By Nicholson-Lord, David
New Statesman (1996) , Vol. 134, No. 4724
Nearly a century ago, the only surviving member of the Yahi tribe of North America walked out of the Californian hills and into American legend. Ishi was feted as the last genuine native hunter-gatherer and became the subject of extensive anthropological and biographical research. He was also the focus of some cultural soul-searching. Questioned about civilisation and its discontents, as his biographer Theodora Kroeber reported, Ishi was "sure he knew the cause ... an excessive amount of indoor time". It was "not a man's nature to be too much indoors", he declared.
Some 90 years after Ishi's death, things are much worse. If you're reading this article, the odds are not only that you are inside, but that you spend much, probably most, of your life indoors--staring at a screen, manipulating words or symbols, attending meetings in brightly lit rooms. You probably spend more and more time on the internet too, shopping, chatting, researching. And exercise? Well, there's the gym in the basement ...
Homo sapiens passed much of its early history holed up in caves and it is now returning to its origins. For today's postmodern troglodyte, however, labouring in the knowledge economy, the cave is a lofty glass palace. And whereas the souterrain of palaeolithic times remained earthbound, the contemporary version has floated free. It is a multi-glazed, shrink-wrapped work module, sealed off by technology and security systems from anything that interferes with the pursuit of economic gain and career advancement. To enter it, and to ascend by lift to its summit, is to free oneself from trees, wind, rain, sunshine, the earth beneath. It is, almost literally, to abandon nature.
Humans have been trying to escape the exigencies of nature for most of their history--and we are nearly there. The current century will be the first in which most of us live in towns and cities. In 1800, according to the United Nations, only 2 per cent of the world's population was urban. Now the figure is about 48 per cent, and it is expected to rise to 61 per cent by 2030. The UK is already 89 per cent urban.
In the wake of the move into cities has come the great retreat indoors. Indeed, the two migrations have overlapping causes--the decline of outdoor occupations such as agriculture and forestry, the move to a manufacturing and then to a service economy, the search for controlled environments in which economies could be run more predictably. High land prices in cities helped drive buildings into the sky; 20th-century speculative development and building technology did the rest, turning the contemporary office block into a parallel indoor universe, a carpeted and air-conditioned version of the Victorian sweatshop. Meekly, we file in and sit down, grateful for the comforts that appear to surround us. But at what cost to our health and sanity?
According to the government's UK 2000 Time Use Survey, most of our days are now gobbled up by sleeping, working, eating, travelling and screen-watching--activities conducted inside boxes of one sort or another. Less than half an hour in the average day is spent in purposeful outdoor activity. Research in the US suggests that the average American spends 95 per cent of his or her time indoors isolated from nature. The UK's survey is more specific--out of 1,440 minutes each day, it says, we spend precisely one minute in the countryside or at the seaside.
In evolutionary terms, the migration to the "double indoors" of city and building represents a huge and abrupt change of habitat--in the case of Britons, this has been accomplished in the space of perhaps half a dozen generations, as against 350,000 generations or so spent as hunter-gatherers or pastoralists. It would therefore be surprising if there were not some ill-effects. Some we are familiar with. The great urban indoors is an ecosystem occupied by sedentary grazers and in not much more than a generation has made us so fat that obesity and its associated ills--heart disease, cancer, diabetes--now rank among the biggest health problems in the developed (that is, urban) world. …