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Wants versus needs


When my son was younger, I spent considerable time trying to make sure he understood ‘wants’ versus ‘needs’. Fortunately, whatever he needed was available: food, water, a place to sleep, clothes to wear, family who loved him. But what he wanted, well, that’s a different story. We battled with wanting every Lego set possible, staying up late even when tired, eating ten cookies instead of two. Imagine a toddler being allowed to do whatever they wanted: chaos would soon reign, with sleep deprivation and sugar overload. Temporary pleasure quickly turns to unhappiness when there’s excess. Perhaps part of that is because we don’t appreciate things as much when they are in constant abundance right in front of us.

When an adult consistently prioritizes what they want (versus need) first, there is usually a problem. When a country does only what it wants, it can be a disaster. And when we have a world full of people, governments, corporations and large institutions doing what they want, it eventually leads to collapse. Yet this is what we face. Consider this quote:

A death spiral in crude-oil futures….threatens to deliver a serious shock to the banking system [of Canada]. Canada ranks as one the world’s five largest energy producers and a net exporter of oil…. a big drop in oil poses several risks to Canada’s oil-dependent economy. [i]

The country of Canada existed before there were large-scale oil exports. We are a nation founded on resource extraction, always have been, but it’s now reaching proportions that are giving us the worst kind of international reputation, in mining and oil production in particular. Australia has its own struggles with a similar economy. Why are things progressively getting worse? Because more money can be made, and that is a ‘want’ far more often than it is a ‘need’. It’s worth repeating the adage “you can’t eat money”. We need a planet hospitable to human life in a temperature range that supports us, along with clean water and good soil. Yet we pursue the very opposite in the tar sands of Canada. The real issue appears to be the time scale: short-term wants versus longer-term needs. We have all enjoyed something in the short term and regretted the results further down the road.

When our needs are too easily provided for, we value them less. And teens are rapidly losing the skills required to take care of ourselves. Most teenagers, or “screenagers” as Geoff Lawton calls them, spend more time interacting with a screen than they do sleeping. I can only write about what I know, based on personal experience, but what I see are many teenagers turning into adults with few cooking, or growing skills. This means teens are growing up not witnessing and learning basic skills that allow them to provide for their needs; I read that fewer than 10% of teenagers have chores that contribute to the household. Teenagers can be directionless when they graduate, reluctant to take on debt at school, or not wanting to get on the treadmill of working to pay the bills. Escaping into an online world is so very tempting. So in much of the Western world we have the most privileged generation in history, and I would argue the most pampered and least prepared for the future.

Professor Jean Twenge, author of the book Generation Me, writes that;

“Compared to previous generations, recent high school graduates are more likely to want lots of money and nice things, but less likely to say they’re willing to work hard to earn them. That type of ‘fantasy gap’ is consistent with other studies showing a generational increase in narcissism and entitlement.” [ii]

As for work ethic, 39 % of students surveyed in 2005-07 admitted they didn’t want to work hard, compared to 25 % in 1976-78. Not surprising, if we give everything to children and teens and then later ask them to work hard and help clean up the mess as they get older.

A dialogue between the generations is more important than ever before. We all face an uncertain future and passivity and pessimism don’t work, nor do they make us feel good. What about a program where teens devote a year to volunteering, with several categories and skill sets to choose from? After all, numerous countries still have the military draft (1-2 years of mandatory service before the age of 25). Working on a cause larger than yourself, helping your community, and learning new skills is certainly a positive experience. Thinking about what we need and how to provide it for ourselves is far more empowering and satisfying than many of us realize. To graduate here in BC, students are required to have a certain number of volunteer hours. Below is a picture of teens planting pollinator plants:

It seems that we often merge wants and needs which influences our actions. We may need to get groceries from the store but we also want cheap prices, so this guides our choice of purchases. We need to have a habitable planet yet want to have all the conveniences of a modern, energy-intensive lifestyle. That means humans have to find a way to want what we need, and fast. Permaculture helps with that process, offering support, ideas, and real-life examples of projects working in communities. Let’s make 2015 a year of continuing, much-needed action!


[i] https://newscenter.sdsu.ed,u/sdsu_newscenter/news.aspx?s=74179



  1. This sensible advice gets shared too infrequently, yet each time in a context of love so as to support healthy living into the future. The Permaculture context of this one makes it a “must share more widely.”

  2. As a 25yr old (having graduated from being a ‘screenager’), I agree with what’s been said here.

    I was vaguely aware of my lack of life-skills as I reached adulthood and was aware of how little value was placed on things like taking care of your home, building things and growing food. I had always figured that their lack of weight in our society was due to them not being that important.

    Of course that’s changed, and I think many people my age are coming to terms with this. That doesn’t mean the screen isn’t as attractive as it was before, but now there’s a growing awareness that it’s not the ultimate utopia it promises.

    I think constantly revising the want vs need in our lives is a good way to remember what’s really important. Thanks for the good read!

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