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"The Monster at Our Door: The Global Threat of Avian Flu."

"If you go back to the turn of the century and you either look at the third plague pandemic, which started in the 1890s and persisted through the first decade of the 20th Century, or you look at the flu pandemic of 1918, the mass of the mortality was in the colonial world. And more in India than in China. Much more in India than in China. This is something I've been trying to unravel and understand. I deal with this a little bit in a book I wrote called Late Victorian Holocausts, about empire and famine in the late 19th Century. And it appeared that in the case of India, density and railroads and poverty made disease far more deadly than in the case of China, which lacked railroads. So diseases communicated and spread rapidly in India."

"And now, of course, we have jet travel to accelerate infection."

"I have a young friend at Irvine who is trying to model how an avian flu pandemic would spread. And his maps and analysis are very scary."

"Rapidly, unfortunately," I chime in, aware that 2 million people worldwide cross borders daily.

"He believes that it will be on our doorsteps before it's been identified at its source."

"Planet of Slums, your book, is about the slum, which seems almost a medieval creation, it is so dark and so menacing. You write: 'No one knows whether such gigantic concentrations of poverty are biologically or ecologically sustainable.' Also, 'In many cases rural people no longer have to migrate to the city, it migrates to them.' In south Asia, 90 percent of urban population growth is in slums. In Africa, slum populations grow twice as fast as the cities, doubling every 15 years. It's an international phenomenon, a worldwide catastrophe. A third of the planet's urban residents subsist in slums: 6 percent of First World cities, 78 percent of Third World cities. Megaslums are growing exponentially. How were you first attracted to this, where have you seen slums locally? Have you gone to see the colonia in Palm Springs, do you go down to Tijuana to look at the pueblos? How do you personally contact it?"

"I actually, a couple of Christmases ago, I spent some days in the Coachella Valley with a former student of mine, Juan De Lara. He is the first Rhodes scholar from Coachella, and we toured 'Duroville,' one of the two colonias on the Torres-Martinez Reservation, where poor farmworkers live in trailers. And of course, I go to Tijuana quite frequently. But the occasion for this book was really the pathbreaking study by the United Nations on urban poverty, which was unprecedented in its methodology and data. [It's] the first really global survey data on poverty, a whole set of new databases that UN-HABITAT [the United Nations Human Settlements Program] has come up with: it is really the first time in history that it's been possible to look at urban poverty on a global scale and actually come up with estimates about living conditions and about poverty that are reasonably accurate.

"The picture is a shocking one. Over a billion people live in slums worldwide, and the number of actually poor people living in cities is greater than that. So, not quite a sixth of the world's 6.5 billion inhabitants. But that [slum] population will double by 2020, and the build-out of the human race will achieve its maximum sometime just after the middle of the century: 10 billion people. At that point slum dwellers will be 20 percent of the total.

"Almost all of the increase [in slum residents] was occurring in cities of the Third World. The rural world has reached its maximum population, and even declined. All the additional humans born on this planet will be born in cities. A large proportion of them, unfortunately, will be housed in slums.

"I think probably the core of the book is simply that for the last 25 or 30 years, the World Bank and international organizations have written off the ability of states, of governments in the Third World, to provide either housing or jobs for the poor. What they've counted on is self-built housing, [achieved] basically through squatting on the periphery of cities. And secondly, through the so-called informal sector, where people essentially create their own jobs in one form or another.

"We've relied on the poor to create their own conditions for existence and to improve that over time. What the literature shows, and shows very dramatically, is that the frontier of squattable land, free land, has been settled. Filled. That poor people who arrive in the city today actually have to pay for their plot of land -- something called 'pirate urbanization.' Or they become renters, because the supply of free land has disappeared. The second thing is that the [poor's] informal economy is grotesquely overcrowded. People tend to be crammed into a small number of niches or occupations, and increasing numbers of slum dwellers just ensure it is a kind of Darwinian competition that either degrades or reduces income to impossible levels or leads to depletion of everything for all but a few people. So the core of the book explores the consequences, the fact that the means of adaptation within the city, among poor immigrants, are beginning to fail."

A car passes on the Berkeley street outside my window. It is 2:30 in the afternoon.

"And you charge that the International Monetary Fund and World Bank are actually contributing to the extraordinary growth of slums worldwide by pressing debtor nations to shrink government programs, privatize housing markets, eliminate urban housing projects, and eliminate welfare. This through so-called structural adjustment programs (SAPs) instituted in the late 1970s."

"Well, they did, yes, because of the whole process of [their economic] structural adjustment programs, which the majority of countries in the Third World eventually had to agree with. The structural adjustment programs, as the United Nation's report emphasizes, and experts in the [impoverished] regions agree, were extraordinarily anti-urban in their bias, reducing expenditures on urban infrastructures, cutting back urban social services, decimating urban work forces, [with] huge impacts on formal employment. They really devastated the state at the urban level. And what you see is this kind of big bang of urban poverty that comes out of the '80s, the decade of structural adjustment, of debt, of negative economic woes. This is when the [world's] slums really grow at extraordinary rates."

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