SHORTLY after the turn of the century, the world will cross a critical threshold: For the first time in human history, a majority of Earth's inhabitants will be living in urban areas.
The fact has significant demographic consequences. As Richard Critchfield explains in a remarkable new book, "The Villagers: Changed Values, Altered Lives: The Closing of the Urban-Rural Gap," it also has profound religious and cultural implications since rural communities have been the traditional wellspring of religion, family life, and ethics.
The erosion of village life, he concludes, has left mankind nowhere to turn for cultural guidance and a sense of place.
"The dangerous threshold ahead is less likely to be the exhaustion of resources, pollution or population pressure, but more the rising anarchy and civil disorder in cities caused by a breakdown in an urban culture cut off from its rural base," Critchfield writes.
Critchfield, a California-based journalist, has spent most of the past 40 years chronicling life in the villages of Asia, Latin America, and Africa. His first major book, entitled "Villages" and published in 1981, was a collection of vivid portraits of the dailiness and unsung heroism of rural lives, all testaments to the proposition that the most fundamental of human values are rural-based.
His new book consists of sketches of rural life caught in a technology-driven transition that puts those values at risk, with enormous global implications.
"Without a rural base, a society experiences family breakdown and the beggary and homelessness that go with it, the crime and outcry for more prisons that breed crime, the widening divide between rich and poor and the sweeping away of what you might call a culture's emotional authenticity - its kindness, civility, and good nature," Critchfield writes.
The author says the turning point for rural villages, especially in Asia, was the decade of the 1970s. That's when the gap between urban and rural began to be bridged by agricultural technology, an exchange economy, and television - all of which have hastened the exodus of villagers to cities. Television, he says, has brought the "ethos and outlook" of the cities to those who stayed behind.
Critchfield agrees with his intellectual mentor, University of Chicago historian William H. McNeill, that the end of autonomous and culturally self-sufficient villages marks a transformation in human life that ranks in importance with the transition from nomadic hunting and gathering to sedentary agriculture 10,000 years ago.
Critchfield writes that his goal has been to leave a record …