From masking to “social distancing” to what could best be described as “hygiene theater”, we have been told our lives must be up-ended, our pursuit of fulfillment stymied at every turn, to make us well, to ward off sickness, to keep us healthy. Yet aside from measures designed to humiliate us, it’s striking how little has been done. Many critics of the past year’s health mania have highlighted the lack of interest in diet and exercise, yet there are even simpler measures, like fresh air and green space, that could be taken to make our lives that even most of these critics have missed.
Ventilate the Buildings!
The most obvious example to me is ventilation. Just today The Atlantic ran a good article by Sarah Zhang highlighting how opening the windows to dispel disease, a practice ubiquitous in the 19th century, became a lost art in the 20th century as germ theory displaced theories that diseases were transmitted by “bad air”.
As it turns out, though, there is such a thing as bad air, specifically air that contains high concentrations of viruses such as the flu and colds. Coronaviruses, including the likes of SARS and COVID-19, cause a large minority of all colds, and spread primarily through the air.
This is bad news if someone who’s infected with such a disease coughs or sneezes all over you (contrast a disease like Ebola, which doesn’t spread this way), but it also means that since it rapidly diffuses across a large volume of air its range of attack is rather limited. This of course is the rationale behind the somewhat-creepily-branded “social distancing”, as well as masking.
We are bombarded by propaganda imploring us to wear masks and stay away from others, which has bizarrely been taken as the key to promoting good health, and, predictably enough, has also set off a perverted race to signal how caring and virtuous one is. Fundamentally, however, all that masking and distancing are are methods to reduce the amount of virus in the air around you.
The vast majority of the gains from distancing and masking can be realized if you just avoid having others cough or sneeze all over you, and avoid coughing and sneezing all over others, respectively. Assuming you avoid this and give other people what was generally considered a reasonable amount of personal space before the pandemic (which is basically the 3-foot distancing standard, arbitrarily (sadistically?) changed to 6 feet early in the pandemic), the primary threat then becomes concentrations of virus that float in the air, blowing hither and yon with the winds and currents.
The Twentieth Century strikes again
It is here that ventilation becomes key. In a confined indoor space with stagnant air, viruses and other pollutants that are generated hang around and fester, leading to air that is much less healthy to breathe than the fresh breezes of the outdoors. This is an issue for any building, but starting in the 20th century building designers became dependent upon central heating and air conditioning along with its attendant tiny air ducts to provide air for indoor spaces.
So complete was this dependency that by the 1960s in the United States even the ceiling fan, perhaps the most basic ventilation instrument, had been almost completely abandoned. Since then the situation has improved somewhat, but modern buildings, unlike their counterparts from the 19th century and earlier, are generally designed to let bad air fester, as they are not built to bring in fresh air and clear out stagnant air. Apparently the idea is that disease and pollution no longer exist and that ordinary HVAC systems are better than outdoor breezes. This most emphatically is not the case in real life.
Let the fresh Air pour in!
Fresh air and a good breeze clear out pollution, disease, and stagnant air, bringing in fresh invigorating outside air. Hot, humid, or cold weather can make the outside air not so fresh and not so invigorating, but that’s nothing a good strong dose of heating or air conditioning can’t fix. Yes, it does use more energy, but it’s well worth it!
Crack open all the windows of your home sometime when the temperature is not so comfortable, turn all the fans on, and leave the climate control on; I think you’ll find even partially processed air is much more wholesome to breathe than fully processed air is.
When you’re inside, vigorous circulation of outside air is paramount for good health. This is much easier in most homes than it is in retail stores, restaurants, or other venues. Many big-box stores, for example, don’t even have windows, instead just having a main entrance and perhaps a few more obscure portals. In these cases the managers should throw open all the doors and station big industrial-sized fans to blow in air from outside, ensuring that there’s a good breeze throughout the store.
So simple is this solution it’s really quite amazing that this hasn’t become widespread. It’s not like it’s more invasive than requiring people to wear masks, and it’s not like it’s costlier than installing plexiglass barriers everywhere.
The lack of adoption of this solution, despite it being suggested in mainstream media outlets occasionally over the past year, tells me that what we are seeing is not a genuine commitment to health, but rather just hygiene theater, even without considering the idiocy of many of the other measures that have been taken.
Take the Gatherings Outside!
Another solution that hasn’t been adopted much has been moving activities outside. That’s even better than circulating outside air into buildings, since there is full flow of fresh air. Why do we not see merchandise, services, concerts, sports matches, classes, parties, and other gatherings being moved outdoors into the sunlight? Even having them under a tent-like canopy would be an improvement. Bring out portable heaters and air conditioners if needed!
In the case of schools, for example, classes could be held outside. They should honestly be doing this anyway, as outdoor education has many benefits, but it does also promote better health! Instead of simply sending the teachers and students outside, a setting where COVID-19 doesn’t spread much even among unmasked people packed in close together, elaborate plans to police students’ every move, confine them to desks surrounded by plexiglass barriers, and muzzle them with masks are being demanded as a condition of reopening schools.
I for one don’t mourn schools being closed, as I believe by their nature these institutions exert a malevolent influence upon societies and cultures, but it is striking that more invasive measures that worsen the quality of education are preferred over less invasive measures that better the quality of education. If anything it underscores how corrupt our institutions of education truly are.
One reason outdoor education is better is the salutary effects of green space, fresh air, and nature upon human health. So large is this effect that one study even found significant improvements in health from looking at a green verdant space outside a window. People who live next to parks have much better health outcomes and quality of life. On and on it goes. Combined with the virus-dispelling effects of fresh air, one would expect getting people outside into green space and nature to be a cornerstone of any serious “public health strategy”.
