Christiaan Fruneaux

Founding partner in Monnik

Albert Einstein allegedly said that, “if the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then man would only have four years of life left.” Einstein’s prediction may soon be put to the test. Last week we learned that the last 27 years saw a 76 percent decline in the total biomass of flying insects [PLOS]. This news made a lot of scientists worried sick because flying insects play a crucial role in the food chain and in the pollination of flowers. Insects are one of the bottom layers in the house of cards that is earth’s biosphere.

The probable cause of the decline is our use of pesticides and herbicides. To maximize crops we have taken to sanitizing nature. This not only speaks of our modern love for economic output but also of some deep human instinct to keep nature at bay at all costs. Most human cultures have an ambivalent relationship with nature. We are off nature, part of it, but also separate. And more often than not, we consider nature a hostile force, a place where unseen dangers lurk and from where contamination spreads. This view is not new. It’s from all times. Iron Age cultures started axing our temperate forests; Modern man wants to finish the job and is hard-working axing the rainforests. Needles to say that this behavior cannot continue forever. If we want to survive, we need to clean up our act, and learn how to be dirty.

A way to understand our fear of contamination is to look at the confluence of our societal drive for artificiality and the human emotion of disgust. The two have an interesting history together. In fact, there is increasing evidence that our sense of disgust and the history of human cooperation are very much interrelated. Our amazing ability to work together, to do our bit inside vague global production chains, and our equally amazing ability to live together in huge and dense metropolis have everything to do with our sense of disgust [Aeon].

Our drive for artificiality is perhaps best understood if we take a closer look at what drives modernity. Probably modernity’s most important characteristic is its proclivity for growth – growth of the artificial world at the expense of the natural world. As a result of this we are living in an increasingly urban environment, where we are surrounded by ourselves and by the things that we produce. Almost everything in our artificial world is invented, produced, owned, tolerated or claimed by someone. Nothing is without purpose – like a mountain is without purpose and a bridge is not. Basically modernity is a powerful convertor of the natural into the cultural.

During the last six hundred years or so this man-made world has become our main frame of reference. The artificial has become a closed box in which the human experience takes place. And with the arrival of virtual, augmented and mixed realities our journey into entirely controlled artificial environments seems to have entered a new phase.   

This proclivity to replace the natural with the artificial is not just the result of the economic dynamics that drive the modern world. It is also very much interwoven with our ideological framework that considers nature a wild, uncontrolled and dangerous habitat that we need to conquer and subdue. We consider nature as an infectious force, full of diseases and other potential dangers. In these last six hundred years or so we have therefore tried to understand and suppress nature. We have tried to sterilize it, and make it fit our standards of hygiene. And not only were we quite successful at it, we also reaped the rewards of our efforts. Sewers, sidewalks, plumbing, antibiotics and air-conditioning systems made us healthier, more comfortable and more productive. Strengthening our resolve and our sense of doing the right thing. For a long time converting nature into culture seemed like a winning strategy.

But the ever-expanding human domain also severed our connection with nature and it gutted the interrelated ecosystems that make up the planetary biosphere. In fact, human activity has such a dominant influence on climate and the environment, scientists have dubbed the current geological age the Antropocene – the age in which man engraved the landscape and reshaped the biosphere. Declining biodiversity, climate change and depleting natural resources suggest that we have reached the limits of our growth model and that we need to stop replacing the natural with the artificial and start developing a new relationship with our natural surroundings. And that starts by shedding our fear of it. Not only do we have to recognize that we are part of nature, and thus dependent on it, but we also have to learn to work alongside nature instead of simply replacing it.

But shedding our fear of nature is not easily done. In many ways it’s hardwired in our individual brains and in our modern cultural frameworks. Especially the emotion of disgust plays a big role in the way we view and try to manipulate our physical and social surroundings. There is even mounting evidence that suggests that our feelings of repulsion, aversion, loathing and repugnance have been, and probably still are, fundamental drivers in our cultural evolution. That our feelings of disgust drive our need for controlled cultural spaces.

