Corona, the built environment, & The Species vs the Individual

The Species vs the Individual, in the Built Environment?

The Corona lockdown and approach continues to surprise: both in what the government does and how people deal with it. What is particularly striking in this phase of Corona is the response and attitude to some problems with vaccines. There are some that cause a violent reaction in a very small number of people, with the risk of death. But a very small one. So now that vaccin has been largely decommissioned. Which is strange, because there is a pandemic going on…. At the moment, however, the individual sentiments predominate, while soberly reasoning you should vaccin as much as possible, also with the vaccines with some small risks. The group must be vaccinated because the more that are vaccinated, the more freedom possible,  which benefits the whole group. It is the health of the individual versus the health of the species. And it seems that we have the focus (unfounded) turned to the individual. Of course, economically we already have been individualistic for years, but that is now also reflected in the vaccination process. Even though I think it is unconscious and unintentional, the effect is the same. The vaccine is therefore banned by the government (for under sixty years) because of individual sentiments and disregarding the group interest, but also with people over sixty now individual sentiments play a major role: people who now refuse to be vaccinated with that specific type of vaccin. It is therefore striking, since the collective interest should take precedence, because the individual also benefits from it. But apparently it doesn’t work that way.

But that brought me to the next question: what about our built environment? Does it contribute to the health of the species, or is it focused on the wishes of the individual and does it make the species as a whole more vulnerable? That is an important question in a time like corona, but not only:  its more generally as a question in itself, after all, corona is only one of the symptoms that will affect our well-being, also think of climate change, droughts, heat waves, subsequent pandemics, electricity disruptions, etc. Does our built environment help limiting the damage, or does it amplify the problems? And is that when looking at “individual buildings”, or looking at the ensemble, the urban development? The first thing that comes to mind, of course, is elevators in higher buildings, not very handy in corona time. For that reason, the highest floors in some Rotterdam offices were decommissioned . Incidentally, elevators are also often used in housing for vulnerable elderly people, which is not very handy in corona time as well. (elderly people used to live on the bottom floor of a house or apartment complex)

When I started thinking about that a bit more, I actually came to, well,  a shocking conclusion, to my own surprise.

In the first place, think of the organization of the Built environment, in cities especially: the densities, connections, traffic, concentrated cultural and social activities, public transport.

In the second place, how we realize this built environment: with its climate effects (still), resource-depletion, sacrificing land, with biodiversityloss) (here but also due to tree felling elsewhere)

The first group, more human-related effects, makes our built environment very vulnerable: we are trapped, far from actual basic needs (depending on energy, food, water, and materials that have to come from afar). If such a distribution channel fails, there is a big problem (think of a power outage) but also see what happens with corona: people without outdoor space overcrowd scarce park areas. The city in general (the built envrionmenta and its managing)  is not designed to provide the necessary facilities and services itself, to protect its citizens.

The second group of effects, more physical in nature, can even make the Built environment unlivable: in the first instance for the individual with all kinds of stench and particulate matter and smog and greater chances of spreading viruses in masses, sand storms, and in the second instance with pollution of soil and water, pollution by factories ( like current scandal with a steel factory in The Netherlands) (and microplastics are now also in the water), and in the third instance also society as a whole, due to the disappearance of tropical forests, loss of biodiversity and an increased risk of pandemics. To name a few risks.

I will not argue that there has been a conscious and deliberate choice to design cities around the world as they are: to work efficiently in an office environment on the one hand, and to have parties in a dense organized social and cultural landscape on the other, but it is clearly not developed with the importance of humanity as a species in mind. Many developments, especially in the construction and architecture world, are inspired by the individual: the most individual expression of the most individual emotion, was it. that. Its designed and developed without regard to the fysiscal environement, to how nature supports species.

Ultimately, and that is actually quite funny, the increasing scarcity of raw materials will in fact make it impossible to build at all at some point, stops causing further damage. As perhaps a omen of those threats, architect in cooperation with developers are now going crazy, putting trees on buildings …? Because that is seen by many cities as the best they can do to become ‘green’ : showing off the last trees before all the forests have disappeared. (Even Eindhoven falls for it) (sorry, had to say this [1])

What do you do with all that knowledge ? We are therefore vulnerable, and there is a good chance that it will even become worse: unlivable and unworkable. And how to prevent that?

