Comfort Crash Course

Comfort Crash Course, Day 16: Civilization (or, The End is Near…)

4,000 Miles of Confronting Comfort

Hanjin Palermo

As I write, the ship is tugging ever so slowly through the canals of Rotterdam’s colossal port. Covering more than 100 square kilometers, it is the largest port in Europe—a city in and of itself, and a vast and crude welcome back to civilization.

It’s my last day on the ship. I’ve packed my bags, taken my last photographs, and said goodbye to the crew and my fellow passengers. Now the only thing left is to reflect back on the past 15 days.

As I comb through my Comfort Crash Course journal, each day’s entry begs me to think deeper. Each reading and analysis asks for more consideration. And so I sat down this morning on the sunny starboard deck as the rows upon endless rows of steel boxes on shore flashed across my peripheral vision, and tasked myself to distill this series into a list of simple questions for further thought.

Here goes:

If our habits are driven by cravings, and our cravings are driven by cues, how can we design our cities to cue us toward new kinds of cravings that make our habits more responsible?

Does the concept of comfort as a physical state that came about in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries differ from the previous concept of comfort as a psychological state? Now that both definitions exist, how do they affect one another? Can physical and psychological comfort really exist independently, or are they a package deal?

How do we go about retuning our personal definitions of luxury and necessity to find a more responsible in-between that is still comfortable?

How can people be convinced to put the same energy into creating comfortable public spaces that we have put into making our private spaces comfortable? What needs to happen in order for us to collectively see the value in this?

What types of changes can we make to our cities that will give us more time for the pursuit of joy and beauty? And what changes can we make to our own lives to ensure that we take this time when it’s given to us?

Will personal comfort always trump personal or collective values? If so, what does it mean for the quest to build better, healthier, happier cities? Does it mean redefining comfort again, like the Anglo-Americans did a few hundred years ago? Does it mean forcing miserable conditions upon our worst habits? Or always approaching the creation of new alternatives with comfort as a top priority?

Is it possible to create city systems that increase private individuals’ ability to control their environments without diminishing public comfort? Can individual and collective environmental mastery work hand in hand on a city level?

I’ll write again once I’m back on land and have a little more perspective on my 4,000-something nautical miles of considering and confronting comfort.

It’s been a hell of a journey, and now the city calls me to rediscover it with new eyes. Away I go.

Photo: Christine McLaren.

The Comfort Crash Course is a two-week series by BMW Guggenheim Lab|Log blogger Christine McLaren as she journeys 15 days from New York to Berlin via containership, following the same cross-Atlantic route traveled by the Lab itself last fall. In the complete absence of city life, and armed with a library of diverse readings that helped inspire the theme for the Lab’s first cycle, Confronting Comfort, as well as others recommended by Lab|Log followers, she explores this theme at its core. The goal: to discover and understand the roots of the human quest for comfort—and why it needs to be confronted. More here.

  • atimoshenko

    A couple of thoughts:

    1. Are our habits driven by cravings or are our cravings driven by habits? In other words, is a craving not often the result of being unable to do what you usually do? In turn, this would mean that a way to control and direct cravings would be through periodic destabilisation (shocks to keep habits from ossifying – like the trip you just took, but as a regular, rather than once-in-a-lifetime event), and the encouragement of ‘good’ habits during the period when no habits have yet formed.

    2. Recently have been seeing multiple stories pop up (cannot seem to track down where right now) about how willpower/self-discpline works like a mental muscle with a limited reserve – once it tires out, all of our community-vs-selfishness, longterm-vs-shortterm discipline collapses and we become selfish and short-sighted. It would seem, therefore, that we would need plenty of comfort in some areas to be able to focus our reserves on others. The question for the design of comfort would then become one of identifying where and when our discipline would matter most.

    • Christine McLaren

      Hi atimoshenko! Thanks for writing. I totally recommend that you check out Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit. It delves into all of this stuff exactly – both the self feedback loop of habits and cravings, and the willpower muscle. It’s a good, pretty quick read, in full on Malcolm Gladwell logic style.