Disgust is a complex emotion. It can hit us just as hard when we are confronted with human excrement or rotten cadavers as it can when we are confronted with people who behave in a way we find morally abject. And this is no coincidence. Some of the earliest archeological artifacts, from before the invention of agriculture, are combs and middens. This suggests that early humans were as disgusted by uncleanness as us and thus conscious of the need for personal hygiene. But personal hygiene only works when the rest of the community of hunters and gatherers also follow the same rules. Making and enforcing a set of fixed social rules thus became important for the health of the group. The need to ostracize and shame those who refused to bath, or comb, or relieve themselves in the designated area, somehow made our feelings of disgust not only connected to physical objects and certain social behavior but also to the persons who committed these disgusting acts. They became disgusting themselves. The label ‘disgusting’ was the social punishment for committing acts that were deemed unclean. This social mechanism made sure we organized our environment in such a way that diseases would have less chance to strike.

Disgust thus contributed to the fact that communities had to cooperate within a certain set of rules. This cultural mechanism can also be witnessed after humans invented agriculture. The transition from a nomadic hunting and gathering lifestyle to one of agriculture and settlement also ensured more drastic hygiene rules needed to be imposed. People are basically bags of germs, so when you put a lot of them in one place, the risk of contamination and epidemic grows. Also one needed to get rid of all the human and animal waste. It is thus not surprising that the Agricultural Revolution coincides with the rise of religion. A lot, if not most, of the rules and etiquette that came along with these religions had to do with hygiene. It stipulated how and when to bath, how to clothe, how to produce, how to store water and food, how to clean, how to greet each other, how to have sex and with whom, and how and what to eat and what not to eat. When these religious laws were codified they, in turn, paved the way for the rule of law.

Disgust can therefore be identified an important drive for the rise of civilization. Disgust, and the deeper need to repel disease, inspired new civil and social infrastructures. With the arrival of the Industrial Revolution these efforts intensified. The ever-growing urban population and the accompanying river of human, industrial and consumer waste inspired more draconian measures and attitudes. Sewers, indoor plumbing, communal bathhouses and many other civic infrastructural systems were constructed – all to keep the nastier side of nature at bay.

This need for hygiene was not limited to our physical surroundings. The more complex our societies became the more we felt that we needed to purify our social and cultural surroundings. During the Industrial Revolution new social movements emerged that propagated national, social, racial, sexual and/or religious hygiene. The more complicated and fragmented society became the more people felt the need for a sense of control, which often had dramatic, even horrific, results.

The human emotion of disgust and the human tendency to surround itself with its own produce are interwoven and reinforcing forces. Disgust is an emotion that protects us from possible infectious diseases. The way we protect ourselves is to extend our control over our natural and social environment. Thus making it more artificial. This facilitated both the exponential demographic growth rate and the urbanization of humanity. The density and complexity of human societies in turn played on our sense of disgust and our need for hygiene, creating a mutual reinforced spiral. 

This spiraling towards a total artificial world has reached its planetary limitations. Climate change, resource depletion and decreasing biodiversity pose real dangers for the planetary biosphere. And because humanity is still dependent on a functioning planetary biosphere we have to learn how to close the gap between the artificial and the natural. Build and produce in such a way that it not replaces nature but strengthens it. But before we can do that we have to reeducate ourselves to become comfortable again with nature. We have to learn to realign the need for human safety and human comfort with the need for a healthy biosphere that enables a rich and expanding biodiversity and with the need for a dynamic and open cultural realm. In order to build a sustainable and inclusive future we have to make sure that we control our sense of disgust. The future is dirty, lush and abundant or it is clean, barren and destitute.

Weekly Future Briefings
Our weekly future briefings allow you to train the temporal lobe, flex the speculative muscle and lead, create and perform with insight and foresight. In the weekly future briefings we analyze the zeitgeist, identify emerging societal trends, discuss scientific and technological breakthroughs and explore their impact with plausible future scenarios.