Good ol’ Maslow


“Won’t somebody please think of the children!?” Such a classic line never gets old, and I would say it aptly summarizes probably about 95% of reasoning used by climate change activists in furthering their cause. Future generations will have to suffer for current bad choices, there is little doubt about that, but people are driven by the immediate necessities of life, not doomsday lectures.

Early last week, I stepped outside one morning to discover that everything smelled really good. I couldn’t put my finger on it. It was almost like “nostalgia”. I quickly realized it must be that the air just finally smelled like “air” instead of smoke. Wildfires – and resulting transcontinental smoke – have definitely given us a reminder that the world is getting hotter and drier.

Childhood was simpler when Smokey the Bear made solutions to big problems seem easy. “Only YOU can prevent wildfires.” Unfortunately, Smokey lied. Long gone are the days when people just had to be more careful with their campfires to quash the problem of wildfires. Now, the planet is becoming so hot and dry that over half of all wildfires are caused by lightning strikes.

I’m sure that many readers also remember when recycling was a status symbol. Plenty of recycling bins still have the simple phrase “We Recycle” written on the side, meant to be a statement of pride when seen by neighbours driving by. This is no longer a brag. Everyone recycles. For most households, recycling is a practical necessity regardless of personal feelings toward the environment, due in part to garbage limits that restrict us to a couple of bags per week.

Ever drive behind an old car lately? I’m not talking “Model T” old, but any car from the 70s or 80s (maybe even some from the 90s). Even with the windows up, and the air conditioning on recirculate, it only takes a few seconds for the overwhelming smell of exhaust to reach your own car. Hey, I’m not complaining – I love seeing people ride around in their nostalgic old toys – but that smell certainly serves as a reminder that vehicle emission standards have tightened considerably in the last few decades. Yet here we are, still facing “doom”. Progress made has not been progress enough. Psychologically, that is bound to make people give up. They need signs that we are going in the right direction, not just apocalyptic tales.

A Merrickville pharmacist (who also happens to be the President of the Ontario Green Party chapter in Leeds and Grenville) posted on social media a couple of weeks ago lamenting that municipalities aren’t doing enough to stop climate change. Is anyone doing enough, though? Does anyone really ever get an A+ from the Green Party?

People are potentially seeing real signs of climate change for themselves for the first time, with intensifying storms, wildfires and smoke, and rising average temperatures (though the chilly weather last week definitely threw a wrench in that mix!). What people aren’t seeing is hope. Fingers pointed at them? Yes, lots of those. But they’re not seeing changes on the big scale that can actually make a difference. It’s just a “blame the little guy/gal” game.

Any readers who have studied psychology may know of Abraham Maslow, an American psychologist who is most famous for his “Hierarchy of Needs”. It’s a handy tool resembling a pyramid that can be useful in therapy because it reminds clients that they can’t expect to tackle all of their problems at once. There are certain basic needs that must be met before we can expect our bodies and minds to give us the necessary energy to tackle our more intricate needs or others’ needs.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs starts with physiological needs, such as food, shelter, and sleep. Second is safety needs, third is love and belonging, fourth is esteem, and fifth – which Maslow proposed not everyone reaches in their lifetime – is self-actualization. Where might we put “saving the planet” on Maslow’s pyramid? I would say it should either go on the second level, safety needs, since “resources” and “health” are listed as two needs in that category, or otherwise it could go all the way to the top, to the self-actualization level. That top level is “the desire to be the most that one can be”, and for the average person, it’s necessary to at least meet personal needs before attempting to single handedly conquer a problem created by almost 8 billion people.

Think of how many people you know who can’t meet their needs at the bottom of the pyramid. They may be struggling to eat, struggling to secure and pay for housing, and struggling to get sleep on account of working 16 hours a day to make ends meet. Now take those same people and try to pressure them into buying an electric car using a mix of guilt and carbon taxes. That’s a very small-minded “solution” that helps absolutely no one. Our economy is in a sad state right now. Fewer basic needs are being met, and less energy is available to give a single care toward the environment.

Two things need to happen to “save the planet”. One is that governments need to prioritize basic human needs again – stop the extravagant spending, build some affordable housing, and cut out the taxes that drive the prices of fuel, food, and other necessities

The second requirement is the development of global solutions that only governments can implement. Work on electrical grids that can actually handle electric cars that aren’t powered by the same fossil fuels that we are trying to eliminate. Mandate packaging that doesn’t make people feel like idiots when stuffing 10 pounds of plastic packaging into their reusable shopping bag. Invest in better wildfire fighting technology. Make environmentally friendly products and technology affordable by normalizing it, rather than punishing poor people for being poor.

We stopped letting our campfires turn into wildfires. We recycle. We drive vehicles with tight emissions standards. We eat – oops, I mean “we use” – paper straws and pack groceries in reusable shopping bags. We try and try and try. Good ol’ Maslow. Who knew a dead psychologist would one day tackle climate change? Meet people’s basic needs first, and then sit back and see what they are capable of. We might all be surprised.


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