difference was that science succeeded where magic failed.

The industrial age was shocking in what it wrought in the name of progress, and amazing in the real material progress it did bring. The advent of nuclear weapons in the last century raised angst about technology to new levels. The race between prudent and Promethean approaches to technology seemed less and less likely to end well.

Like urbanization, technological change is proceeding at an unprecedented pace. Harvard historian Niall Ferguson wrote recently of a visit to Silicon Valley, where the happy wizards of innovation were forecasting a bright future with even more rapid change in the next twenty-five years than in the last. Ferguson, who spends more professional time looking into the actual past than the undetermined future, emerged more depressed than buoyed.

For Christians, the question of which technology to adopt and which to avoid has been there from the start. Christ sent forth his disciples with the simplest of equipment, a staff and sandals. One wonders these days whether the disciples would have taken along a smart phone for maps and directions, and to report back on any especially stubborn evil spirits.

One item that has been in many ways a test of one’s view of technology, or even of the entire scientific-technological revolution brought on after the Enlightenment, is the railroad. Like the airplane that came later, trains had the effect of easing mass travel and connecting previously disconnected places. 

Pope Gregory XVI in the nineteenth century banned railways in the papal states, calling them chemins d’enfer, or ways of hell, playing on the French expression for railroad, chemin de fer, or way of iron. In his early twentieth-century (and still timely) novel Lord of the World, Robert Hugh Benson fictionally recreated a city under papal domain where only modest technology was permitted.

Yet in the Lateran Treaty of 1929, establishing the terms of coexistence between the Holy See and Italy, the Vatican requested the establishment of a Vatican City State Railway to connect to the Italian train network. It opened in 1932, but the first pope to use it was John XXIII in 1962. 

Nowadays, railways are a major form of transport in Europe and some parts of Asia, and still important on the east coast of the United States. But they also call forth nostalgia for less hurried times past, when hobos traveled by freight car and soldiers moved on troop trains to new camps, or off to war. The trains to German concentration camps call forth a different memory. 

All good reminders of the two sides of every machine.

Dr. Joseph R. Wood serves in the School of Philosophy and Theology of the University of Notre Dame Australia, and is a Fellow at Cana Academy.