The security of cities: ecology and conflict on an urbanizing planet

A new report issued jointly by the Atlantic Council and the Stimson Center, The Security of Cities: Ecology and Conflict on an Urbanizing Planet, argues that the environmental security field has yet to incorporate global urbanization, the twenty-first century’s central demographic trend, fully into its purview.

Environmental security, which focuses mainly on conflict arising from resource scarcity, control over natural resources, and environmental degradation, historically has focused much attention on the rural poor in the developing world. Yet the rural poor are neither the primary cause of rising global demand for natural resources nor of environmental degradation. The culprits are people who live in cities. The collective behavior of billions of urbanites is the main reason why fossil fuels are mined from the ground, coastal mangroves are turned into fish farms, and the Earth’s atmosphere is changing.

Report author Peter Engelke, senior fellow of the Atlantic Council’s Strategic Foresight Initiative and former visiting fellow of the Stimson Center’s Environmental Security Program, contends that because the environmental security field historically has treated cities as little more than an afterthought, their significance has been both poorly understood and badly transmitted to policymakers. The report’s central conclusion is that overcoming the twenty-first century’s sustainability challenges will require placing cities at the center rather than the periphery of both our understanding and our policymaking. Only by doing so can we avoid the worst-case security implications of global ecosystem decline. 

“Given the swift pace and enormous scale of urbanization, cities must become an increasingly important part of the foreign and security policy discussion,” writes Engelke. “Urbanization intersects with multiple issues within the environmental security arena, including food security, energy security, climate change, fresh water use, public health and disease, and natural disaster planning and relief. It also intersects with more traditional foreign and security issues.”

Related Experts: Peter Engelke

Image: Traffic in Hanoi, Vietnam. Image credit: UN, Kibae Park, Flickr, CC License