Somewhere in the region of 10,000 years ago, some people abandoned the nomadic life style humans had been living for hundreds of thousands of years and began to build cities. They became immensely powerful centers of trade and innovation, but the vast majority of people continued to live as nomads. Gradually, though, more and more people spent the whole of their lives in a single place, living from the fruits of the fields they planted and the animals that they had domesticated.
But still, although people lived in what we might call settlements, villages and small towns, most people did not live in what we would call cities. As late even as 1800, no more than 3% of the entire human population lived in all the world’s cities combined.
Within the last 200 years, that percentage has increased to over 50%. This represents as radical a change in our life styles as the change from a nomadic to a settled life beginning ten thousand years ago. And it’s taken place much more rapidly. Economists, demographers, environmentalists, politicians, business people, and social scientists have not yet fully taken on board the breadth and meaning of this change. It changes our food production and distribution needs, our energy patterns, our communication and transportation uses, our housing and our politics. It makes us more vulnerable to the rapid spread of disease and the attacks of terrorism. But it also multiplies the opportunities for creativity and cooperation.
We are thinking a lot about the present and potential effects of climate change today, and rightly so. But I suspect it’s hard to underestimate the effects that the vast proliferation of urban life is going to have on our life styles as well.