Almost none of the problems, challenges, and threats we are facing now are new. All of them have been with us since at least the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and it is only because of the exponential rate of urbanization that they have now begun to feel like an impending tsunami with the potential to overwhelm us. It is in the very nature of exponential expansion that the immediate future comes upon us increasingly more rapidly, potentially presenting us with unforeseen challenges whose threat we recognize only after it's too late. Consequently, it is only relatively recently that we have become conscious of global warming, long-term environmental changes, limitations on energy, water, and other resources, health and pollution issues, stability of financial markets, and so on. And even as we have become concerned, it has been implicitly presumed that these are temporary aberrations that will eventually be solved and disappear. Not surprisingly, most politicians, economists, and policy makers have continued to take a fairly optimistic long-term view that our innovation and ingenuity will triumph, as indeed they have in the past. As will be elaborated on later, I am not so sure.Another way of thinking about this phenomenon is that there is a cognitive phase change in human existence when transitioning from rural to urban. In a low density micro-environment, the norm is direct proportionality and mechanical determinism. If you want twice as much food, you plant twice as much seed, you spend twice as much time hunting. Your impact is so small and marginal that there is a direct and proportional correlation between action and outcome. The number of people with whom you interact is small and the boundaries of the variance in their behavior are constrained.
For almost the entire time span of human existence most human beings have resided in nonurban environments. Just two hundred years ago the United States was predominantly agricultural, with barely 4 percent of the population living in cities, compared with more than 80 percent today. This is typical of almost all developed countries such as France, Australia, and Norway, but it is also true for many that are considered as "developing," such as Argentina, Lebanon, and Libya. Nowadays, no country on the planet comes close to being just 4 percent urban; even Burundi, perhaps the poorest and least developed of all nations, is over 10 percent urbanized. In 2006 the planet crossed a remarkable historical threshold, with more than half of the world's population residing in urban centers, compared with just 15 percent a hundred years ago and still only 30 percent by 1950. It is now expected to rise above 75 percent by 2050, with more than two billion more people moving to cities, mostly in China, India, Southeast Asia, and Africa.
This is an enormous number. It means that, when averaged over the next thirty-five years, about a million and a half people will be urbanized each week. To get an idea of what this implies, consider the following: today is August 22; by October 22 there will be the equivalent of another New York metropolitan area on the planet, and by Christmas another one, and by February 22 yet another, and so on. . . . Inextricably, from now to well into the middle of the century another New York metropolitan area is being added to the planet every couple of months. And note that we are talking of a New York metropolitan area consisting of 15 million people, not just New York City, which has only 8 million.
Perhaps the most astonishing and ambitious urbanization program on the planet is being carried out by China, where the government is on a fast track to build up to three hundred new cities each in excess of a million people over the next twenty to twenty-five years. Historically, China was slow to urbanize and industrialize but is now making up for lost time. In 1950, China was not much more than 10 percent urbanized but will very likely cross the halfway mark this year. At the present rate it will be moving the equivalent of the entire U.S. population (more than 300 million people) to cities in the next twenty to twenty-five years. And not far behind are India and Africa. This will be by far the largest migration of human beings to have ever taken place on the planet and will very likely never be equaled in the future. The resulting challenges to the availability of energy and resources and the enormous stress on the social fabric across the globe are mind-boggling . . . and the timescales to address very short. Everyone will be affected; there is no hiding place.
Moving to a city is not simply a matter of changing your portfolio of knowledge and realigning your quotidian processes. There is a change in cognitive scale. More people with greater variance in their behavior. Proportionality laws decline in effect and are replaced by power laws with log scales. Becoming twice as rich is not a function of spending twice as much time working. Power laws dominate. You get more than twice as rich by doing different things, not the same thing twice as much.
In an urban environment, risk scenarios multiply, time scales elongate, portfolios of skills and knowledge churn and morph, the range of contingencies becomes greater. Urban environments are likely a major evolutionary pressure on cognitive processes.
Because we of the west have been living the experience of increased urbanization for the past two hundred years, I suspect it is easy to overlook just how transformative that process is. Cities are net consumers of people; it culls the population, selecting for cognitive and behavioral traits conducive to the intense complexity of urban environments. No city replaces itself intergenerationally, they always sustain (or grow) their population by bringing in people from the countryside (or from overseas). That implies a major winnowing process. Only a portion of the population is able to accommodate the shift in cognitive and behavioral complexity. Each generation is highly selected.
Clay Shirkey touches on this in his book Cognitive Surplus: How Technology Makes Consumers into Collaborators.
I was recently reminded of some reading I did in college, way back in the last century, by a British historian arguing that the critical technology, for the early phase of the industrial revolution, was gin.Every instance of urbanization is marked by a certain percentage of the population effectively anaesthetizing itself against the stresses attendant to urban complexity, whether by excess consumption of beer, gin, absinthe, opium, laudanum, hash, heroin, cocaine, marijuana, khat, TV, tobacco, etc. And contra Shirkey, it is not for just a single generation. The stress of urban complexity is constant and each generation loses a portion of its cohort to that stress, shielding themselves through sedatives of one sort or another.
The transformation from rural to urban life was so sudden, and so wrenching, that the only thing society could do to manage was to drink itself into a stupor for a generation. The stories from that era are amazing—there were gin pushcarts working their way through the streets of London.
I suspect that urbanization is not the only selection mechanism in play. Urbanization has always been covalent with the market economy and that the rise and prevalence of the market economy also selects for cognitive nimbleness and behavioral adaptability.
I would argue that the rising tide of urbanization in tandem with the rising prevalence of the market economy has been a massive jolt in terms of evolutionary selection. Both drive scale (volume and density) as well as complexity.
Scale reveals the prevalence of power laws and complexity selects for cognitive capacity and behavioral adaptability.
That would explain why there are no examples of developed nations being able to reduce economic inequality. The most productive and innovative nations are all highly urbanized, all are market economies and all are characterized by complexity. It is almost tautological: scale and complexity manifest the underlying power laws and power laws are by their nature unequal. Think of one of the most common concepts of modern societies and economies - the Pareto Distribution. 20% of X is responsible for 80% of Y. 20% of you customers generate 80% of your profit. 20% of criminals generate 80% of the crimes. 20% of the population account for 80% of the wealth.
The implication is that if your goal is to reduce inequality, go back to small scale living in the countryside. Put like that, it sounds very Khmer Rouge, pursuing a socialist agrarian republic at the cost of the lives of some 20-40% of the population.
But West's observations are striking. We are undergoing a sea change in population distribution. We are urbanizing. With urbanization comes density and complexity. With density and complexity, power laws become more apparent and determinative of outcomes. The greater the prevalence of power laws, the greater the selection pressure for cognitive nimbleness and behavioral adaptability.
UPDATE: An early example of urbanized complexity induced stress.
Work-related stress from 2000 years ago: a clerk asks the god Sarapis, 'Oh greatest of the gods, will there be an inspection from my manager?'— Medieval Manuscripts (@BLMedieval) March 7, 2018
See more on ancient papyrus fragments at https://t.co/zSzBMiJeOr pic.twitter.com/PuUMLRje35