Environmentalism, Maslow Needs and Civilization’s Power Cycle

“The relationship between society and nature and the need to provide a decent standard of living for every human being under conditions of nonstop population growth present themselves as quandaries defying pat responses.” (Louis Proyect, “The Life, Loves, Wars and Foibles of Edward Abbey,” http://www.counterpunch.org/2015/05/15/the-life-loves-wars-and-foibles-of-edward-abbey/)

Louis Proyect’s article is very good because it is so thoughtful, rather than polemical, in presenting the conundrum of achieving naturally sustainable prosperity and advanced social development worldwide. Among the conflicting attitudes he points out are that between anarchist “Abbeyists” (after Edward Abbey) intent to prevent the industrialized exploitation of the wilderness lands of the American West (e.g., by sabotaging road building and logging equipment, and protesting dam construction) versus the zeal for rapid economic growth through gargantuan projects (e.g., hydroelectric dams, mines, metal refining plants, atomic power) in the New Deal ideology of socially regulated capitalism during the Franklin Roosevelt administration, as well as under the Stalinist Marxist-Leninist Communist Party in Russia (the Soviet Union), and the Communist Party in China to this very day.

How do we strike a balance between the elevation of impoverished masses versus the despoliation of vast wilderness?; the satisfying of dire human needs and enduring popular desires versus preserving an abundance of unaltered nature for future appreciation?

Can we better understand the concern by any person or group for preserving the environment and regulating, transforming (to “green”), reducing or even eliminating industrialization (a.k.a. “development”) so as to preserve wilderness and minimize further global warming, by seeking to locate their concerns within Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs? Let’s try.

Abraham Maslow (1908-1970) devised a hierarchical classification of human needs, which can be summarized by the following five tiers, from most basic to most elevated:

1. Physiological
Meeting the physical requirements allowing the human body to function and human life to survive.

2. Safety
Having personal security, good health and well-being, financial security, and social security and insurance against accidents, illness, ill fortune and traumas.

3. Love and belonging
Belonging to and being accepted by a social group: an intimately bonded pair, a family, friendships, worker solidarity crews, religious groups, professional organizations, sports and enthusiast associations, gangs.

4. Esteem
Possessing two levels of esteem: first, that achieved by being held in high regard by others generally, or at least being respected or recognized for having gained social status, fame or notoriety; and, secondly, self-respect achieved by having met the challenges of one’s personal life — experience.

5. Self-actualization
The desire to become all that one believes one could be, and the desire to understand all that one believes one could know. Ultimately, this is self-transcendence, the giving of oneself into a higher goal, purpose, state-of-being or consciousness.

Human beings are sufficiently complex that most of these five types of needs are being addressed simultaneously in every individual at every stage of their lives, and regardless of their culture. However, the stage of one’s development (e.g., infancy, childhood, the teens, maturity, old age) as well as one’s culture and external circumstances (e.g., prosperity and peace, devastation and war) will strongly influence the weighting each of the five needs receives in any individual’s psychological processing of the moment.

People who live close to the land and which may be threatened by immediate despoliation, such as Amazonians witnessing clear-cutting of their tropical forests, and river pollution caused by the dumping of wastes from mines, drill sites for fossil fuel extraction, and industrialized meat-producing farms, would have an environmentalism grounded in Maslow’s basement tier of the physiological need for survival.

People in the poorer urban and rural neighborhoods of the developed world who are concerned about their exposure to dumped toxic chemicals, such as in the notorious Love Canal neighborhood of Niagara Falls, New York, in the 1970s, and the many rural areas in Appalachia poisoned by toxic mine wastes, and American communities today dealing with the poisoning of their water supplies by the dumped effluents from hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) wells for the extraction of geologically trapped natural gas, will have an environmentalism based on Maslow’s second tier, the need to achieve personal security and ensure personal good health and well-being, and avoid experiencing catastrophic ill fortune through illness and financial ruin (as with the collapse of property values).

