One thing I believe to be fundamental about human life is that it is out of sync, both on an individual scale, as well as on a larger scale, with its environment. The environments in question can be social, biological, or natural (as in our environmental surroundings such as the natural world or the house we live in). One of our most pertinent endeavours is our attempt to resettle the balance we hold with our environments; I would go as far as to say that it is a crucial aspect of being a sentient lifeform. When I think of our place in the world, I often think of the film Koyaanisqatsi. In the most beautiful, yet also visceral manner, it sums up just how stark the contrast between the thinking minds of humanity and the impartiality of nature.
If I open up the current publication of New Scientist (3153), I see various examples of this. Light pollution is a stark example. The use of artificial lighting has spread by 9% over the world in the last four years (p.6). Humanity, plants, animals, insects have all adapted to dark areas and periods over billions of years, and our bodies have grown to adapt to this natural cycle over the course of our evolution. “The light distrusts natural day-night cycles, harming our health”.
This year, Michael Rosbash received the Nobel prize for his work in studying the biological clock and circadian rhythms.
The beauty of the body’s clock is that it allows an organism to anticipate the rising and setting of the sun, rather than simply reacting to it. There is no single body clock that bangs out the hour. Instead, molecular timepieces are dotted through the different cell types, like watches in a jeweller’s, where they control great swaths of physiology from sleep patterns and body temperature to blood pressure, metabolism and the release of hormones. -Ian Semple (CLICK HERE FOR FULL ARTICLE)
He discovered that cells can actually set the time by the light that they receive. This has serious consequences. The WHO even declared that working night shifts was carcinogenic because of the serious impact that making the circadian unbalanced could have. (READ MORE HERE)
What we have done is create a world of culture which sits out of balance with the world on its natural level. For our entire existence, we, and our body clocks, have worked alongside nature. Now we are working against it, and it is making us physically and mentally ill.
Natural evolution has made some species adjust more quickly. Orb weaver spiders have been found to have body clocks which have shifted five hours (p. 20). Scientists found that the spiders could adjust to a new circadian rhythm in just 24 hours. The advantages of this are that they can work to catch their prey in the morning, which is far more efficient, and has higher yields of food for them.
Seeing that other creatures, not just humans, create patterns of behaviour which make them live outside of their natural rhythms makes us realise that it is natural to work against our nature. It is hard to see whether humans will ever adjust in the same way as other creatures, but since long term studies have shown persisting negative effects, we could say that IF we can, it will be a long haul, not a short transformation. This may be because of our biological complexity. What we can be sure of is that we have a propensity to live and to act, regardless of what effects it may have on us, and regardless of whether that behaviour is natural or not. Cognitive behaviour, we must conclude, supersedes biological behaviour.
If we do have volition to act regardless, or even not in the knowledge of whether it is beneficent to us or not, we must find a way to balance our behaviour with life. For example, in Japan, there are care homes which employ robots as care assistants for helping with loneliness (CLICK HERE for a short video and article). It is feasible that in the future, robots could be used to provide work through the night. This could help relieve large numbers of people from incurring ill health from working night shifts.
On the level of our cultural environments, tastes and preferences separate us. This has divided us up into social groups, due to the fact that we will naturally surround ourselves with people we can share our ideas and feelings with, and with people we can relate to most fittingly. Scientist have found ways of making us change our likes and dislikes, which could be helpful in curing loneliness, for example. Transcranial magnetic stimulations have been shown to make people enjoy music they would normally dislike (p. 10). This does carry heavy ethical issues which need to be thought through thoroughly. What it shows is how much we want to be in an environment we naturally fit into, despite our propensities to work against it. In a world which is transforming at such an incredible rate, will we see people reaching to change themselves to fit into their environments better?
What we need to realise is that whatever routes we choose to take in life, it is pertinent to think about how these routes fit in with our environments. This can be true of light and noise pollution, it can also be true of social mores and behaviour, and even (maybe most importantly) of our environmental waste impact.