More is Less

Because it is not solved with some improvements It requires a complete change, in which many things have to become Less. Its even: More is Less: More livability, More chance for survival, is Less consumption, and Less activity. It requires behavioral change and a different lifestyle. A development that is gaining attention since among others the publication of a report of 2 years ago: 1.5-Degree Lifestyles: Targets and options for reducing lifestyle carbon footprints. [2] And last week a new report was published: Changing our ways? Behavior change and the climate crisis. How are we going to achieve this behavioral change and upscale it to the mass public…?

I learned a lot of new words on the accompanying webinar: Frequent Flyer Levies instead of bonus points, and choice-editting, and polluter-elite. See the report. [3]

Adjusting lifestyle is seen by some (many?) as decay of society or worsening living circumstances, but that is of course not the correct description, the circumstances are getting better, for everyone, only the individual possibilities become more limited. Which is precisely the difficulty. Who is ever going to vote voluntarily to get less, individually, less by today’s standards, after living in a growing abundance for 150 years? ( to get More in return, colelctively)

That’s why I went to the Isle of Eigg in Scotland at the time, how could they run 100% on renewable electricity there, on wind and sun and batteries, and voluntarily accept limited power access at home? Because they were better of! Before that, they had less: a diesel generator that could run now and then. Now they had electricity permanently , so they improved! While for us it implies a step backwards in power levels, to that lower level of electricity supply, and be satisfied too…. [4]

Because let’s be clear, whatever strategy we choose to get out of this misery, is that it has to be with a lot  less. Less energy, less material and less of everything. ( And more chance on surviving of the species, and even More free time individually, since when consuming less you need to work less and have More time for leisure.

By writing ‘misery’ above,  on the one hand I mean being trapped in the city [5], including the expected energy problems, requiring an enormous reduction of CO2 emissions, to prevent climate disasters and disruption of societies, and on the other hand at the same time to not shift problems to materials, since we also need to use less of them to prevent resource depletion. For energy as well as materials large-scale use of wood comes into the picture, but if that happens uncontrolled, we will end in disaster as well, of course, then the forests will disappear very quickly. Which is already happening: last year the forest area worldwide declined by the size of the Netherlands. And the Netherlands is one of the biggest causes of a decrease in forest area worldwide.

The problem is, there is not so much you can do individually. While that is what we mainly do: look at individual actions and solutions, also voluntarily. And look at individual products or improvements that are possible. But the solutions only lies in the whole. In an approach that pushes the whole system in the right direction . Assuming that its enough when  everyone individually does the best , is not true: It does not imply that it adds up to what is best for the system ! Which is what I found when evaluating housing: we can renovate a house completely, make it energy neutral and comfortable, even with a fast pay back time, in energy as well as money. But if you add up all measures for the entire stock of 7 million homes, we will very fast cross the 2-degree climate change limit, because of the CO2 emissions of all materials added together. [6]

So how are we going to do that, do it differently, and establish the inescapable: less of everything, being happy with less? ( in any way materialistically)  And helping society as a whole (and therefore yourself) forward, make it become More resilient, but at the expense of individual space, so of yourself? Politics will never be able to resolve that, So? a referendum? And what will be the choice? There are three options for this:

We are going to arrange it in a financial way, and opt for basic wages, shifting taxes to products instead of labor, and general measures for a steady state economy, or even degrowth.

Or will we  arrange it in a technical way, with high tech, smart innovation, eco-modernism: unfortunately, that’s not an option, that’s what only gets us into further problems *

or regulate it in a physical way? Simply: introduce a new currency based on solar energy value and land… [7]

However, even if a referendum, it will only happen when the forces are large enough to bring about real revolutions. And luckily, this week’s webinar provided a way out: interest in behavioral change is growing, and we don’t need a majority but only 25% of all people , to force such a shift, that paradigm change! There is still hope. And otherwise we can at least still party and admire the last trees high in the sky above that doomed built environment.



* for engineers: it is actually quite easy to see: everything we (would) invest in technology to tackle the current climate problem only sinks us deeper into the pit, after all, all investment and change is thermodynamic loss ( and times 7.5 billion Earthlings!): Exergy loss, due to all kinds of extra conversion losses. And new tech solutions are just that, isn’t it? Love to hear ideas that may or may not support this.



[1] trudo tower pictures :

[2] 1,5 lifestyles report

[3] behaviour change :

[4] Form Follows Fysics, reinventing the Built environment , rovers R., 2021, RiBuilT isbn: 9789083 144115

[5] idem as 4 , and :

[6] CO2 budget, and

[7] money/land

Author: ronald rovers