The Foundation of Civilization

The word ‘civilization’ springs from the rood ‘civis’- city, that is. When you get down to it, urbanization and civilization are the same thing. Art and technology are born in the city. When you’re stuck in a village driving a buffalo across a field, you don’t have the time or inclination to come up with anything creative. Pataliputra saw Kautilya writing the Arthashastra, medieval Rome had Michaelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel and in present day New York Arthur Andersen invented creative accounting. The list goes on and on. What have the villages done in all that time? Ten years ago, rural Jalandhar tried, came up with Chamkila, and slunk off in embarassment, not to be heard of since then.

But what makes a city a city? What is the foundation on which civilization rests? What is the one thing that turns a big village into a small city? Who knows what this mysterious secret ingredient is?

Wimpy does!

We had our Econometrics term paper submission yesterday. Wimpy’s term paper was on which commodities are ‘essential’.

A quick detour into the definition of essential in this context. If people’s incomes increase they don’t keep buying the same stuff indefinitely. Suppose you start off with no money. As the money you have increases, you’ll keep buying more and more rice, say- but only up to a point. Eventually your expenditure on rice will plateau off, and you will start buying other stuff- salt, sugar, dal, milk, vegetables, clothes, nicer housing, Hyundai Santros, that Nokia 6610 you always wanted.

You get the picture. Expenditure tails off, and you buy other stuff. Well, if you look at a number of people with different incomes, and see how much they buy of what, you’ll be able to draw graphs of expenditure on a purchase of a particular good against income. If you do this for a bunch of things, you’ll be able to see which goods are the ones where expenditure plateaus out the soonest. Those are the essential ones.

All right, so that’s what Wimpy was doing. What did he find?

Well, in rural areas, the following items are essential, in the order given:

  1. Cereals
  2. Salt
  3. Spices
  4. Sugar
  5. Tobacco
  6. Pulses
  7. Edible Oil
  8. Vegetables
  9. Fuel
  10. Clothing

Everything beyond this point is a luxury.

What about urban areas? It’s the same list., with one change. There is one good that breaks out of the ‘luxury’ list, and is ‘essential’ in cities but not in villages. What is it, you ask?


Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the thing that distinguishes a city from a village is the fact that alcohol is no longer a luxury, but a necessity. The point at which a rural area becomes an urban one is the point when the people there can no longer live without booze.

Of course, a simple statistical analysis doesn’t really reveal whether this is cause or effect. It could be either, really. You could argue that booze causes urbanization- as soon as somebody sets up a still, everyone from the neighbouring villages lands up. The rapid increase in population density forces specialization of labour- and thus urban life. On the other hand, you could argue equally plausibly that urbanization causes booze- there is no demand for tipple unless you need to get your mind off the toils and cares of life in the big city. It’s a chicken and egg situation1.

This, of course doesn’t change the fact that we now finally know what distinguishes a city from a village. We always did know that they were different somehow– in so many ways- but we never knew the one factor at the bottom of it all- the root. And now not only do we know, we have it backed up with statistical evidence- that too, significant at the 90% level!

As for the insights from my Ecotrix term paper, well, they’ll be up in a more detailed blogpost soon. Hopefully before I leave Bangalore, but definitely before 2006.

1Actually it isn’t. According to Wimpy meat and eggs are both luxury items.

2 Responses to The Foundation of Civilization

  1. Srini says:

    Have you performed a time series analysis of your data? My guess is that the variable DAARU [Differenced Average level of Alcohol Relative to level of Urbanisation] follows an AR (p) process. You can estimate the AR coefficients using the Johnny-Walker equations.

  2. Ravages says:

    Historically, too, this has proof. People point to Mojito Daaru as the first known city in the world. Over time, the name morphed to the what we know it now as – Mohenjo Daro.

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