Some environmentalists whose personal circumstances leave them secure as regards Maslow’s physiological and safety needs are motivated by a need for inclusion in a supportive social group, and they participate in organized environmental activism. Their roles in such groups might be quite low-profile and ordinary, but they are rewarded by a sense of worthy purpose and the camaraderie of others similarly dedicated.

For some secure individuals (regrading the first three levels of needs) environmental activism is a way to achieve esteem in the eyes of the larger society. Such individuals might be scientists, academics, authors, celebrities and policy-makers who work to inform, alert and motivate larger public audiences to the immediate moral imperatives and more distant social benefits of a concerted national effort to preserve environments, stop antiquated though still profitable (and/or subsidized) extractive industries and industrialized carbon-dioxide producing practices, and to begin now to transform the entire paradigm of how humanity concentrates and uses energy. It is a simple fact of human nature that being seen as a hero is a very strong motivator, even among people who seek that recognition in work for the public good.

A higher level of esteem-fulfillment is achieved by individuals whose environmental activism becomes a personal challenge through which they seek to fully develop their own potential as creative and productive individuals, in a way that maximizes their personal contributions to the public good. The need fulfilled here is that of gaining a self-respect that withstands critical self-scrutiny.

The first four levels of needs as defined by Maslow are called “deficiency needs” because if they are not met the individual will feel anxious and tense — their experience of life will be deficient. Once the deficiency needs are satisfied, the individual will be psychologically freed to focus on the highest level need, which is for self-actualization.

Self-actualization is a need that is beyond any concern of gaining esteem in the eyes of society, or even of emerging triumphantly from rigorous self-criticism. This is a self-respect beyond ego-gratification, gained through the knowledge that one has made good use of the unique opportunities life has offered you, with results that have made a positive difference whether such an effect is noticed in your lifetime or not. Self-actualization is the transcendence of consciousness beyond the stratum of social convention and ego — spirituality if you will — in this case achieved though a dedication to environmentalism.

It is easy to see that when lower tier needs are unfulfilled it is difficult if not impossible to focus on higher tier needs. The mental tranquility of self-actualization is more easily achieved in a safe place and with a full stomach.

A broad environmental movement would include a wide variety of people, from those close to the land and in poverty, to the bureaucrats, consumers, careerists and celebrities of the movement, and on up to the spiritual environmentalists. A successful movement will include a wide spectrum of personal motivations that all focus on a unified social purpose.

Louis Proyect describes three other examples of clashes between human needs (pursued traditionally) and modern environmentalism. The subjects of these clashes are poverty relief financed by oil revenues, whaling, and undocumented Mexican immigration into the U.S.

The Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela is banking on the country’s vast oil reserves to pay for popular economic and social uplift, and this scheme is currently weakened by low prices on the global oil market. Northern Hemisphere environmentalists (in secure personal circumstances) would prefer Venezuela to formulate development plans not based on oil extraction, but it is economically and psychologically impossible for a conscientious nation with many poor people to cease exploiting a toxic resource it has in abundance and which the rest of the world lusts for, regardless of the environmental consequences. This is a clash between tier 1 and 2 needs in Venezuela, and the upper tier needs of environmentalists from the wealth zones of the Northern Hemisphere.

It is obvious that industrialized whaling (today by Japan, Norway and Iceland) has been economically unnecessary for over a century, and is morally and environmentally indefensible now. Its perpetrators claim they are preserving cultural and occupational traditions, but all industrialized nations are sufficiently advanced and sufficiently wealthy to quickly end the practice and occupationally rehabilitate, or pension off, their whalers, without damage to their national economies. Basically, the appeal to “tradition” is an excuse without merit. Whaling is part of a past that industrialized humanity has evolved far beyond.

However, it might seem unkind to oppose the whaling from long canoes and small boats by the 1,200 member Makah Indian band of Washington State, who kill their whales with hand-launched harpoons followed by rifle shots. The Makah’s whaling is a kinship ritual of ancient tradition, the whale meat being shared out in a communal ceremony, a potlatch.

The first whaling clash here is between environmentalists from some of the Northern wealth zones who are operating from their upper tier needs, and non-environmentalists from different Northern wealth zones who are fanatically focused (as in Santayana’s epigram) on their mid-tier needs for belonging and esteem, which they cannot imagine achieving in new non-whaling ways.