What do we actually see? Constant propaganda to “stay at home”, that’s what, about the exact opposite! Cowering inside at home is actually one of the least healthy things you could possibly do, especially if you’re sitting in a chair and looking at a screen while you’re in there. The effects of a sedentary lifestyle lived in stagnant air alone will likely be worse on the population’s health than COVID-19!
Out of the Towns, into the Woods
“Get into the forest” would have done much more good than “stay at home”. Another aspect of “staying at home” that isn’t considered is that air pollution alone is estimated to kill a far greater number than COVID-19, possibly up to 10 million people worldwide per year, predominately indirectly through old people dying a bit earlier and the younger population being a bit sicker and a bit more likely to die than they would otherwise. No one ever advanced quality of life without risking quantity of life, but that doesn’t mean an opportunity to keep the quality and raise the quantity should be tossed aside.
As it turns out just such an opportunity exists. Pollution’s impact depends on the concentration; near the source where it’s concentrated it can be deadly, but far from the source, where it’s spread out over the whole planet, even the worst pollutants are harmless due to the concentration being extremely low.
Rustication for Health
So the solution is to move people far away from the sources of pollution, which usually means away from major cities. Country air is far less polluted than city air, and is correspondingly more wholesome. It’s also worth noting that city noise is very unhealthy. In western Europe alone noise pollution is estimated to kill a million people every year, in much the same fashion as air pollution; specifically, the vast majority of that million die from added stress inducing heart attacks.
It gets even worse. Urban living has also been robustly linked with all manner of mental illnesses, such as anxiety and mood disorders, and even schizophrenia, in scientific studies. In urban areas schizophrenia risk is double what it is in rural areas!
So rurality is much more wholesome than urbanity, which shouldn’t surprise anyone, since humans evolved to live in rural nature, not urban artifice. Cities offer other advantages, even health advantages in some respects, that may offset some of this, but the truth of its fundamental unwholesomeness remains.
Rustication beyond Zoom Towns
If urban services and amenities could be accessed in a rural environment, that would be optimal for human health. The rise of remote work during the pandemic has let many people earn a living from the countryside instead of being confined to within easy commuting distance of an office. “Zoom towns”, living environments far beyond the suburban periphery, have seen an influx of new residents, perhaps heralding a new wave of rustication in the 2020s.
Of course being outside commuting distance to offices also means being outside easy driving distance to other services and amenities (this, incidentally, affects even the financially independent who need no jobs and live off investments!), so the only true solution is to increase the speed of transportation.
Upgrading highways to support much higher speeds or, better yet, introducing fast personal aircraft to the mass market could accomplish this. 700 mph personal aircraft would enable ten times as much distance to be covered in a given commute, and thus open up a hundred times as much area for commuters to live in. Acreages would be the norm instead of postage-stamp lawns.
In principle these acreages could all be covered by the natural environment of each region, bringing the human population the benefits of rewilding entire continents. Today’s new-growth forests will in a century become old-growth forests, restoring much of the primeval landscape.
Bring back the Forest primeval!
The ultimate goal in my view is to restore all of the landscapes that have been despoiled worldwide, and bring back the animals that once roamed them before they were extirpated by man. Europeans and eastern North Americans someday should have the chance to lie back anywhere in the region and gaze up past hundred-foot-tall trees at the night sky to the sound of wolves howling in the distance, as the original settlers of these regions did.
The biggest obstacle to realizing this vision is the enormous amount of land that’s been despoiled by agriculture. However, replacing our current system of annual crops with perennial tree crops might be feasible. Certain sections of the new forest primeval could be seeded with a high concentration of a diverse selection of food-bearing trees. The nuts and fruits thus produced could be eaten directly or fed to livestock, which could easily be raised under the forest canopy.
Nuclear Energy and Spaceflight: the Keys to true Rewilding
In the more distant future it will become feasible to raise all needed foodstuffs off-world in space habitats or even to harvest them from more or less wild environments in such habitats as hunter-gatherers did on Earth. In either case complete rewilding, where Earth has no (large-scale) agriculture anymore, would become feasible.
Industry and mining might also be moved off-world at this time, but the land take from them is minimal, and by the time that happens pollution might also be minimal, thus posing no more an obstacle to complete rewilding than millions, if not billions, of residences scattered around the planet.
Nuclear energy will likely dominate by that time, but reactors will be both passively safe and sealed off from the environment, generating no pollution. Radioactive fallout from nuclear pulse drives might be the most common remaining source of pollution, but replacing the fission primaries with antimatter primaries eliminates that problem.
Turning Earth into a nuclear Elysium might seem like a fantasy, and indeed this is more or less what transpires in the next thousand years in my science-fiction universe.
But it is a goal that can realistically be accomplished with near-future technology and some willpower. Large parts of this goal can be accomplished even now, bearing fruit in a matter of decades or even years! New-growth forests could be left alone, allowed to become old-growth forests. Infrastructure could be upgraded to open up large swaths of the rural world to metropolitan people.
Outside air could be pumped indoors right now using existing technology at low cost. Homes, businesses, and buildings could be built or remodeled for ventilation and circulation of fresh air. Gatherings could be moved outdoors. Our interiors could be made out of natural materials like wood and stone, with big windows providing a view of a verdant landscape, plants dominating the interior. Our interfaces could be designed for standing up, walking, running, and lying down, instead of sitting in a chair all day.
Once one starts to look around for these small changes and improvements that can be made, it’s hard to stop seeing them! Every little bit helps, every little bit adds up. Even if the full vision is not realized in our own time, every step is itself beneficial.
Thread by thread we can together weave the tapestry of a future that is actually worth living in, a future that makes the world a better place, a future we can be excited to work for, a future we would love to bequeath to our posterity.