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Favourite books: Hope, humanity and our natural instincts

Tracy Meller

Tracy Meller’s read of the year is particularly pertinent in Covid times, investigating whether humankind is born pure and corrupted by society, or intrinsically uncivilised and tamed by civilisation

This book is very of this moment in its relationship to where we are in the pandemic. I first heard about Rutger Bregman when he called out the audience at Davos for flying thousands of miles to attend a conference on the climate crisis, and it went viral. I’d had his previous book Utopia for Realists on my to-read list, but I decided to read this one after two friends quite separately recommended it.

Humankind – A Hopeful History examines two opposing theories on the nature of humankind. The view of Thomas Hobbes, a 17th century English philosopher, is that we require the civilising structures of the state and firm leadership to stop us sinking into our natural state of violent anarchy. This view is still prevalent, and has informed the structures and institutions of our lives ever since. The 18th century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau believed the opposite – that man is born free of sin and is corrupted by the coercive forces of civilisation.

Bregman explores both these schools of thought and sides with Rousseau as the more valid view. He argues that our pessimistic view of ourselves is fuelled by the news, which skews our perspective by inevitably reporting the negatives and so normalising the anomaly. In doing so, this shapes our view of ourselves.

Bregman looks at evolution, and how Homo Sapiens outlived other species not because they were cleverer, but because they were more sociable, and so were able to pass on their genes and out-survive the others. The dark side is that because we are capable of great loyalty to our own, we can also do detestable things to those who are ‘not us’.

The book debunks the idea of our innate badness and gives examples that are more positive. The much-studied Lord of the Flies novel portrays the swift descent into barbarism of a group of schoolchildren. But Bregman explores a real life example from 1965, when a group of boys spent 15 months shipwrecked on a Pacific island. When they were rescued, it was discovered that they were happy, healthy and living in a democratic way, tending gardens and their fire. They had even developed a system for cooling-off on the other side of the island if there was risk of conflict.

At our core then, he argues that we are peaceful and friendly rather than teetering on the edge of barbarism. A study of troops in WWI found that only 15-20% used their weapons, and the book argues that both physical and emotional distance is required to allow us to kill. In 2013, a Danish anti-terrorist programme in Aarhus found that those who joined Isis were motivated primarily by comradeship and a sense of belonging.  This urge drastically reduced when the police made efforts to talk to them and get them back into education and employment.

A group of boys spent 15 months shipwrecked on a Pacific island. When they were rescued, it was discovered that they were happy, healthy and living in a democratic way, tending gardens and their fire

Bregman revisits lots of experiments and examples that are cited of civilisation slipping into barbarism, and demonstrates that other factors were at work. But unfortunately, where we assume the worst of ourselves, this can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

By offering a shot in the arm for the goodness of humanity, the book is very timely in its relevance today. Bregman argues that catastrophe brings out the best in people, and there are plenty of examples from the pandemic to back this up, such as rival pharmaceutical companies working together on the vaccine, and the collective adherence to restrictive lockdown guidelines by those who would miss out the most (the younger population), to protect the more vulnerable, older, people. One of the reasons the government was slow to bring in the lockdown was because they feared civil disobedience, but when they did, there was instead an outpouring of good will to the NHS and other key workers.

The book’s argument is compelling. So what relevance does this have to our lives and work in our industry as we seek to ‘build back better’?

We’ve all had to challenge ourselves to work at a distance from home. This remote working has shown the importance of human contact, and allowed us to appreciate our innate need for interaction. The confinement of lockdown has also highlighted the benefits of public spaces where people can come together. We need to make sure that we provide a high quality of public realm. In practice, it’s been those who have the least who have suffered the most, and this further focuses the need on providing high quality housing and communal spaces.

Pessimistic views of ourselves have shaped institutions such as schools and prisons, including their design. Bregman has a very interesting chapter on two prisons in Norway, which have been designed to encourage the best rather than the worst in people by prioritising communal activity and interaction and providing well-designed facilities in an attractive setting.  Unsurprisingly, reoffending rates were 16% compared to the usual 60%.

As architects, there is scope to move to a more optimistic view of ourselves in how we design by creating spaces for our better selves. Our design for Mossbourne Academy in Hackney replaced a school building that had been burnt down by its pupils. We set out to encourage good behaviour by designing for passive supervision rather than policing. The school has seen behaviour and academic achievement soar accordingly. In our project at the LSE, the school had decided to invest heavily in communal learning and socialising spaces that were open 24/7, and these have had fantastic success without the need for policing.

This positive approach does not require a more optimistic view of ourselves. Instead, Bregman encourages an optimism that reflects a more realistic view of human nature by recognising our innate capacity to be decent and kind.

Tracy Meller, partner, Rogers Stirk Harbour +Partners, was in conversation with Pamela Buxton

See how Who Owns England chimed with Sarah Featherstone’s VeloCity and why Murray Kerr is not convinced by Houses for Sale on home designs without clients. Or delve into the archive of favourite books with Peter Cook, Tszwai So, Owen Hopkins, Annalie Riches, Matthew Barnett Howland