Why we need more - and not less

| 4th March 2019
Environmental campaigning has centred on telling people they cannot have what they want - but should instead enhance and elevate human needs.

People’s needs will be better understood and better met when the human system of needs is the purpose and limitation of the world’s intersecting economic systems.

We need more, not less. The system of human needs must be extended, expanded and elevated if we are ever to escape climate breakdown and a more generalised ecological collapse.

Read our On The Nature of Change series here.

Capitalism is causing ecological crisis precisely because it limits human needs, and because the actual satisfaction of human needs would result in the collapse of capitalism itself.

This is the exact opposite of what many environmentalists claim today, and appears to be self contradictory or paradoxical. So what does it mean?

Wrapping paper

What we see all around us is an astonishing orgy of consumerism, with a bewildering variety of goods being bought every day. These goods are made from the earth’s depleted resources, and quickly become rubbish filling our gorged landfill sites.

The problem prima facie appears to be that people want too much, want too many things, and are buying too much rubbish. The needs and wants of these consumers are not legitimate, it seems, and are destructive. They need to buy less, and make better buying choices.

Environmentalism in recent decades has therefore focused a significant amount of its attention and efforts messaging to private individuals, acting as consumers.

The single use plastics campaign has been extraordinarily successful on its own terms in the last twelve months. We are told to consume less palm oil. To give up meat. To avoid avocados, less soya, less food.

The core claim in these campaigns remains, however, that needs as expressed by almost all people are not legitimate. They are wants, rather than needs. People want phones, they don’t need them. They want Firesticks and wrapping paper and coffee served in paper cups. We have to give up on these wants. Queue the Rolling Stones.

Consumer

This is a problem because the attack on consumer culture is - and will be experienced as - taking away something that is already enjoyed. It is difficult to hear, especially amid the constant din of advertising saying ‘you need this’, ‘you must have that’, ‘everyone else is enjoying everything you do not have’.

To tell one community that it will never enjoy the wealth or security currently enjoyed by another is highly likely to elicit only a negative response. To tell another community under stress that next year will be harder than today will also fail.

Even to tell the wealthiest community that the privileges and luxuries that it currently enjoys must be surrendered without resistance will - and has been - a recipe for failure.

Environmental campaigning that assumes that people’s acutely felt needs are not going to be met is in fact a barrier to people coming to appreciate the need for climate action.

Read our On The Nature of Change series here.

The decision taken that the environment movement should focus on the individual was made in part because challenging and confronting capitalism seemed too radical, both in terms of political positioning and scale.

Natural world

It seemed easier to attack the purchasing practices of a million individuals than the production practices of an entire world economic system. But if capitalism is too vast to challenge directly, how can it be outcompeted in messaging and behaviour change?

The problem is capitalism needs consumerism, more than any individual needs to consume. Capitalism as society, as economy, creates a system of needs of which the individual consumer is a small if necessary part. Capitalism in aggregate has significantly more resources to influence - and, through work, to coerce - individuals than any environmental organisation or cause.

Capitalism is a highly productive system which in parts of the world has created wealth for the majority of people that had only been enjoyed by very few. The crisis of capitalism is not underproduction (as it was in Adam Smith’s era) but is now overproduction.

The system of capitalism has already saturated people’s needs, and constantly needs to create new, artificial, needs. This is the mode and the function of the trillion dollar advertising industry, which has now subsumed the creatives industries, from music to high art. This is why we have Black Friday. This is why the profligacy and waste of our society is so acute, so apparent, that it is the primary target for many environmentalists.

The economic system is fundamentally about creating profit from investment, the accumulation of capital, in money terms. It is about making numbers on spreadsheets even higher numbers. This money signal means all needs must be quantifiable and subsumed to profit making. Everything is reduced to its cost, and the cost is reduced to the labour it takes to make them. Human lives are reduced to hours worked, and pounds per hour.

Exponential

Capitalism is in crisis not because people want to consume too much, but the very opposite: because the productive capacity of the system now far outstrips the needs and desires of those who have the wealth to be active agents in this economic world. Asking for more will not make a difference.

