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Zootopia: Redesigning our modern environment with health and happiness in mind

About 12,000 years ago, humans started moving into zoos.

We settled ourselves into permanent little boxes and began making arrangements for our favorite foods to be brought in. Relieved of the burden of our old routine (some 1.7 million years of walking, hunting, gathering, walking), we've since had a lot of time to get up to new ideas (like philosophy, science, and designing more convenient, comfortable, and connected zoos).

This is progress. Except...

Today, sedentariness and food abundance are making many of us sick and unhappy.

Bucket seats, sitting desks, and hard floors are giving many of us functional problems.

And global connection technologies are isolating us from vital social-support structures close to home.

As it turns out, sudden and significant changes to environment and/or behavior can lead to problems.

We need to design better zoos.

A quick aside: If you're tempted, with this news, to leave the zoo and regress back to a pre-neolithic lifestyle, there are a few things you should consider:

  1. Your body may not be ready to walk 10+ miles a day, dig, climb trees, and squat for rest.

  2. You may not be as survival savvy as your ancestors. So, if you slice your arm on a branch or the temperature drops below 32 degrees F, and you don’t have access to modern antibiotics and heating, you probably won’t make it.

  3. I will not be joining you.

No, I’m staying in my zoo for now. Indeed, I’m glad for human progress in many ways, especially related to safety, emergency medicine, and communicable diseases.

But I'm more than ready to start optimizing my zoo for health and happiness, rather than comfort and convenience.

Humans evolved to favor certain behaviors and environmental conditions (meaning our health and happiness are tied to them). Our zoos need to be designed to accentuate these.

Large-scale change is the ultimate goal. If the majority of farmers, distributors, architects, urban planners, designers, manufacturers, retailers, advertisers, educators, and doctors aren't on board, our zoos will remain much as they are - obstacles to health, happiness, longevity, survival.

Thus, our most important job is to advocate for whole-systems change. Things like designing walkable cities, adding more earth under our feet and green around our spaces, phasing out automobiles and creating infrastructure for bicycles, buses, and trains; and finally putting our best minds and intentions to work solving the problems of food.

However, if you and I wait around for these changes to happen, we lose. So, in the meantime, Hillary and I are starting to get to work on some high-impact zoo modifications that don't require much outside buy-in.

Here are three big ones (not convenient*, but arguably critical):


We've added a significant amount of walking back into zoo life. Walking is in our genes. The Hadza people in northern Tanzania, one of the last living remnants of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, walk 5-8.5 miles a day.† And yet, in industrialized nations, we've created a modern zoo where walking is not just unnecessary, it's inconvenient, inefficient, and even inaccessible in many locations. Finding sufficient time and terrain can be a feat.

For a brief time last year, Hillary and I walked to work in the mornings. 4.4 miles. Not Hadza level, but a significant improvement from nothing. It required an extra 65-70 minutes of our time compared to driving. However, we decided to abandon this plan after a week or so. All possible routes to work took us alongside busy roadways and/or abandoned corridors. It was unsafe.

Currently we are walking around our neighborhood for an hour each morning. I take 6-7am, Hillary takes 7-8am (one of us has to be home with the 3-year old). 2.9 miles. Not walk-to-work level, but still a significant improvement from nothing. In the late spring and summer we'll each add a half hour (almost 1.5 miles). The great thing about this plan is that it allows us to walk mostly on earth instead of concrete (we walk through parks or along the edge of neighbors' front lawns - please don't tell them).

If you just don't have the time or terrain for this amount of walking, and you work at a desk, consider a treadmill desk.

P.S. Depending on your age, background, and goals, there may be additional types of physical activity required for you to reach optimal health and performance (the Hadza also climb trees and dig for food daily).§ Walking is just your hominin baseline.


I'm thinking of starting a new food movement - "Blanding" - eating natural foods with little to no added flavor in order to curtail over consumption. What do you think? I don't expect many followers.

Today's highly-palatable foods - which fill our zoos - drive us to consume beyond what's healthy. When we do so, excess calories go toward non-essential activities (such as additional immune system and reproductive system activities) which increase our risk of cardiometabolic diseases and cancers. Our zoos need to make it harder to over consume, not easier. It's time to get reacquainted with bland

Now, Hillary and I grew up with palatable foods. Like most modern brains, ours crave them, and we derive a significant amount of joy from eating them. We don't want a life where we eat bland foods all.. the.. time. No, the last thing we want to do is remove joy from our lives, or yours, in a significant way. But we also don't want to get chronically ill in service to it. So we've found a middle ground.

We eat bland, home-cooked, whole foods (not capitalized) Monday through Friday (usually soups**). Then we eat stellar restaurant food on Saturday night and cook stellar meals at home on Sunday. This plan gives us something to look forward to at the end of each week, rather than never, which helps keep us committed.

