By Bob Norton

An online publication called theintercept.com bills itself as “dedicated to producing fearless, adversarial journalism.” That leaves me puzzled as to why The Intercept seems to be making fun of a video about the challenges posed by the world’s megacities, which by definition are cities that are home to more than 10 million people. I don’t see much to laugh about.

The five-minute video, obtained via the Freedom of Information Act, has been used at the Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations University (JSOU). Here is how The Intercept describes the stark, disturbing video: “…the future of global cities will be an amalgam of the settings of ‘Escape from New York’ and ‘Robocop’ — with dashes of the ‘Warriors’ and ‘Divergent’ thrown in. It will be a world of Robert Kaplan-esque urban hellscapes — brutal and anarchic supercities filled with gangs of youth-gone-wild, a restive underclass, criminal syndicates, and bands of malicious hackers.”

“This is the world of our future,” warns the narrator of the megacities video. “It is one we are not prepared to effectively operate within and it is unavoidable. The threat is clear. Our direction remains to be defined. The future is urban.”

That does sound pretty serious to me, yet the video is dismissed as “hyperbolic” and “apocalyptic.” Consider these facts, offered in the video but not mentioned in theintercept.com article:

  • By 2030, the world’s urban areas will increase in population by 1.4 billion, almost all in the developing world
  • These megacities will contain 60 percent of population and produce 70 percent of GDP
  • Some 60 percent of these urban dwellers will be under 18

The video uses photos from existing megacities around the world, and they’re not pretty. These are not the kind of cities we are used to visiting in the United States, with reasonably reliable infrastructure, law enforcement, and services. These are cities with substandard infrastructure, makeshift power grids, often corrupt or nonexistent governance, and few social services to help the less fortunate, who are often preyed upon.

So why should the Pentagon care about megacities? As the video explains, they are the future breeding ground for “adversaries” such as the young men and women who have been drawn to ISIS. They are manmade labyrinths where the bad guys mingle and lose themselves in the larger population. We could leave them alone, but what if they breed terrorists who threaten our own wellbeing in this country?

That’s why the Pentagon is concerned, and trying to learn and understand. As the video’s narrator notes, conventional military wisdom doesn’t address the problems posed by these cities, which are orders of magnitude larger than the cities of the past. They are too large and complex to cordon off, which is how hostile cities were once handled.

“We are facing environments that the masters of war never foresaw,” the narrator says. And that’s why it matters.

Dr. Robert Norton can be reached at nortora@auburn.edu or by calling (334) 844-7562.