Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Did the world become more urban than rural yesterday?

Prof. Ronald C. Wimberley, William Neal Reynolds Distinguished Professor, Sociology and Anthropology, North Carolina State University, posted this to the Rural Studies listserv of the Rural Sociological Society yesterday:
In case you missed it previously, today is one of those days.

Today is the day that the world's population becomes more urban than rural. That's according to what we calculate from the 2008 United Nations' data on rural and urban populations.

It's a symbolic date, of course, due to inherent difficulties in predicting such things. There are the unreliabilities of population counts from the world's countries and varying dates of those counts or estimates to say nothing of inconsistent definitions of what's rural and urban across the array of nations involved.

Then there're the problem of new and updated world and urban-rural population estimates that the UN produces each year. They change. Consequently, our estimated date of the rural-to-urban transition changes as well.

At the beginning of the decade, the UN data only showed that the transition would occur sometime during this decade; later the UN said it would happen in 2007. The UN does not offer a specific day, but recently the UN's revised year for the rural-urban balance to change is this year, 2008.

So, today is one of those days that we have predicted this new demographic transition. With earlier years of the data, we had predicted earlier dates for the global shift (e.g., Wimberley, Fulkerson, and Morris, 2007, "Predicting a Moving Target..." The Rural Sociologist, 28:18-22). Our first prediction of a symbolic date--based on the current data at the time--was May 23, 2007. Later data suggested that the date would be July 13, 2008. But the rural population of the world has held its own much better than expected at the beginning of the millennium.

Our latest estimate of December 16, 2008 rural-to-urban transition date is based on a linear projection of the average estimated rural and urban growth rates from 2005 to 2010 based on current UN data. We think this is as good an estimate as any. Alternately, our exponential projection falls on January 7, 2009.

No doubt, such projections will also change as the UN releases ever newer waves of world population data. By and by, when the population numbers stabilize into history, we may be able to look back and see more precisely when the rural-urban transition actually occurred.

As demographer Nathan Keyfitz (1971, "Models," Demography 8:571-580) once said, demographic predictions are interesting but are an "all-but-impossible prediction of the future." Given our experience at predicting the rural-urban transition date, we agree. But as Keyfitz adds, "the most interesting facts are those relating to the future." So, we keep on trying to predict the future rather than the past.

Regardless of whether the date that has passed, lies in the near future, or is upon us today, the significance of this event is that the world's urban population becomes more and more dependent on rural people and resources as the historic balance toward the weight of the urban population shifts further and further away from the rural.

But this does not mean that rural people and places have become less important. Rather, the smaller proportion of world and its space that is rural has become even more important in supporting both the urban and rural peoples' needs for rural resources.

Tell your students. Tell our politicians and governments. Tell everyone. More of us are depending upon a smaller share of the rural world than ever before. Since we are all vitally dependent upon the rural people, resources, and environment, we should pay greater attention to their needs. The time is now.
I like Prof. Wimberley's optimism. I tend to think that as rural populations diminish, so will their political influence, which is already so low. Prof. Wimberley, however, sees this demographic shift as an opportunity to enhance rural influence -- as the growing number of urban dwellers become increasingly reliant on the shrinking rural population for food and other resources, and to be good stewards of the natural environment.

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