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 of the daily life of ordinary villagers. Pursuing that goal he has discovered that rural life has resisted the influence of most ideologies, including communism, but not of modernization, which has proved irresistible.
To make his case, Critchfield writes from 10 countries where he spent extended periods observing and reporting on - occasionally in overly great detail - the lives of people affected by the bridging of the rural-urban gap.
Two long sketches set in India and the Polish-Russian borderlands carry much of the story. In the Indian Punjab, he describes how the breakdown of the jajmani, or labor-for-grain system that has long defined relations between landlords and laborer, now threatens the sense of identity that has come from being part of a distinct occupational community.
From other countries around the world ranging from South Korea to Mexico, he adds new twists to the story. In upper Egypt, for example, he notes the combination of factors that have radicalized Islam: rapid population growth, which has made it nearly impossible for the younger generation to duplicate the lifestyles of their parents; and urban values, which have been propagated by television.
INDEED, much of Critchfield's engaging study revolves around the centrality of stable rural lifestyles to religious faith. As journalist Walter Lippman once put it: ``The deep and abiding traditions of religion belong to the countryside.'' Case in point: Christ Jesus, a ``peasant villager,'' Critchfield notes with approbation, whose ``many metaphors and analogies are drawn from agriculture and village life.''
``Is something being lost?'' he asks about the erosion of rural life. ``The Villagers'' is an engaging, affirmative, 500-page answer to that question.
What ruralness brought to civilization was a reverence for ancestral ways, a brake on individual self-seeking, a sense of community, a ``sober and earthy ethic.'' All of these have been brushed aside in the vast urban growth that, between 1990 and 1995 alone, according the United Nations, will produce the equivalent of 18 cities the size of New York.
The larger question is whether it is even possible to substitute for a rural base, to which Critchfield replies, in effect, ``it's not clear.''
``Our lives are becoming a jarring uproar of ten thousand noises, and amidst these noises, what do we have for the inner ethical guidance religion once supplied?'' he asks.
The answer to that particular question, which may not be apparent for decades, must await the researches of an historian as diligent in urban studies as Critchfield has been in matters rural.