Salient. Victoria University Students' Newspaper. Volume 39, Number 25. October 4, 1976
The Home of Man
The Home of Man
The aim of this book, as Barbara Ward sees it is to outline the massive problems of housing throughout the world and suggest some ways towards resolving them. In the first she is reasonably successful, in the second, to this reviewer anyway, hopelessly unrealistic. International Habitat Year deserves a better analysis.
The 'doomsayers' have been around so long now that we are suffering from overkill. This is a pity, as what they, and particularly this book have to say, is of vital importance. Stocks of resources are finite, population is growing too fast for its social and economic environment, and we cannot continue the levels of pollution and waste that the west currently spews out.
The issues of housing, as the book quite correctly argues, are inseperable from wider issues of allocation. Standards of housing cannot be seen in isolation from their social and economic contexts. The failure of the many massive housing schemes, both in rich and poor countries, comes from ignoring these very contexts. You cannot build expensive houses if the inhabitants are too poor to pay the rents. There is no point in constructing blocks of flats if that is not what the people of the area want.
Given that these contexts are of vital importance, the book does seem to deviate from its main theme. Especially when the author gets angry, as she does, quite correctly, in several cases. One when she effectively destroys any arguments anyone might have for nuclear power (except for making a profit out of it). Another, a point returned to again and again, is her hatred of the motor car. When 93 000 people are killed annually in Europe, and millions maimed, the hatred and anger are well justified. What they have to do with housing is a little more obscure.
On housing, Barbara Ward makes many very important and cogent points. Firstly, the failure of the free market to effectively provide decent housing for hundreds of millions of people in the third world. Housing is more than just shelter, as the UN Year clearly recognises. It involves shelter, sanitation, community facilities and so on: "What is intolerable is water playing on golfing greens for the tourist when children die of dysentery not half a mile away"(p 231).
Yet just building "better" facilities is not the answer. Leaving aside the point that most of the world cannot afford to this, there are important social implications. Schemes may provide "accommodation which in physical terms - water, drainage, domestic facilties, shelter against the elements - is far superior to older buildings, or the village 'slums' so many migrants escaped from. Nevertheless, these blocks do not add up to a fully human environment" (p199).
What does make a "fully human environment"? This gets into the solutions and Barbara Ward's analysis begins to take off into fairy land. Quite rightly, she urges the need for community involvement and consultation with all involved in the planning process. And she applauds the new spirit she sees in the 1970s toward international cooperation on these issues.
But she avoids the main issue. The primary problem of the third world is not housing, or sanitation, or community involvement, It is unredeemed, outright poverty. In the 1970s, the World Bank estimates the average income in the rich countries will grow from $3100 per year to $4000 per year, In the poorest it will grow from $105 per capita each year to $108. The gap is widening, not narrowing
What is causing this poverty? It is not population size (the densest populated countries of the world - Holland, Belgium, England - are also among the richest). It is not the economic resources of areas. It is, essentially, international exploitation and oppression of the first order. Until this is realised, little real progress can be made towards solving housing or other problems. Barbara Ward fails to realise it.
She continually cites the gap between rich and poor. She condemns the lack of concern for poverty and starvation in capitalist countries. And she praises the achievements of China, Yet the analysis necessary to link these together is missing. Karl Marx is arbitrarily dismissed as another "Hebrew prophet". And how can you preach cooperation when there is no cooperation in the ownership of the productive resources of a country.
The question of decent housing is a very important and pressing one. In addressing a book to the problem Barbara Ward has drawn together much valuable information and powerful insights. If it does wander a little or show signs of being written in rather a hurry, the material is still interesting. But when she concludes "We must love each other or we must die" the reader suspects that the problems are going to be solved. The bourgeois myth remains strong.
Recommended, but for the description, not the solution.
— Anthony Ward.