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, 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
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
Critchfield writes that his goal has been to leave a record of
the daily life of ordinary villagers. …