We are objects of our environment

[Note:  This article reflects the viewpoint of the author and not necessarily the NICE Group, NCBS, or TIFR]

by Shannon Olsson – The issue of climate change has become a daily talking point and political lightning rod across the world. Regardless of its root causes, our climate IS changing. Many regions are experiencing more extreme weather, longer droughts, hotter summers, and a variety of other climate issues that affect food, and even personal, security.

In this electronic age, many of us might also feel quite removed from our environment. Right now, you might be reading this blog on your smart phone, in an air-conditioned or heated room, far away from the ravages of Nature. Yet we humans are products of the environment we live in.  Even the tools and technologies we develop, which can seem as removed from the natural world as possible, are products of the ecology around us.

To give you an example, I recently conducted an entirely unscientific survey with Facebook friends of mine and our lab page, Odor Objects. The survey was a simple test to identify 4 common household tools. If you haven’t taken the survey, I strongly encourage you to give it a try



before continuing…


The objects were chosen as common household tools that *should* be familiar to many, but may be absent, or have different uses, in different regions of the world. Survey responders were asked from what part of the world they live or had lived most of their life, and specific questions about 4 objects:

  1. Have you seen / used / owned this object?
  2. Where in the home would you most likely find this object?
  3. What would you use this object for?

The 75 respondents so far were overwhelmingly from Europe (31), North America (23), and India (20), so only these 3 regions were compared.

The objects were specifically chosen because climate has a direct impact on their use in each of the 4 cases. Can you guess how?

Note: The choices for location were:  Bedroom, Bathroom, Kitchen, Living Room, and Garage/Tool Shed/Workspace only.

Object 1


This is a cheese slicer – a very common object in European households particularly, as evidenced by the 100% consensus on its location of use.  In India, however, hard cheeses are a relatively recent introduction because aging hard cheese requires cool, dark conditions  that generally did not exist in India before the invention of refrigeration techniques.

Object 2


This is a kitchen sink sprayer, a very common addition to North American, and many European sinks.  It is often used for cleaning dishes / vegetables.  The same object, however, is used in the bathroom of Indian households to clean oneself after using the toilet – the infamous “bum gun“. How does climate fit in?  Well, toilet water is not generally heated.  And as a former resident of Northern New York, I can tell you that spraying your nether regions with near-freezing water in January would NOT be a pleasant experience. Hooray for toilet paper, made readily available by the wealth of trees provided by North American and European climates.

Object 3

object_id_results-003This is a scraper and brush used to remove snow and ice from car windshields and glass in the winter. Pretty much everyone who has experienced snow knows what this is, and it should also be pretty clear why Indians from a tropical climate may not know where to use this item.

Object 4

object_id_results-004This is an Indian tawa, used for making chapathi, roti, and other flat breads.  Pretty much all regions knew this was for the kitchen, but outside of India many respondents did not know what to do with it.  Heat and humidity have negative effects on the leavening of breads, and I can vouch from personal experience that using an oven when it is 40C and no air conditioning is not a walk in the park.  The tawa makes breads much faster for hot climates.

As you can see, even the very objects we use are influenced by the environment in which we live. It will be interesting to see how our tools and technologies evolve with our changing world. I’m sure many of us have read predictions of what humans will look like in 1000-10000 years, but as this article notes, for a variety of reasons our physical appearances are unlikely to respond to environmental changes as they have before. We surround ourselves with technology, and it is our technology that will evolve instead. With our threatened water resources, that sink sprayer/bum gun may have to evolve into a water-free solution…..

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