October 10, 2012

Urbanization, the Environment and Biosecurity

Over the summer, Nancy Brune and I contributed to the National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends 2030 blog, a forum to discuss a range of issues ahead of the NIC’s forthcoming Global Trends 2030 study, to be released after the presidential election this fall.

What is interesting about the NIC’s study is that it focuses on emerging trends and their implications for the security and geopolitical environments. But rather than explore these trends in isolation of each other, the NIC examines different scenarios, and how trends engage one another. Urbanization and climate change are among the trends that the NIC has looked at closely. In separate posts, Nancy and I both examined the security implications of urbanization and climate change for the NIC’s blog. 

Urbanization – the shift of populations from rural to urban communities – presents challenges and opportunities for policymakers in developed and developing countries. As I wrote in July:

On the one hand, urban cities have the potential to serve as engines of change, driving economic growth in some of the world’s least developed countries and pulling more people out of poverty than at any other time in history. On the other hand, climate change could undercut all of this by exacerbating resource scarcity and putting vulnerable communities at risk from sea level rise and more frequent and intense storms

But of course, climate change is not the only other trend that touches urbanization. A range of trends, such as globalization and emerging diseases, combine with urbanization to present dilemmas for policymakers. 

Last week, Yale Environment 360 published a piece that explored the challenges that could manifest from urbanization, globalization and emerging diseases coming together in novel ways. See: “The Next Pandemic: Why It Will Come from Wildlife.”

These trends are not necessarily interesting by themselves. But taken together they have the potential to transform public health concerns into national security ones. Take the example of the report from Yale Environment 360. Simply put, it is the idea that urbanization in developing countries leads to encroachment on natural wildlife habitats and can put humans in contact with diseases that we have never encountered before (e.g., Ebola in humans started this way). And that globalization (air travel) can spread these novel diseases across the globe in a matter of hours (think SARS).  

According to the author, David Quammen:

Our population now stands above seven billion, after all, a vast multitude of  victims, many of us living at close quarters in big cities, traveling quickly and often from place to place, sharing infections with one another; and there are dangerous new viruses lately emerging against which we haven’t been immunized. Another major pandemic seems as logically inevitable as the prospect that a very dry, very thick forest will eventually burn. That raises serious issues in the realm of health policy, preparedness, and medical response.

The U.S. government spends a lot of time and money on countering threats from humans using biology for malicious intent (e.g., bioterrorists). And perhaps justifiably so. Yet it may turn out that the greatest bio-challenge the country could face will come from this trifecta of trends: naturally occurring diseases, urbanization and globalization.

The bottom line: trends can’t just be viewed in isolation of each other. Like our exercise in exploring climate change and urbanization together, it is useful to examine how other trends engage with each other and the challenges and opportunities that could manifest from their interaction. Doing so will enable analysts and policymakers alike to imagine even the remote but plausible scenarios and plan accordingly. 

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