In this series of articles based on the Lab’s 100 Urban Trends glossaries, our writers are focusing on “trends” that are meaningful to them, and sharing insights on urban issues that shape our lives. In today’s installment, Alejandro de Castro Mazarro muses on the trend (and Lab theme) Confronting Comfort.
I do not tend to choose the bus over the car, nor do I turn the air conditioning off during summer or wear pullovers at home during winter; yet I belong to the same “99 percent” that calls for a fair redistribution of wealth and goods. This contradiction may be analogous to the one environmentalists face when using planes to lobby against the pollution caused by carbon dioxide emissions. The unmatched capacity for commodities to fit our individual wishes seems to outpace the collective effort required to realize our collective goals.
Behaviors and objects are tied up with millions of complex relationships. Objects, like millions of screens; behaviors, like millions of scattered whispers sent to remotely located receptors. Objects like mountains of cups ready to contain more coffee, waiting to be disposed of after a single use; behavior like the act of throwing paper coffee cups away. Objects like organic Nepalese tea bags; behaviors like the livelihoods of those involved in the production chain for the making of Nepalese tea bags. Behavior like leaving a portion of steak on our plates; an object like the leftover flesh of that same cow that is thrown away in a black plastic bag.
The size of a house is an object as much as its location refers to a social behavior. Computer screens, Nepalese tea bags, plastic or paper cups, beefsteaks, houses—all physical commodities carry hopes for redemption.
The notion of “need” is historically constructed: past times were not just awkward, suffering times, even though commodities were more scarce than they are now. All medieval streets were not slums, and people in cities like Cairo or Bangkok did manage to get work done in the long and hot summer afternoons before air conditioning was invented. On a more recent and personal level, before this era of the hand-sanitizer I did not always get sick. But the intriguing relationship between effort and suffering seems to have blocked the same collective common sense that makes us agree on the importance of traveling by bus instead of by car. Individual freedom compromises the freedom of the whole. Objects that satisfy the need for comfort pile up to super-sized dumps, slums, jams: we are very familiar with images of jeopardized jungles and seashores. Yet, enduring luxury tends to become a right, and gadgets providing comfort seem to be inevitable.
Behavior is weak, objects are reliable. Within this paradigm, the collective sphere is like a bewildered zoo; like an unbearable feast; like any other addiction.