The Right To Choose What We Need
Without collective action, that right could be taken away
Last week I interviewed freshwater ecologist Mike Joy about the gridlock in modern politics, about art, about technology, about how to live a better life, and about how to communicate that to people. He also gave fascinating insight into how industry in New Zealand is driving cancer rates in its population.
Importantly, we discussed power, and how to accurately target those driving the crisis.
One of the problems we face as civilians, and as those concerned about the state of the world we live in, is the dearth of information available. It’s too easy to make sweeping accusations and blame an industry, or “politics” in general. We tend to villify concepts rather than accurately pointing fingers at the corrupt individuals driving the world into crisis and profiteering from its destruction.
Focussing on concepts equally impinges our ability to accurately envision solutions to the problems that we face. We need to be pointing fingers at individuals. We need to be publishing lists of names. Not just of companies, but of the people running those companies and the connections that they have to governments. We need lists of subsidies uh, we need lists of the subsidies that are propping up destructive industries, and we need the names of politicians who are granting those subsidies year in, year out. Yes, that information exists in disparate silos, but we need to collate it to create a really clear picture of who is running the world into the ground.
One of the things that Mike and I discuss in the episode is Maslow's hierarchy of needs, a theory developed by psychologist Abraham Maslow about human motivation. The theory is a classification system intended to reflect the universal needs of society as its base, then proceeding to more acquired emotions: from shelter and sex to self-actualization. According to the theory, in order for motivation to arise at the next stage, each prior stage must be satisfied by an individual: one can only advance from one level to the next once you have those initial needs fulfilled
The final stage in Maslow’s hierarchy is transcendence, and often where topics like philosophy and art are situated. Something I brought up during the episode is that I think the hierarchy could be misleading: What is a world without art?
What is so interesting when we think about the future of the climate crisis is that we can look to where financing is already being cut, and reference it to those hierarchy of needs to see exactly what would happen. If we got to a stage where the climate crisis demanded energy rationing, for example, and the world is still run by similar characters to those who are in power now, we can imagine what they would prioritise by looking at their current decisions.
In the UK, for example, funding for the arts has been dramatically cut over recent decades, as has education, health—as if these aren’t the very things we need to not only live a good life, but to engender the kind of creativity we need when confronting a crisis situation. We are experiencing a crisis of imagination, and it is hobbling. Governments which choose not to invest in that which promotes imagination and community reveals either intention or a complete lack of awareness of how crucial these things are to both communities and individuals.
Let’s imagine power is working its way down Maslow’s hierarchy, gradually stripping us of our needs. Already, funding is being cut to the very things which make human life magical. If we use Maslow's hierarchy of needs as a framework for understanding a foundation of a healthy society, then any funding cuts being done already to these fundamentally crucial parts of human life—arts, community—need to be lambasted and need to be fought against it—before we find ourselves without food and without shelter. Given our food systems are on the verge of collapse and young people in the Western world are being priced out of having their own home, this is a very real threat.
The point is, we need to protect the things that we love before those things are chosen for us.
And already choices are being made for us, by governments, by the economic paradigm, by Supreme Court judges. The concentration of power and how it is currently being wielded should serve as a grave warning in a world that is running out of resources. Because we know already exactly what would happen. People imagine collapse would look like Mad Max anarchy—I think it would look not dissimilar to our present day. Our resources would be pooled amongst a very small group of people and the 99% would be denied access to art, to community, to choice, to autonomy.
The things that we need for a happy life, for a connected life, a meaningful life, are being taken from us slowly but surely. And this is a formula that will only be repeated, strengthened, and will increasingly disempower people.
When it comes down to food production, to running out of food—and we are on the verge of such catastrophe, the front page of The Economist last month was about the upcoming wheat crisis—George Monbiot recently wrote a piece in the Guardian about this clearly explaining it's not a problem of production. It’s a problem of economics. Food production is on the rise, it always has been, and yet people have less and less access to food now than they did five years ago, because of our economic system.
When we get to a food crisis situation people are forced to think about their own; community becomes smaller. Whereas if we try and focus on what we currently have or want to have more of, things that are higher up in Maslow's hierarchy such as education, such as art, then we have a better chance of working as a collective because it's not our physical survival that is on the line. When everybody's physical survival is on the line we are more likely to see a fracturing of community than a resurgence. It won’t be a case of speaking up or speaking out at that point, it will be a case of being forced to act.
Now is the time to use our voices and to choose action while it is still a choice. Not only are we running out of time to deal with the climate crisis, we are running at the time where we have the autonomy and the power to make choices for ourselves.
We have seen other regions in the world fall into disrepair and chaos. We've seen other parts of the world denied the opportunity to flourish because of their resources were stolen from them. It is foolish to think that that cannot happen on our shores, too.
Planet: Critical investigates why the world is in crisis—and what to do about it.