The Enclosed Habitat of Modern Man

© Andy Singer

Chris Coleman takes a biological point of view at the favourite habitat of the Homo Sapiens in the Post-Industrial Age.

Each species has its preferred habitat: tigers favouring plains full of grazing prey, or sloth a rich, broad-leaf forest canopy. We humans are no exception. However, we are – along with the rat – the most versatile animal going on earth, meaning that we can settle in all but the most extreme conditions. Though we may be capable of thriving in the Arctic tundra or thickest jungle, we have chosen (or the mechanisms of industrial capitalism) to settle in the cozy confines of the city.

Not unlike the bear lured in by easy food from waste bins in mountain towns, we couldn’t resist the temptations of gas heating coming to our home at the turn of a knob, or food provided in exchange for minted coins and paper notes. We have chosen the path of convenience first, creating a living environment of sterile, lifeless, climate-controlled what I’ll call “insulated boxes” (rooms) and transforming more and more wild nature into monocultural land and industrial parks.

Our Post-Industrial/Information Age has decidedly embraced these insulated boxes as home: work is done inside in front of computers and desks; purchasing our daily wares is done under ultra-bright lighting in shopping centres; and transport moves from point A to B in cars and buses. Every activity possible – even sports – seeks a controlled, air-conditioned cubed box bereft of all but human life. This is the very opposite of the spontaneity, and cooperation between a diverse range of species found in nature. The closest most city-dwellers come to nature is the park where grass, a few trees and bushes provide habitat for only squirrels, stray dogs and the occasional homeless man.

The city is clearly coiling in on its grey, concrete self, leaving the modern man sadly unaware of the miracles of the unfolding seasons. In the US, for example, the Spring’s dandelion is perceived as an obnoxious weed, not a wonderful herb used in salads, syrups and teas. Also, the city dweller is only dimly aware of the phases of the moon as the brightness of ubiquitous street lights even overpowers the magical glow of the full moon. Is it any wonder that the average citizen does little to stop the destruction of our natural forests, meadows and traditional farms when nature is so distant from their daily lives?

Sensing guilt and emptiness due to our separation from nature’s bountiful joys in the rigid grey-black cityscape, modern man over the 20th Century sought a compromise in the suburb. But poor planning led to unforeseen consequences: as the urban nucleus spread out, so did the city’s cultural and municipal services, to the point that the foundations of civic engagement such as the theatre, town hall and local pub became further apart and less accessible. Furthermore, public transport became less and less viable as urban density decreased dramatically during this exodus to the outskirts. Coinciding with the fall of the tram and train was the rise of the car, which soon clogged our streets. Where children once played ball games and neighbours shared stories is now under the reign of the car. Even children are stuck in these insulated boxes.

The habitat we’re creating for ourselves now seems to be in profound denial of what has been usual through the history of the Homo Sapiens: a sustainable interaction with nature. A mere 200 years ago, 97% of world population worked in a rural setting. Compare that with current figures where an average of 3% of citizens in developed nations work on farms (most of which are highly industrialised). Our habitat is simply not “natural” in both meanings of the word. Could this explain the alarming rate of depression  as seen in the U.S. where 30% are or have been diagnosed as depressed, not to mention the decline of ethics that define our era? There is not room in this article to analyse the solutions available, but the fact is clear that we aren’t satisfied, fulfilled humans in this artificial environment.  Its time we evolved our city into a more natural form where are parks are more wild, and transportation more self-propelled, and make the biologically rich small farmsteads of our villages economically viable again.

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2 Responses

  1. Are you insane?

    If people didn’t live in large dense settlements, not only would we all live with a drastically lower standard of living, but what little remaining “nature” there is would be plowed under as people spread out even further so that they might be in touch with it.

    Your anti-urban rhetoric is the type of thing that has driven suburbanization and the wholesale destruction of the natural and social environment.

    Quit romanticizing poverty and the village life of the past. People of that time lived shorter, dirtier lives. The cities and technologies that you seem to disdain are what have allowed you to publish this article. Without them, you would likely not have the time, the education, the inclination, and certainly not the ability to reach a likeminded audience.

  2. I don’t see any biological aspect in this article at all. While I agree with the conclusions at the end ( the need for: more wild parks, more conservation of nature, more efficient transportation ), I think the logic that gets there is extremely shaky, and not at all convincing – which doesn’t really help with the goal. For example, some of the things I objected to in this article are below.

    Our habitat is simply not “natural” in both meanings of the word.

    Our habitat is as natural as a beaver dam. All living things leave their mark on their environment – this is what it means for a genotype to have phenotypic effects. There couldn’t be anything more natural or more dangerous than many of the microbial diseases that plague humans and other animals. Getting back to the point, we’ve carved out a niche, like most species have, and we’re exploiting it for our survival, which is a completely natural ( if not always sustainable ) thing to do.

    The habitat we’re creating for ourselves now seems to be in profound denial of what has been usual through the history of the Homo Sapiens: a sustainable interaction with nature.

    While a handful of human cultures have managed to eek out sustainable lives ( Tikopia island, for example ), most of the story of human kind has been the reverse. The Maya, Anasazi, Norse Greenland, and Easter Island societies appear to have collapsed because of deforestation – all of these around 1200 to 1400 CE. The Middle East used to be known as the “Fertile Crescent” and has suffered desertification at the hands of humans who discovered domestication.

    It’s easy, and seductive, to fall into the trap of thinking the world was a utopia until just recently, and that it’s suddenly falling by the wayside. People have been saying that since recorded history began – and if they were right, we would have destroyed ourselves a long time ago. That doesn’t mean there’s no room for improvement in the world … but we haven’t lost a close bond with nature in the past 50 years, that’s for sure.

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