Rebuilding Babel: The Megacities of China

In discussions of human survival beyond this century, urban expansion may not seem a significant threat. But even as China sets the pace for rapid urbanization, a painting from the Renaissance era urges caution.

The Tower of Babel, by 16th-century Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder, is a monumental painting. Its depiction of an enormous tower mid-construction might have been a celebration of human endeavor, but a closer look reveals something very different: a doomed city, flawed and confused in its design.

On the surface, it is a straight portrayal of the biblical city and tower that came to be known as Babel. The scriptural narrative tells of a group of people, probably led by a “mighty hunter” named Nimrod, living in the land now known as Iraq. They used bricks and asphalt to build a huge city and tower—“whose top is in the heavens”—for two reasons: to “make a name for [them]selves” and to prevent being “scattered abroad” over the earth (Genesis 11:1–4).

Depicting biblical scenes was by no means unusual for artists of Bruegel’s day; but the painting also had a contemporary message. Bruegel’s home, Antwerp, was then Europe’s fastest-growing city. With excellent shipping connections, a thriving banking industry and favorable international relationships, it was the financial and economic center of the Western world. Its population nearly doubled during the painter’s lifetime. Bruegel’s portrayal of ancient Babel is filled with contemporary detail: it’s a port city, depicted with European styles and only minor indications of its Mesopotamian origin. It might as well have been Antwerp itself. His audience would have recognized this and recalled the biblical city’s chaotic demise. The Tower of Babel was a warning to his contemporaries about the folly of extraordinary growth.

Underlying this warning was also a historic parallel. The shape of the tower, a form that had also been adopted by other artists, was likely modeled on the Colosseum in Rome—which then, like today, was a ruin. The link between Babel and Rome was well established: as the author of Bruegel, Keith Roberts, puts it, “Rome was the Eternal City, intended by the Caesars to last for ever, and its decay and ruin were taken to symbolize the vanity and transience of earthly efforts.”

Bruegel’s contemporaries would have done well to heed his warning. About 20 years after his painting was finished, Antwerp was besieged and comprehensively defeated by the Spanish, and never since has it regained its previous glory.

The Tower of Babel by Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1563); this is the larger of his two extant paintings of the tower.

The Chinese Dream

Of course, Antwerp was nothing in comparison to modern urban centers. The largest cities today are more than 300 times its 16th-century size. Urban ambition, from Babel to the Empire State Building to Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, shows no sign of going out of style.

China is a particularly striking example of this. In the decades since the death of Mao Zedong, the country has witnessed unprecedented urban growth. In 1976, when Mao died, only 17 percent of China’s population lived in cities; by 2015 that figure had risen over threefold to 55 percent. The transformation was a deliberate move by the Chinese government to generate economic growth, a method that by most measures has been phenomenally successful. The urbanization drive, as geopolitical analyst Pepe Escobar puts it, “is at the heart of the Chinese Dream.”

The scheme’s ambition is mind-boggling. In the last decade, China has announced plans for enormous urban centers, the size of which the world has never seen. The first such conurbation, the Pearl River Delta, merges nine separate cities in the nation’s southeast. The population of this inaugural megalopolis is already greater than that of Australia, Argentina or Canada. The method takes urban sprawl to a new level, which is not unusual in Asian urban development. Scholar Martin Jacques notes that “while Western cities generally have a definable centre, Asian cities rarely do: the centre is in a perpetual state of motion as a city goes through one metamorphosis after another, resulting in the creation of many centres rather than one.”

Many of its component cities are centers of colossal recent growth themselves. One of the most significant, Shenzhen, was a mere fishing village in 1979 when then-leader Deng Xiaoping identified it as the base of a new Special Economic Zone (SEZ). It now has a population of over 18 million, including several million migrant workers. At first the cities in what was to become the Pearl River Delta were designated for producing low-cost consumer goods such as food, toys and clothing; but more recently it has become the center for high-tech electronic, automotive and chemical products. Urban merging is designed to enhance production via interconnected infrastructure and transport links, both within the megacity and with nearby metropoles such as Hong Kong and Macau.

The Pearl River Delta is not an anomaly. The Shanghai and Beijing regions are in process of becoming even greater megacities, and similar projects are under way in other Asian countries. The World Bank reported that less than 1 percent of the total area in East Asia had been urbanized by 2010, and only 36 percent of the total population were city dwellers, all of which suggests that the region’s urban expansion has only just begun.

Breakneck urbanization, presently growing at 1 per cent annually, would mean that in thirty years there will be 450 million more people . . . living in China’s cities than is the case now.”

Martin Jacques, When China Rules the World

The Pearl River Delta plan was announced in 2008, in the midst of the global financial crisis. According to one report, the plan “engineered a property boom during the financial crisis to compensate for the weakness in overseas demand.” This economic manipulation may on one hand be a smart maneuver, but it also reminds us of the builders of Babel, who responded to their own particular insecurity in a similar way: by building a city bigger than had ever been seen. Indeed, ancient Babel’s desires for security (to avoid being scattered) and fame seem especially pertinent today.

There is great optimism about the megacity. The proximity of people and industry produces numerous economic benefits, as well as the potential for more efficient provision of services. Some have even theorized that megacities, if their expansion is well managed, can be good for the environment. Such confidence has been a hallmark of China’s recent economic escalation.

