Editor’s Note: This is Part II of a series. If you haven’t already, please read Part I first.
In the noise and confusion of the modern world, it can be an uphill battle just to learn the truth about what we need. But this is only the beginning of the journey toward self respect. Actually meeting those needs is tougher still.
I’ve come to think of our civilization as one of scarcity. The scarcity I see goes beyond the poverty and starvation overseas which I’ve only read about. This destitution is visible everywhere, even here in the privileged ‘developed world’.
In times of scarcity, people and other life forms prioritize, focusing on their most basic needs first. For instance, during a famine, a person generally ignores their need to play, focusing instead on meeting their need for food. Thus, when we see people ‘cheating’ their higher needs for the sake of their lower needs, we can infer a condition of scarcity.
How can we distinguish our more basic needs from our higher ones? The first part of this article discussed the correlation between our needs and the senses we evolved to meet them. Simple organisms, like those with single cells, have simple needs and correspondingly fewer senses. Such senses might include a sensitivity to light, senses to discriminate food from non-food, and so on. Complex creatures, like us, have evolved more sophisticated response behaviors by adding layers of sensory hardware onto this basic framework. Our most basic requirements are those we evolved to sense early in our evolution, such as nutrient availability, suitable temperature, and reproductive access. The evolution of the nervous system next allowed us a sense of touch, balance, and pain. Primitive brains equipped our ancestors to feel basic emotions like pleasure and fear. As our brains became larger, our emotional capacity expanded. We became capable of happiness and sadness. We also developed a sense of boredom, since play and stimulation are necessary to maintain a large brain. Big brains also need sleep, which is why we developed a sense of sleepiness. Perhaps our most complex feelings arise as a consequence of being social. Emotions like loneliness, anger, guilt, and trust are the senses of a social creature. We’ve also developed special feelings as creatures which form families and rear young cooperatively, like love and devotion. Perhaps as an outgrowth of theses social senses, many people feel the need to live in harmony with their environment, even the universe. This may be our ‘highest’ need.
I see a consistent and revealing pattern when examining people here in the privileged ‘developed’ world. Though some of us control astounding wealth in the form of materials and energy, all of us are cheating our higher needs to satisfy our more basic needs. I’ve observed myself, and all of my friends and neighbors, cheating ourselves this way.
This may be a familiar story: You left mom and dad and soon realized you’d need your own shelter and food to survive. Familiar forms of housing were obtainable only through regular payments of money. Money was also demanded at the supermarket, the obvious source of food. To solve this problem you got a job. A job, you discovered, is a way to exchange your leisure time, physical strength, mental energy, social life, and personal sovereignty for money. Depending on the job, you may have exchanged sleep, health, sanity, dignity, and/or morality as well. But you had money. With money, you were able to meet your basic shelter and food needs (rent and groceries). If you were lucky, you had a little extra money. And what does one do with that money, having sacrificed much of one’s leisure and social life, among other things? You purchased substitutes. Bored? Try toys, gadgets, and vacations! Lonesome? Try television and movies! Sick? You can buy medicines, supplements, even insurance! Stressed? Try psychotherapy, at only $50 an hour! Do your spouse and children miss your love and support? Buy them things! Feeling empty? Join a mega church! There are so many exciting things one can buy, that holding a job hardly seems toilsome. If you get the opportunity, you’ll work jobs which pay more and more as time goes on. This is the basic pattern of life in the developed world.
But we should realize, no matter how extravagant our purchased substitutes become, they are still substitutes. At the core of our livelihoods, be we janitors or executives, we still compromise our higher needs for the sake of our basic needs, namely shelter and food. We cheat ourselves.
If we are to show ourselves respect, we’re going to need a better method of meeting our needs. The economic system operates upon the concept of supply and demand, in which things become more valuable as they become more scarce. Can we expect such a system to create anything but scarcity?
If we study human prehistory, we know that the economic system is a recent development; it is not the system which met the needs of our ancestors. If you’ll remember from previous parts of the article, the very fact that we have needs indicates that we evolved in an environment which had the capacity to satisfy them. Our original life support system is our EEA, our habitat.
The habitat of our ancestors was made up of living things. To a certain extent, we utilized abiotic resources, such as stone and earth. However, our most important resources came from living things, like plants and animals. These other organisms provided the food, fuel, clothing, and materials crucial to our survival. Almost all organisms, especially animals, similarly depend on other species.
Interdependence has been a fact of life for billions of years. Our own exchanges, with the creatures we depend on, are seldom one-way. Just as our living environment offers resources to us, we offer resources to our living environment. We exhale the carbon dioxide that plants use to grow. We distribute plant seeds and nutrients with our wastes. We also cause disturbances that favor particular groups of plants and animals. Our habitat is not simply an assemblage of resources to be used, it is a community of interdependent associates. Our needs are met, not through our singular efforts, but through dynamic relationships with other living things. The study of the relationships of living things is called ecology. Just as the environment we evolved in can show us what we need, ecology can show us how to get it.
Ecology, this system of interrelationships, is the secret to the success of life on this planet. From its simple beginnings, life has grown in complexity, occupying the land, sea, and air. Organisms are ceaselessly adapting to better use the opportunities produced by the life processes of others. What one form of life abandons as waste, another may use as a resource, and thrive. The incentive to capitalize on such opportunities is great. Because of this, communities of living things have become capable of recycling energy and nutrients with extreme efficiency, being composed of organisms which utilize resources in almost all stages and forms. This inherent ingenuity and efficiency has made life the enormous presence it is on our planet today. The entire surface of our planet, even the atmosphere and the deep seas, have been shaped by and for life.