The second whaling clash here is between environmentalists from the Northern wealth zones who are operating from their higher tier needs, and impoverished North American survivalists (81% of Makah live on a reservation with 51% unemployment) who are operating from their mid-tier needs for belonging and esteem, which they wish to continue finding through ancient traditional practices of communal labor-intensive whaling and the dividing of the spoils.

Industrialized (commercial high-tech high-power artillery) whaling is completely inexcusable and we should ban it without further consideration. What about Makah whaling? I would end this practice also.

One can and should have sympathy for American Indians and other aboriginal people whose populations and cultures were destroyed, or severely eroded, by colonialism and expansionism (e.g., Manifest Destiny). The enlightened attitude toward such cultures today is to allow them to organize their own affairs on the lands they retain, and to exercise their cultural practices with minimal interference. That said, I do not believe that an appeal to tradition, as a sacrosanct form of social inertia, is justified as an excuse to resist transitioning to healthier and more intelligent social norms. All human societies have evolved as they have gained more knowledge about the workings of their environments, and all the human societies of today have moved beyond many of their ancient practices, some of which were barbaric. There is no reason why the Makah cannot devise a communal labor-intensive activity that produces an abundance of food without killing a whale, for a special occasion in which it is shared out. They can continue affirming their cultural ties of belonging and mutual esteem by evolving their communal ritual to fit the expanded environmental understanding humanity now has globally. A living culture evolves in response to environmental change and increased knowledge.

Some American environmentalists are opposed to the large influx of undocumented immigrants from Mexico and Latin American, and they advocate for effective barriers to illegal border crossings, because they see this human tidal wave as a social phenomenon that degrades the quality of the environment in the American Southwest. The combination of masses of people tramping through fragile desert terrain, the accumulation of garbage dropped by migrants, and the increased vehicular and air traffic associated with border patrol operations, all degrade the wilderness areas of the American Southwest. The migrants are simply desperate to walk out of a failed economy and into relatively better circumstances, and then to be able to wire money back home to their families. The impact on the environment of this mass migration is just collateral damage in a class and cultural war for economic survival. Anti-immigrant American environmentalists are operating from their upper tier needs, in opposition to the migrants who are operating from their basement needs.

Everything is intertwined in the real world, and it will never be possible to solve one problem, such as “climate change” or “environmental degradation,” in isolation from all the other factors that combine to produce the cycle that powers civilization. The four grand links of that cycle are: economics, environmental stewardship, energy development, and industrialization.

Economics: the personal need by billions of laboring people for economic security.

Environmental stewardship: the preservation or degradation of natural environments, sustaining habitability and harvesting resources.

Energy Development: how energy is extracted from nature and made available for powering civilization: electricity and fuel.

Industrialization: how the work performed by industrialized civilization meets the economic needs of humanity’s billions (and so on around the cycle).

“Fixing” an environmental problem (like global warming) is impossible without making adjustments in economics, energy development, and industrialization (energy use and political economy); you have to straighten out the whole wheel.

Problems in the economic dimension, such as poverty and mass illegal immigration, are linked to choices made about energy development, such as the burning of fossil fuels which causes global warming and in turn leads to the problem of degraded environments desperate migrants flee from; and those economic problems are also linked to choices made about how the benefits of industrialization are to be shared out with the laboring masses: politics.

It is much easier for activists to think one-dimensionally about the link in civilization’s power cycle that is their special concern, such as environmentalism, and to hammer away at society on that note. But, the nature of our world is such that enduring improvements along any one of civilization’s four fundamental dimensions will result from a linked evolution of all of them.

Those activists who seek to advance their vision of society multi-dimensionally, though their particular concerns are narrowly focused (such as in environmentalism), will have a more complicated job of advocacy, but the results of their work are less likely to be futile.


The following two web-links lead to articles that contain the technical “back story” to what I call “civilization’s power cycle.”

The Economic Function Of Energy
27 February 2012

Closing the Cycle: Energy and Climate Change
25 January 2014