On overcrowded cities and the raise of the Homo Iratus

Hobbes, last night we were discussing the effect of overpopulated areas in their inhabitants’ ability to care about fellow men.

After 4 years in central London, last summer we relocated to a small town in South Bucks, in a small corner of Greater London’s green belt. My point was that since we moved, even though London keeps consuming much of our daytime, at least we know most of our neighbours’ names even though they don’t live above or below us.

Is not only that, but the sense of security, peace and the ability to get a good night sleep without drunks fighting on your doorstep on a Thursday night are priceless (unlike commuting back and forth the city every day).

Living in the middle of the huzzle and buzzle of Westbourne Grove, we never got used to the careless driving, god-given littering right (what’s with spitting all over the place!) and the home-learnt practice of using the seat in front of you as a foot rest… but we coped with it, or thought to do so. Eventually it transforms into the street evangelist trying to talk you into the greatness of his god every single day. Overtime he becomes invisible. However, now we can compare with something else, and what we see makes us wonder if things are going swiftly downhill or we were just voluntarily blind.

Back to last night’s chat, my fellow amateur social analyst (who happens to live in Manchester but works Monday to Friday in London) pointed out how he can still see back home people of all ages, creeds and races lining up at the bus stop or thanking the Tattoo Weekly-cover bus driver for the ride.

I get to experience the fall of Rome everyday on my way to work. It is just a 25-mile drive, but the first leg of the journey is the most pleasant one, letting people cross the street, smiling to other drivers and perhaps discussing the weather with a neighbour.

The second half includes drivers who join the A40 from the M25 (for those of you who are not familiar with UK roads, the M25 is known as ‘the largest car park in Europe’), and you can feel the increased aggressiveness in the average driving style. Once you get to Hanger Lane (reportedly the largest city roundabout in the island) it is every man, woman or cat, for himself, herself, or itself. And the feeling doesn’t stop until I get back home.

Other cars cut you off, indicators are of no use at all (nobody uses them, and if you do, nobody cares), bus drivers will not wait for you at the bus stop no matter how much they see you running (if they actually stop at all) before racing off the bus lanes, and you pack yourself in cramped tube and train wagons that would kick off a national animal rights campaign were we pigs instead of people. Add up a bit of morning caffeine, and the boiling pot of London is not exactly the place for the weak of heart. And you get everything for a hefty price, you lucky one!

But London is where everything happens, and where you want to be, part-time. With all due respect to the profession (I am no one to judge other people’s needs and/or professions) I call London ‘the prostitute city’. Everybody comes (for the day, the week, few months or few years), gets what s/he wants (money, a job, prestige, experience), pays the price (in time, life expectancy, cost of living) and moves on, since at the end of the day, everybody wants to grow old by someone who loves you and you love back. On Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell analyses the theory of thin slices reaching the conclusion that we can foresee the potential break-up of any relationship, contempt seems to be the worst of evils.

Last night we got to the conclusion that apparently smaller communities make for happier communities. That’s why families are moving to Scotland, Australia, Canada or unpopulated and derelict towns in the heart of Spain. But what really makes us smile and say hello to our neighbours and fellow commuters in towns but triggers utter ignorance in big overcrowded cities? The landscape? The lack of alarms going off every 10 minutes during the day and every 5 at night?

This morning I was catching up on Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel: A short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years, and got to a perfectly timed paragraph I would like to share with you:

One reason why the organization of human government tends to change from that of a tribe to that of chiefdom in societies with more than a few hundred members is that the difficult issue of conflict resolution between strangers becomes increasingly acute in larger groups. A fact further diffusing potential problems of conflict resolution in tribes is that almost everyone is related to everyone else, by blood or marriage or both. […] if a New Guinean happened to encounter an unfamiliar New Guinean while both were away from their respective villages, the two engaged in a long discussion of their relatives, in an attempt to establish some relationship and hence some reason why the two should not attempt to kill each other. [pag. 271-2]

So apparently it is not that smaller communities are inhabited by intrinsically gentler and happier populations, but that family or acquaintance links work as a human aggressiveness inhibitor. Oh dear, homo homine lupus.



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