See no evil, hear no evil, smell no evil

Letting your inner animal out

22 August 2018

The more I talk to people about the integration of buildings and humans, the clearer it becomes to me that we have moved dangerously beyond our original design remit.  For anyone who has heard me speak on this, you will already know that I usually open with a slide showing a Neanderthal family preparing their shelters and food on an open fire.  This is a reminder of the stark reality: we did not evolve in the environment in which we now live. 

This inherent tension is apparent – increasingly so for me – in every part of our lives.

Food – the philosophies continue to rage about whether a raw diet is better for us than carbohydrate, or gluten-free.  What is clear, whilst this battle continues – is that modern food, and how we have come to consume it, is not good for us.  Too much fat, salt, sugar, gluten, preservatives, hormones, and too much of all this in general.  The post-war desperation to ensure we never went hungry again (finish all the food on your plate my child, there are starving children in the world) has resulted in half the planet heading for chronic obesity, in countries where the wasted food tonnes alone could feed the rest of the world who are currently malnourished.

People – my glasses are not so rose-tinted as to believe that in the ‘good old days’ before screens, all families spent happy hours discussing their days and world peace around an idyllic dining table.  However, there is no doubt that watching my child fight the screen-zombie addiction reminds me of my own days spent with a head buried in a book, to the exclusion of all else.  But things have gone beyond this childish escapism into a far more worrying arena.  We count ‘screen zombies’ on the walk to school, and roughly 3 of every 5 people has their head buried in a screen of some kind whilst walking along – and often across – the road.  What does it mean that people are unable to wait until they reach the office, never mind the dangers of walking into things/people/cars/bikes which I see on a daily basis?  It seems that the incessant connection with the screen comes at a cost to our connection with humanity.  It is estimated that over 50% of Londoners are depressed, and record numbers taking anti-depressants.  Oh I could go on, and on.

Source and origin – industrialization has brought us a wealth of technology and advances, almost all of them to our benefit.  However, we seem to have a history of advancing without watching out for the unintended consequences.  Asbestos comes to mind.  But what is the next realisation?  I fear it is already here: the impact of air pollution on our children’s development, the effect of hormones in our food on our own fertility  and don’t get me started on all the chemicals used in our furniture, curtains and carpets. I am working on a number of projects aimed at embedding circular economic principles within the supply chain and it strikes me that precisely those modern material benefits – preservation, durability, consistency -  alter the fundamental characteristics of the original material without our being able to see it.  Is it really right that bread can last a week or more in the fridge?  Or a table have an indestructible, immaculately smooth surface?

See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil

In pre-industrial times, we had to rely on our senses and experience to protect us from the dangers around us.  There is a very good, evolutionary reason why the smell of old milk makes us retch, and the slithering noise of snakes makes us run.  We do not, however, have any warning signs when it comes to modern air quality, invisible chemical dangers or wood varnish. 

To mitigate these modern threats, we are going to need a new set of sensors.  Some of them technological, for sure – air quality monitors, for example.  But the rest will have to rely on our experience and enhanced frontal lobes – the ability to question.  To pick up the back of the packet and find out what is in the substance in the first place.  To ask, and ask again, where does it come from and what is in it.  To circumvent the ‘oh it’s perfectly safe’ from the vendor, and do our own research into how we consciously want to live our lives.

And not forgetting, to put our screens down, go and find our tribe, and spend some time with them.