The law of unintended consequences
For many years those of us in planning and urban design have talked and written about how our dependence on cars is a primary factor in our obesity problem. No doubt there are other factors, but the dramatic reduction of simply walking or biking around in favor of sitting in a car has had a clear impact on our waistlines and our health.
Tim Wu writes in The New Yorker about an even more notable case - the Ojii-Cree people and the effects of their rapid adoption of modern technologies. Wu writes:
But, in the main, the Oji-Cree story is not a happy one. Since the arrival of new technologies, the population has suffered a massive increase in morbid obesity, heart disease, and Type 2 diabetes. Social problems are rampant: idleness, alcoholism, drug addiction, and suicide have reached some of the highest levels on earth. Diabetes, in particular, has become so common (affecting forty per cent of the population) that researchers think that many children, after exposure in the womb, are born with an increased predisposition to the disease. Childhood obesity is widespread, and ten-year-olds sometimes appear middle-aged. Recently, the Chief of a small Oji-Cree community estimated that half of his adult population was addicted to OxyContin or other painkillers.
Now, I'm not one to reduce life to simple cause and effects. Nearly everything in life is multi-variable, not single-variable, and our desire to be reductionist often gets in the way. But it's also true that some changes can have an obvious impact. Technology has brought us many, many great things, and I for one have no desire to return to some mythical great era before our modern comforts. Those modern comforts have changed us, though, and not always for the better. Communication technology helps us connect with more people, but also makes us less attentive to people in front of us. And cars, while providing mobility, have harmed our health because we've allowed them to. It doesn't need to be that way - we can indeed have technology without dependence. The question is - will we?