After spending thousands of years living mostly in small settlements, humans have entered an urban stage of evolution. That concentration of people gives rise to some of the world's greatest problems, such as air and water pollution, poverty-stricken slums and epidemics of violence and illness. In poor countries, images of attractive, well-dressed urban people whose main job appears to be enjoyment and adventure create immediate dissatisfaction with rural life. The happy and adapted poor become the dissatisfied and disenfranchised who abandon traditional ways of life for city jobs that are often transient, demeaning and fail to deliver the wealth necessary to achieve the glamorous movie-magazine lifestyle. Humans continue to have basic needs – shelter, water, food, safety and sexual privileges.
In less than a human lifespan, the face of Earth has been transformed. In 1950, only 29% of people lived in cities. Today that figure is 50.5% and is expected to reach 70% by 2050. At the end of the 20th century, humans lived in enlarging cities with populations in the millions; their carbon dioxide emissions are greater than the capacity of all the world’s forests to process the gas. Cities consumed two-thirds of the total energy used and emitted more than 70% of the energy-related carbon dioxide emissions. City states are depleting these resources at an alarming rate – fish stocks are depleted; soils are depleted, washed or blown away; fresh water supplies are marginal, depleted or contaminated; the air is polluted and ozone depletion combined with global warming from increased greenhouse gases threatens progressive and erratic climate changes. Climate changes threaten agriculture, as we know it.
William Rees, an economist at the University of British Columbia takes and ecological approach to economics. He is concerned that cities are growing too large to be sustainable. Cities are centers of consumption and depend on the surrounding environment to supply energy, food and to accept and disperse waste. Rees has measured the ecological footprint of cities and his results are not encouraging. One city person requires at least five square hectares of high-quality land to support him or her. The 500,000 people living in the city of Vancouver on 11,400 hectares of land actually require the output of 2.3 million hectares of land. The real capital is not money but air, water, food and other resources.
Some scientists have imagined major disruptions of city-states with civil disobedience and armed conflicts arising from the competition for scarce resources. Cities attract impoverished people seeking employment and broadcast economic inequality without an easy solution. Poverty is concentrated in city slums, informal settlement, with substandard housing and squalor. Slums lack sanitation, clean water, electricity, fire control, hospitals and schools. Law enforcement is minimal and often corrupt. Crime flourishes. According to UN-Habitat, around 33% of the urban population in the developing world in lived in slums; the highest concentrations existing in cites in Sub-Saharan Africa (61.7%), South Asia (35%), Southeast Asia (31%), East Asia (28.2%), West Asia (24.6%), Oceania (24.1%), Latin America and the Caribbean (23.5%), and North Africa (13.3%). Among individual countries, the proportion of urban residents living in slum areas in 2009 was highest in the Central African Republic (95.9%). Between 1990 and 2010 the percentage of people living in slums dropped, even as the total urban population increased. The world's largest slum city is in Mexico City.
The latest findings of The Economist Intelligence Unit's Global Livability Ranking of 140 cities (2016) show that livability has deteriorated in 29 of the 140 cities (20 per cent) surveyed over the last 12 months. Melbourne in Australia remains the most livable of the 140 cities surveyed, very closely followed by the Austrian capital, Vienna by 0.1 percentage points. Canada’s Vancouver and Toronto are just 0.2 and 0.3 percentage points below respectively. Another Canadian city, Calgary, shares joint fifth place with Adelaide in Australia. In 2016 increasing instability across the world caused volatility in the scores of many cities. Sydney, for example, has fallen by four places owing to a heightened perceived threat of terrorism. This has allowed Hamburg in Germany to move up to tenth place, although other German cities, such as Frankfurt and Berlin, have experienced declines in stability. Over the past six months 16 cities of the 140 surveyed have experienced changes in scores. This rises to 35 cities, or 25% of the total number surveyed, when looking at changes over the past year. Of these changes, the majority have been negative (29 in the past 12 months), reflecting deteriorating stability as cities around the world face heightened threats of terrorism or unrest. Violent acts of terrorism have been reported in many countries, including Turkey, Australia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, France, Belgium and the US. The frequency and spread of terrorist attacks have become even more prominent in the past year. Terrorism has also been compounded by unrest and, in more extreme cases, civil war in some countries. Libya, Syria, Iraq and Ukraine remain the subject of high-profile armed conflicts, while a number of other countries, such as Nigeria, continue to battle insurgent groups. Meanwhile even relatively stable countries such as the US have seen mounting civil unrest linked to the Black Lives Matter movement, which has scrutinized the large number of deaths of black people while in police custody.
Beyond the growing problems within countries, the world has also seen increased diplomatic tensions between countries, weighing on stability. Russia’s posturing in Ukraine and the Middle East has been well reported, but China has also been diplomatically more aggressive in the South China Sea, and tensions remain between India and Pakistan over the disputed Kashmir region. The US, always paranoid and convinced they must control the world to remains safe, is committed to military aggressions in other countries and renewing their nuclear weapons. As a result, it is not surprising that declining stability scores have been felt around the world.