P.S. Notice the use of the word "stellar" above. Never waste a reward on a so-so meal or establishment. Select foods that are creative, incredibly tasty, cooked by passionate people, and sourced from organizations that are doing good in the world. You ate bland for five days! Make your reward as joyful as possible.

Blanding Addendum: CSA

Blanding doesn't really solve the problem of palatable-food availability. When we're surrounded by yummy foods in the grocery store, on the way home from work, or in our own pantries, abstaining can be nigh impossible. It's important to find mindless, effortless ways to limit exposure to these food sources. Here again, large-scale change is crucial, but there is one big change you can make on your own if your town is farm friendly.

What if you rarely had to visit a grocery store? That's one of the beautiful things about belonging to a year-round, full-diet CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program. Louisville has a couple of these now, and we LOVE ours. Veggies, fruits, meats, eggs, dairy, grains, herbs, and even honey are brought to our home every other week for most of the year. Locally grown/raised. Unsullied. As fresh as it gets. Which means we don't need to visit a grocery store very often, and we don't have a pantry filled with impulse buys.††

Visiting with people daily

Ok, this one's still in a conceptual phase (we can be stubbornly hermit-like on our off time). But becoming more social is arguably more important to health and longevity than both diet and exercise combined.

When I traveled through small towns in Vietnam and Indonesia, I was struck by how happy local people were with so little. I also noticed they lived multiple generations per household, ate meals as groups, and spent a lot of time sitting on each others’ front stoops chatting. The survivability of our species lies in large part in our ability and inclination to form strong local social-support structures. These help us cope with unpleasant life events and avoid stress (a major precursor to disease), and they even improve our viral immunity.

So, identify a small group of people you really like. Set an expectation that you will visit with each other regularly (workplace meetings don’t count). Run errands together. Organize a weekly meal with each other. Share life. We will do the same. Stat.

For Footnote Junkies

* A few words about making changes, especially inconvenient ones. Without a clear, concrete, realistic, and potent motivator, change isn’t likely to stick and status quo, comfort, and convenience will likely win. When trying to make a change, STEP 1 is always to get crystal clear about WHY you're making the change. "For my health" is too general and meaningless. "So I can have the body I had in my early twenties" is unrealistic. What do you love that you won't be able to do if you get sick? What will that feel like? Who do you care about that you will leave behind if you die? What might that feel like for them? For me, an image of my wife having to manage our business and raise our kiddo all alone, without her friend and partner, is potent motivation (even though she's strong, she'd be ok, and she certainly wouldn't be alone). STEP 2 is always to make TIME in your schedule for the change you seek to make. If you pile on to an already full agenda, you'll just get overwhelmed and fall back on the usual routine, the comforting tasks, entertainment, and the urgings of all the marketers in your environment. What can go? Are you spending time on anything that isn't really contributing to your health and happiness in an effective way? Dump it. That's time you will use for the high-impact changes. And beware all the people in your environment who will try to convince you how important their interest, agenda, cause, app, product, platform, service, show, problem is. The list of factors that effectively contribute to our health and happiness is actually quite short (clean food, clean water, clear air, social support, movement, rest, and a degree of engagement in activities appropriate to our talent and skill level). Find time for these items, ignore the peanut gallery, and the light that shines through you will more than take care of the rest.

† Hadza men average 8.5 miles of walking per day, Hadza women 5 miles per day. They also expend a significant amount of energy climbing trees and digging for food, respectively. The Shuar in the rain forests of Ecuador and the Tsimaine in Bolivia have similarly active lifestyles. For more about the metabolic activities of hunter gatherers, especially the Hadza, read Herman Pontzer's groundbreaking research on constrained daily energy expenditure in his book, Burn.

§ Fire your lawn company. Due respect, but stop relieving yourself of the burden of physical work, especially the kind that gets you outdoors. If you have land, tend to it yourself rather than hire a company to do it. Better yet, plant a garden and contribute to the nutritional upgrades of your zoo at the same time. I question the sanity of a society that eliminates all inherent opportunities for physical activity then fabricates extracurricular ones at a cost.

¶ I don't believe anyone who has spent a lifetime (or possibly just a matter of months) exclusively consuming vegetables, grains, nuts, meats, etc. in their natural state would find them bland. We find them bland because we have gotten used to (and crave) highly-palatable foods through regular exposure.

** Soups have many great benefits. They tend to be easily digested. You can throw almost any whole food from the fridge or pantry inside. Most of the nutrients from the foods are held within the soup (they aren't lost in oil or water that won't be consumed). They're a great way to ingest a significant amount of bone broth. And they don't require much mental or creative energy to prepare - chop, broth, boil, simmer, (lightly) season, eat.

†† Not to mention the fact that we're lowering our individual carbon footprint by avoiding carbon-costly activities such as refrigerated, long-distance shipping of foods. This article has not really addressed the environmental costs of our contemporary zoos. For more information about that, join the Carbon Almanac Network and read Charles C. Mann’s The Wizard and the Prophet.


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