Thursday, January 10, 2013

The new normal not so normal

I was intrigued to see a book called Nature Wars by Jim Sterba on the latest top book list, and read a review of it on the Wall Street Journal website. It got me thinking...

Perhaps it’s cliche to ask what an alien would think if they visited our planet, but I don’t think we need to cross over into fiction. Someone from a few hundred years back would be equally shocked at some of the things they’d discover, and the prognosis might not be so good. Once they got over the technological awe, I think they’d be severely disappointed, because there are a lot of bizarre things about us, and a lot that’s perverse. The way I see it, perversity has become a depressingly regular feature of modern life, so much so that we can't even recognize it or readily accept it. We lead lives which we've come to accept as normal but they're anything but. Just look at our relationship with nature, which has gotten about as far from symbiosis as imaginable. Some people happily admit they have an aversion to or avoid the "outdoors." That's alarming. When humans have thousands of car collisions with deer every day, do we ever consider that maybe there's something fundamentally wrong with ubiquitous car use, that driving along in these huge metal boxes at high speeds is an unnatural activity for our species, contrary to our biology? Do we feel remorse for killing these beautiful, innocent living creatures? Do we ever reconsider our stance on eliminating deers' natural predators? No, we automatically choose the lazy route: create even more destruction and kill the deer. That or we build giant ugly barriers, further isolating ourselves from nature. Solutions like these only try to solve the problem at the effect, but do nothing to address the cause. In this case the cause is the fundamental perversity of relying on cars so regularly on a daily basis.

Another example: does the fact that birds pose a threat to airplanes ever suggest to anyone that perhaps mechanical flying is an inherently freakish thing to do? No, we just kill the birds. Killing living creatures seems to be our go-to action anytime our comfort and convenience is threatened. Every life is invaluable, yet we systematically engage in activities which put our own and our fellow creatures’ lives in danger. Is there anything in our biological evolution to suggest that flying is a normal thing to do for humans? No. We've also allowed ourselves to be boxed in to sedentary lifestyles, sitting on chairs in an office all day, and then go to gym and workout intensively for an hour. We've come to accept this as normal, but it’s not. Our lives should be designed around regular exercise, but instead it’s been relegated to an optional extra. I don’t think I need to state obvious perversity like war. The fact that it’s so accepted in this day and age is crazy.

Main Street, Springfield, MA 1908
That humans believe themselves so superior and almost godlike in their domination of Earth is perhaps inevitable but neither helpful or healthy for the future of our relationship with the nature that we share our planet with. Deep down I don't think anyone can feel comfortable with these feelings of superiority, but many let themselves get blindsided. It's utterly anti-nature, and thus anti-human. Modernism may have tried hard to separate us from nature, but we belong to it just as much as any other creature. We’re not from outer space. This planet is, always has been, and always will be our natural habitat. There’s no getting around this fundamental truth. Let us never forget that we too are creatures of the Earth, and as the dominate (and supposedly intelligent and compassionate) species, only we can feel responsible for all others. We need to do everything possible, as quickly as possible, to reconnect with nature and stop feeling like strangers on our own planet.

We exhibit similarly contradictory actions in our designs of cities. We've let ourselves design our lives around giant moving machines, cars. Many of us have almost completely abandoned the most basic human actions like walking. In many American cities one doesn't even have a choice anymore: it’s drive or give up the option to shop, socialize, and go to school. Generally in these cities one cannot lead a “normal” life without a car. You could argue they could move to one of the handful of pockets where this isn't the case, but that’s not always so easy. Not everyone belongs to the mobile creative class, can find a job wherever they like, or has the financial resources to move. Many people don’t want to pull their kids out of a school, or leave behind their friends and family. Walkable cities are the only effective way to encourage people out of their secluded homes and foster a sense of community again. 

But if we want walkable cities to be available to all, there’s no choice except to localize walkability, to offer the option in every town in the country. As I say so often, it’s really no different than returning to the development patterns that existed before the car, back when we still designed primarily for pedestrians. That means downtowns, main streets, and inner-city shopping and workplaces. Crazy? No, the only sane thing to do. Our lives should be designed around what’s best for us as humans, not what’s best for corporate interests or because “that’s just the way it is.” Nothing that is, came about by accident. Everything is a reflection of manmade choices. And only manmade choices can forge a new path towards a newer, healthier new normal.