The English poet D.H. Lawrence died nearly 100 years ago. He spent much of his life reflecting on the “dehumanizing effects of modernity and industrialization”. This was before globalization; before the Internet; before the computer; before industrial food; before commercial air travel; and before even the television.
If only he could see us now…
My friend, the brilliant author Jamie Wheal, sent around one of Lawrence’s poems, today. In just 89 words, Lawrence captured what I think has taken me a few hundred thousand more to express, far less eloquently. It is a masterwork of insights:
“When we get out of the glass bottles of our ego,
and when we escape like squirrels turning in the cages of our personality
and get into the forests again,
we shall shiver with cold and fright
but things will happen to us
so that we don’t know ourselves.
Cool, unlying life will rush in,
and passion will make our bodies taut with power,
we shall stamp our feet with new power
and old things will fall down,
we shall laugh, and institutions will curl up like burnt paper.”
After I recovered from reading it, my first thought was, “We’ve been lying to ourselves — about everything.” We are creatures of nature, and yet with every generation we retreat farther from it than the one before us. In fact, we are so far removed from our ancestral environment that we have become quite literally allergic to it — to the sun, plants and animals. The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America reports that 50 million Americans — one out of six citizens — suffer from allergies. We can no longer abide pollens, spores, mites, animal dander, nuts, shellfish, milk, wheat, soy, fish and insect stings, to start the list. Most of us now understand nature from the safety of our screens, or our local park. We ooh and aah at social media posts of unbridled nature—our former homes—from the comfort of our temperature-controlled and nature-free surrogates.
We have mostly forgotten who we are, and where we’re from, and in the absence of this innate knowledge, we have invented fanciful stories about all of it, repeating and embellishing them together, until we finally reached the point at which we firmly believed our own lies.
The prices we have paid are manifold. That we no can no longer survive in the wild is almost beside the point, at this advanced stage. That ship sailed a long time ago. Just a century ago, 50% of Americans were farmers, living with, and by, the seasons. Today, fewer than 1% of us earn a living that way, or grow our own food; and the majority of those work for a handful of agricultural giants. No, we do not know how to make our own food. Nor do we understand the seasons, apart from how it affects our fashion choices. We have forgotten the word ‘polyculture’ — that is, the interaction between critters. Nature is brutally efficient. Nothing in nature goes to waste. One creature’s effluence is another’s food. It is 100% sustainable, insofar as it can thrive in perpetuity, without us. The choreography between healthy natural environments — ecosystems that are under continued assault by humans — is more elegant and complex than any we could have the audacity to dream up, or concoct. This is the basis of polyculture. And yet we have waged an unyielding and comprehensive war on all of it, hammering our ecosystems into right-angled submission, while relentlessly focusing our energies on coaxing ungodly yields from a single, economically advantageous plant or animal, while decimating anything that gets in the way of our revenues.
In the world of science fiction, there is invariably a point at which any given human that has undergone enough prosthetic or bionic transformation is no longer considered human, but rather, something else. Sometimes, they look like Rutger Hauer. At others, like Arnold Schwarzenegger. Well, we have entered the world of science fiction in our most developed nations. Fully half of the world now lives in cities, and it is rising quickly — projected to reach 70% of the globe, by 2050. We would be hard-pressed to look at our biologically inert steel-glass-and-masonry monstrosities, and call them natural. Nature’s cacophonic biological symphony has been replaced by sirens, car horns, the scream of jet engines, air conditioners, and rotting trash. Like pets in cages, we box nature into convenient and mostly symbolic rectangles, within the crushing confines of the architectural cage walls whose shadows blanket them. We smile and congratulate ourselves for our clever use of grass and trees, so that we may relieve our pets and ‘get fresh air’, just as long as we can beat a hasty retreat when we hunger or tire.
For nearly thirty years, I’ve said that if it weren’t for Central Park in New York City, there would be far more violent crime, and mental illness. I never meant it as a joke. Now, the NCBI, ever the source of clear-eyed science, published a 2017 study on the topic of Cities and Mental Health. They report that epidemiological studies have shown that “serious mental illness is generally higher in cities compared to rural areas.” The study goes on to say that social isolation, poverty and discrimination all play a role. Just yesterday, in appraising Human Complexity, I wrote that depression, stress and anxiety — and along with it, rates of suicide — are all skyrocketing, in the face of ever-stranger, ever more isolating social, institutional and governing structures.
As Walt Kelley riffed about the American SNAFU in 60’s Vietnam, “We have met the enemy, and they are us.”