Reality Check

This self-assurance is somewhat in defiance of historical warnings, though. Rapid urbanization has caused sizable problems in other parts of the world, notably in Central and South America. In recent decades, people in Latin America have rushed to cities by the millions, driven from their former homes by poverty and local conflict. A United Nations report estimates that 90 percent of Latin America will be living in urban areas by 2050, and that Brazil may reach that figure as early as 2020. The results have not been entirely positive. Lack of organization and infrastructure to cope with massive population influxes has meant that cities such as Rio de Janeiro have become fertile grounds for poverty, corruption and illegal trade.

Pollution is another long-standing issue for big cities. China has had notable difficulties with this, with both Shanghai and Beijing among the world’s most polluted megacities. According to a 2016 World Health Organization report, of the hundred cities worldwide with the most fine particulate matter (known as PM2.5, which, if breathed, can cause a number of respiratory and cardiovascular conditions), 30 are Chinese. Of course, the problem is not limited to China: a further 34 of that hundred are found in the world’s second-most-populous nation, India. It appears that dense populations and high pollution levels often go hand in hand. The same report says that an astonishing 80 percent of cities worldwide have pollution levels higher than recommended limits. It should be noted, though, that China is investing in technology to stem the environmental damage via more than 80 low-carbon centers.

There is also the problem of disease. Denser populations increase the chance that viruses and infection will spread. As science writer Julian Cribb points out, “from the point of view of an infectious microbe, like the flu virus, ebola, zika, cholera or drug-resistant TB, a megacity is an orgy of gourmet and reproductive opportunities. The larger the city, the more billions of human cells it harbours, on which the bug delights to dine, or in which it can multiply.” In China, there are early warnings that a new strain of the bird-flu virus, a pathogen that gained worldwide notoriety in 2004, may turn bird flu into a human problem again.

While China has coped more effectively than many countries with the demands of urbanization, a number of issues need to be tackled urgently.”

The World Bank, “China’s Rapid Urbanization: Benefits, Challenges & Struggles”

As China’s cities get bigger, requirements to provide for the new population will increase in turn. Urban populations use, on average, three times as much energy as rural ones, and China’s progress will impact what is very much a global energy problem. China already has a significant water dilemma, both in quantity and quality. Increased populations need more cars, which poses both spacial and pollution problems. More people demand more jobs; as long as China continues to grow economically, this is likely fine, but if the global economy collapses again, then a new strategy may be required. “Cities are expensive to retrofit and modify once they are built,” the World Bank’s Shahid Yusuf comments. “China and other rapidly urbanizing countries must factor in resource scarcities right away and use available technologies strategically.”

That said, China has ample opportunity to prepare for these challenges. The Pearl River Delta is premeditated in a way that many cities in Latin America were not, and its plans include systems designed to resolve many of the issues other megacities have faced. As an example, Yusuf reports that “one of China’s greatest successes in its rapid urbanization has been that it has managed to contain the process to the extent that there are crowded living conditions but very few slums.” Whether this system, and others, can cope with such dizzying levels of growth, of course, is another matter.

Cities Come, Cities Go

The megacity is an unprecedented example of human achievement and a product of China’s astonishing economic progress. It’s worth remembering, though, that its historical forebears—from Babel to Rome to Antwerp—have all faltered over time. It’s worth wondering whether the megacity is merely a bigger, busier version of what has gone before.

Martin Jacques’s depiction of the typical East Asian city seems particularly apposite: it “produces an eclectic and intoxicating mix of benign chaos, compressed energy and inchoate excitement. People make it up as they go along. They try things out. They take risks. Seemingly the only constant is change.”

This description seems exciting and hopeful, and yet it bears a note of unpredictability that echoes the warning Bruegel gave in The Tower of Babel. In the painting, the design of the tower seems to alter at every level, displaying increasing ambition and complexity as it rises toward the clouds. The builders, it seems, are trying things out, taking risks, making it up as they go. In the biblical example, this energy and ambition goes hand in hand with pride (as the builders of Babel said, “Let us make a name for ourselves”), and pride with a fall (it’s clear that Bruegel’s tower is structurally unstable).

In cities like Shanghai and Shenzhen, . . . there is a sense of enormous ambition, a world without limits, symbolized by Pudong, one of the most futuristic cityscapes, with its extraordinary array of breathtaking high-rise buildings.”

Martin Jacques, When China Rules the World

Cities and civilizations come and go with time. One only has to remember the Mayan, Roman or Babylonian empires—each thrillingly ambitious in its day—to know that any human endeavor is doomed to be temporary. The question now is whether humanity, with its increased capabilities, can survive a bigger version of the sort of collapse that struck Babel or Rome (or Carthage, Angkor, Nagasaki; the list goes on). Cities today are larger and consume more resources than ever, and as a result pose greater potential for disaster—whether via pollution, disease, or a solar flare that knocks out the power grid and the computers on which our entire infrastructure depends.

It seems likely we are getting nearer to our planet’s limits on all these fronts. The Bible promises rescue from this end point, prophesying in reference to a time of “great tribulation” that “unless those days were shortened, no flesh would be saved” (Matthew 24:21–22). What follows is a promise of a different sort of city: first a millennial set of unfortified villages and towns (Ezekiel 38:11); and later an eternal city (Revelation 21:2, 10–27) that, in its magnitude, will surpass anything ever seen before—even the Pearl River Delta. Until that point, humanity will undoubtedly continue to build with greater and greater ambition but no change in principle. Bruegel’s warning about the doomed nature of unstinted human endeavor has thus far gone unheeded; but that state of affairs, like the cities he painted, will not go on forever.