Quality of life will rise as more people flock to cities

Urban capitalist growth will improve life expectancy, literacy, and well-being during the 21st century.

Andy Nelson / Staff / File
The New York City skyline is shown in this file photo. As more people choose to live in cities and surrounding suburbs, will their quality of life improve?

Will our quality of life continue to improve? Will life expectancy, literacy and overall well being increase for more and more people over the course of the 21st century? My optimism for why I believe the answer is "yes" is due to urban capitalist growth. As more and more people choose to live their lives in cities and their surrounding suburbs, the trading networks and interactions that people take for granted in New York City will become common place throughout the world.

I have been very happy to see that Ed Glaeser's Triumph of the City has soared on the Amazon Book ratings. At its heart, this book is a celebration of how cities foster specialization, learning and achieving one's goals. These achievements help us to adapt to climate change.

My optimism about our future in the face of climate change is that it will be an urban future. As urbanites, we will be able to build our cities in ways (and in places) to protect ourselves from anticipated, evolving risks posed by climate change. Different cities, depending on their geography, will face different threats. Cities will differ with respect to their institutions and leaders but those cities that fail to protect their populace will suffer out migration and this competition between cities will discipline the bad performers. In this sense, the exit option associated with "voting with your feet" helps to protect the urban populace. While you don't have to move to Fargo, I have argued that such options exist for you. Around the world, urbanites will have access to a host of adaptation possibilities. Innovation will further flesh out this choice set.

Now what will future urbanites eat? You can see an interesting discussion here. While I am not an agriculture expert, there are many adaptation margins that the world's farmers can move along. We can grow crops in new places, we can change our input mix, and farmers can learn from farmers around the world who have been forced to deal with extreme temperature events. A key point in my adaptation work is to argue that we can anticipate today that we will face this future challenge. If you give capitalism a 30 year head start, are you going to bet against it? The best ideas from the farming sector as it anticipates profit opportunities will all fail?

Suppose that all of these innovative efforts do fail. As climate change unfolds and adaptation efforts do not deliver on their promise then world agricultural prices will rise, and the real purchasing power of the urban poor declines sharply. So, then the discussion becomes a social justice "Rawlsian" issue of how to help the urban poor. As I argue in my Climatopolis book, urbanization will contribute to slowing the world's population growth. If world population growth does slow, what implications does this have for the "food crisis"? So, we have both supply side adaptation factors and perhaps a slowdown in aggregate demand growth.

This paper provides some slightly out-dated information on the budget shares for food differs across poor, middle income and rich nations. Climate change creates an imperative for economic growth to be accelerated. With more income, individuals and nations will have access to a greater set of adaptation strategies and armed with such choices I become more optimistic about our collective future quality of life.

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