Life’s ecology is not only highly efficient, but also highly durable. Because of the diverse roles organisms have adopted, life as a system has been able to recover from natural disasters, and even planetary catastrophes, like asteroid strikes and severe climate changes. In the face of nature’s random forces, life builds up complicated ordered systems. With a momentum that seems supernatural, living things will re-colonize barren land, creating forests from mere sun, soil, and rain. With only these fickle resources, life has survived for billions of years, and will likely survive for billions more. Ecology is the system created by the entities whose sole imperative is to proliferate. If this is not the most efficient and durable life support system possible, it is very nearly so.
Our ancestors, like many indigenous cultures today, must have understood that their relationships with other life forms, their ecology, was what sustained them. We know that these same people depended upon each other, their human communities, in a similar way. Personal success within a band or tribe requires proper, thoughtful, and even diplomatic relations with other members (perhaps small town citizens can relate). The parallels between human relationships and ecological relationships would have been especially apparent to hunter/gathers, who frequently found themselves on equal footing with powerful animals and natural forces.
Though awareness of it has dimmed, modern societies are just as dependent on their relationships with the living world. We still rely upon plants and animals for food, clothing, and materials. Even oil, the source of our synthetics and our principal fuel, is the product of ancient forests. We are after all, alive, and our needs will be the needs of living things, no matter how sophisticated our technology becomes. Despite our efforts at control, we remain tied to our relationship with the living environment. The only thing we’ve managed to change is the quality of that relationship. Overwhelming evidence indicates that this relationship has become an abusive one. And self-respecting people don’t tolerate abusive relationships.
The abusiveness of our society is easy to see. Consider the signs of abusive relationships. One hallmark is objectification. This is when the abuser refuses to acknowledge the victim as an individual with feelings and needs. Casting individuals as objects allows us to use them as such, without remorse. Is it not apparent that our society regards many of our fellow organisms as objects or commodities, despite the fact that science tells us that these are our relatives, with senses and needs similar to our own? Millions of other species feel the impacts of our agriculture, urbanization, forestry, and energy production. Do we consider what these species need to be healthy, functioning members of the whole? What will happen if we don’t?
Another sign of abuse is extreme dependence. An abuser, doubting his ability to make other relationships, will forcefully prevent the victim from leaving the relationship. The typical victim has the same insecurity, often making no effort to leave. Healthy individuals confidently maintain many rewarding relationships, and are not overly needy. Can our society’s relationship with crops like corn, or fuels like oil, be regarded as healthy? Especially when we contrast ourselves with our hunter/gatherer forbearers, who typically used two to three hundred species as food? In their case, many alternative relationships were available should a particular relation fail. Our ancestors allied themselves with many species from a broad cross-section of their ecologies. They were thus important members of their ecological communities. In our food production, we now ally ourselves with just a handful of species, at the expense of the greater ecosystem. As such relationships continue, they require more and more energy to maintain, as those involved become increasingly dependent. It’s hard to say which is more frightening — the perpetuation of such abusive hyper-dependent ventures, or their sudden failure.
Perhaps the most obvious indication of an abusive relationship is that neither party gets what it needs. Clearly, the victim suffers all kinds of deprivations. But the abuser also is unfulfilled. Everybody likes to know that they’re cared for and supported unconditionally. Since the abuser obtains care and support only through manipulation, he cannot trust that what is received from the victim is genuine. Is this not like our society? Our environment sustains horrific damage daily, and yet, so many of us remain unsatisfied. As a society, are we not unhealthy, unhappy, and bored? Have we not been enormously controlling, and only to find ourselves in a terrible pickle? Do we trust nature to support us? Or do we cast her as hostile, worthy only of manipulation? Do we feel like valuable members of the planetary community, with a unique niche? Or do we cast ourselves as masters, or villains?
Abusive relationships consume tremendous amounts of energy, dooming those involved to destruction. Unfortunately, where there are new victims to be had; cycles of abuse can perpetuate indefinitely. We cannot wait for patterns of abuse to self-destruct. We know abusive relationships don’t work. The only dignified thing to do is terminate them immediately.
To respect ourselves again, we must expose and remove all abusive behaviors from our lives, be we villains or victims. The only healthy way to meet our needs is through good relationships, not just with other people but with the entire living world. The study of ecology can help us answer the questions we need to be asking. Are my relationships good ones? Are they sustainable? Am I getting what I need? Which species should I associate with? What do they have to offer? What do they need in return? What role do they play in the ecological community? How can my relationships benefit the whole?
Ecology is what governs the living world we belong to, yet many of our civilization’s fundamental activities ignore ecological realities. If we continue along this path, our needs will continue to go unmet. On our journey to self respect, we must forge healthy ecological relationships as the primary tools of our survival.
Continue to Part III, the final part of the series.
- Evolution of the nervous system
- The Biosphere
- Healthy Relationships
- Self Esteem
- Emotional Abuse
- Abuse and Codependency
- Derrick Jensen’s book ‘The Culture of Make Believe’ is a masterpiece on our culture of abuse