Yale University’s School of the Environment published a report earlier this year about ecopsychology—the health benefits of human immersion in nature. It is a field garnering increasing attention. In the interim between 2005 and 2020, more than 1,000 new studies have investigated the physiological effects of exposure to nature on the brain and body. The article says, “These studies have shown that time in nature — as long as people feel safe — is an antidote for stress: It can lower blood pressure and stress hormone levels, reduce nervous system arousal, enhance immune system function, increase self-esteem, reduce anxiety, and improve mood. Attention Deficit Disorder and aggression lessen in natural environments, which also help speed the rate of healing.”
There are even “forest schools” emerging in the United States. While these have been a tradition in Scandinavia, Washington State has just this year created and licensed outdoor preschools — an American first. Interestingly, the timing couldn’t be better. Report after report discusses the relative virological safety of the outdoors, as compared with the artificial environments with which we have tried to replace it. There are nearly no confirmed instances of COVID-19 infection coming from the outdoors, some four months and millions of victims later. Of course there aren’t. During the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, not only did patients in an open-air hospital fare better than those caught indoors, according to a Medium article by Richard Hobday; but eleven years earlier, as “tuberculosis ravaged American cities”, according to a New York Times article published just yesterday, 65 outdoor classrooms in the United States served as an antidote to the pathogen-laden indoor environments where the virus proliferated.
The outcome? “None of the children got sick.”
The benefits of being outdoors are far-reaching. And yet, we have created an environment in which we now need to debate this — to establish policies and/or protections, often ending in legal battles over our rights to be outdoors, to have access to ample outdoor space in cities, and to prevent corporations from despoiling the chief planetary influence over our own health. When the world went into hiding just months ago, cities across the developing world saw the sky for the first time in memory. The Independent reported that the “terrible irony” of the current crisis was that by curbing pollution, the pandemic has been “a kind of boon” for those suffering from respiratory illnesses, making breathing easier and reducing the use of inhalers.
We can do better than this.
Architects are trying. My own firm — HOK — is one of many who has adopted a mandate to create better architectural and urban environments by using more sustainable materials, lowering the energy use required to run our buildings, incorporating biophilic principles that seek to connect building occupants more closely with nature, and advocate stricter government standards. Leading the brigade in our own firm, Anica Landreneau is honestly one of the most brilliant and tireless human beings I’ve had the pleasure of learning from. She is an unapologetic advocate for acting on the technologies and scientific principles about which we’ve known for a while, as a profession, in the creation of built environments that are carbon neutral (i.e.: free of carbon dioxide emissions), utilize healthy, sustainable materials, and are net zero in operation (i.e.: do not use more energy than they produce, over the lifetime of the building’s operation).
And she can do it without sacrificing the comfort on which we’ve come to depend. In other words, there is no downside, and no need to return to the trees, our loincloths and blow darts.
And yet, architects and policymakers mostly still treat this as an afterthought — something we will ‘get to’, once we solve the ‘real problems’ that our clients hired us to solve. And so, buildings continue to pollute the environment; and more to the point of these thoughts, our own psychological and physical health. We are not alone. Big Agriculture contributes to the despoiling of the Earth almost as much. The ecosystem of bringing beef alone to our tables—the deforestation, livestock rearing, processing and transportation of meat are repsponsible for no less than one third of all greenhouse gas emissions. I did a deep dive into this very topic in October of last year, for those interested.
In my view, our collective behavior is nothing short of criminal.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Lawrence’s poem is so simple, so true, and so eloquently insightful that reading it made me realize that the answer to our problems is actually quite simple:
We cannot fix the world without first fixing ourselves.
Easier said than done. The human psyche is incredibly complex—the result of biological and environmental influences that lie beyond the scope of this article. With that said, Lawrence gives us a starting point. If we reconnect — if we manage to escape our own egos, and the cages of our personalities, even just momentarily—and find our way into the forests “again”, then we may yet awaken “with cold and fright” before regaining our innate power. That potency may well have lain dormant for ages — our whole lives, even — but until we change our biology, it remains there, still and always, to power us, once we know relearn to harness it. If we can do this, and do it well enough, we may be able to redirect that power outward, toward the cities in which we will continue to densify, and the institutions that will continue to govern our ever-complexifying lives, by and large, so that they may, if we are clear-headed in our actions, “curl up like burnt paper.” When they do, like ashes in the forest after a fire, new life may yet grow from them, and prosper.
We have the individual and collective capacity to reform our relationship with the planet, and in the process, to heal ourselves, fully. We have simply been lying to ourselves for too long, about everything, and have forgotten our inner truths.
Time to remember.