Is the human race destined to expand to point where it becomes impossible to sustain ourselves? The fear of unsustainable growth is often voiced by environmentalists like Naomi Klein and David Attenborough, but it isn’t new. In 1798, Thomas Malthus wrote that “the increase of population is necessarily limited by the means of subsistence”. He went on to predict that growth would inevitably end in famine because “the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man”. (Malthus was derided for his pessimism and was eventually immortalised as the inspiration for Ebenezer Scrooge.) At the time Malthus was writing, the population of the whole world was less than a billion. In the 200 years since Malthus published his infamous essay, the population of the world has grown to 7 billion. So why haven’t we witnessed a Malthusian crisis?
Geoffrey West, a physicist, thinks he knows why. West has written a bookcalled “Scale: The Universal Laws of Life and Death in Organisms, Cities and Companies”, presenting a universal theory of scale, which seems to have consequences for almost everything in the universe. In the new episode of Babbage, West was interviewed by his biggest fan, Kenneth Cukier. The interview starts at the 7:20 mark:
The human race, West says, has been saved by innovation and innovation thrives in cities. Unlike countries, companies and humans, cities seem to be immortal. In the last century cities have been de-industrialised, starved and some have even been attacked with nuclear bombs. And yet they always seem to survive. Ten years ago humanity passed the point by which those who lived in cities outnumbered those who didn’t. Every day a million more people move into cities, and this shouldn’t worry us.
West reckons that when the population of a city doubles, wages, patents and businesses increase by more than 50% because when humans work together they can produce more than the sum of their parts. When we get together, we tend to share information faster to figure out new ways to make our economy more efficient, which in turn allows us to accommodate more growth. If so, does that mean that the prosperity of cities can rise indefinitely?
According to West, if the innovation slows down the cities will be quickly be overwhelmed by their growing environmental and demographic burdens. Some would argue that western cities have already outsourced many of the unsustainable elements of their existence to industrialised developing economies while contributing to climate change, which disproportionately affects many of the world’s poorest people. Meanwhile, the popularity of Brexit and Donald Trump could be hinting that geographic concentrations of innovation often monopolise talent and opportunity leading to deprivation in the towns and regions that are left behind. Perhaps this is why West told us that the next cycle of innovation will have to be social, as well as technological.
So is perpetual urban growth really sustainable? If you’re reading this, you’re probably already living and working in a city. If you are, what are you doing there? Does your city seem as if it could get better forever? And what kind of social innovation will we need if we continue to grow at pace?
Nicholas Barrett is a social media writer at The Economist.
Source by: economist.com