Capitalism is not in crisis because individuals need too much, want too much. The very opposite is true: capitalism continues to destroy the natural environment, and what remains of our natural world, in an infinite pursuit of profit. This is its purpose and function as a system. To change or limit this purpose is to change capitalism so fundamentally that it no longer functions or takes the form of capitalism.

The investor, or owner, in capitalism is reduced to the need for profit, and all other needs in the capitalist system are subsumed by this single need. The need of the worker, any person who needs to earn a living, is simply to have enough to survive, for life to feel worthwhile. These needs are diametrically opposed, a contradiction that leads to crisis.

Read our On The Nature of Change series here.

Capitalism, like natural systems, will - for this reason - cause its own destruction. The emergence of the climate breakdown is one manifestation of this concept. Where capitalism once divided us into classes, into owners and workers, into consumers and producers, it now unites us. The human species as a whole needs fundamental change.

Necessary needs

There is no class, or sector, or nation of people that does not need to prevent climate change, and therefore needs a radical change in how our economic systems function. How well this need is understood or appreciated by any individual varies enormously, but as the crisis matures the variance will by necessity reduce.

People holding the anxiety of climate change may have greater needs than those who continue to deny its urgency. Those living in geographical areas most impacted by climate change will need more support, more resources. They may not respond well to messages that they need less, must use less, that what they feel as needs are unnecessary wants. Taking away what they feel they need will cause resistance.

But you cannot have your cake and eat it. This much is clear. We - or more precisely, capitalism - cannot continue to produce the goods that appear to satisfy consumer needs for much longer, and certainly not at rate that is increasing exponentially.

The capitalist system attempts to negate this restriction through economic growth - allowing for the accumulation of capital and valorisation of investments through profits for the one percent without reducing the quality of life for the 99 percent. But in reality the contradiction is exported into the developing world, and into increased appropriation of nature, stress on the environment, pollution of the skies.

So how can we encourage people to need more, to have richer more fulfilling lives without reinforcing the falsehoods of capitalism and destroying what is left of the natural habitats and spaces (or indeed fertile agricultural land) on our finite planet?

To resolve this contradiction, to solve the apparent paradox, we need to have a better understanding of human needs.

Brands

We need to transition from a capitalist to a post-capitalist economic system to prevent the compound ecological and social crises becoming all consuming and permanent. This by necessity involves evolving from the system of needs that sits within capitalism, and one that instead nests within the earth’s ecological system.

The transition beyond capitalism will only manifest when people need more than capitalism can provide. But this is not more of the same. We need to saturate people’s basic needs, meet their necessary needs, so they have the confidence and self value to move beyond them and demand more.

The solution to the ecological crisis is to encourage everyone to expand and enhance their needs, they deserve more and they deserve better. Expanding - rather than contracting - the human system of needs will not lead to even greater levels of material production.

Read our On The Nature of Change series here.

The highest needs of human beings are connection, community, learning, play, free time, freedom and security. These are non-material needs, easily produced and reproduced through relationships of reciprocity. They are carbon neutral. 

People with a relative level of wealth do not need bigger televisions, but may need better television, or entertainment that is better than television.

Transformed

Teenagers are constantly reprimanded for following celebrities on social media using smartphones, but  can this really be understood and characterised as having too much, rather than having too little when local live music venues and theatres have been replaced with Costas, where there is no local fame, and not much local community, few career opportunities, almost no places for creative and social activity, and where peer pressure is fuelled by brands?

You really do need a working smartphone to survive in school today. You need to be constantly engaged in the conversations that are taking place all around you. You need to avoid the stigma that comes - and which is actively manufactured by international corporates - with having outdated models.

And our children need to demand more. More enriching experiences. Safer and more engaging school experiences. More time with teachers, more time with family, more free, unpressured time, with each other. More fun, more games, more everything. If we can encourage these needs, and meet these needs, iPhones will slide into the background. The same applies to adults.

The environment movement can honestly and boldly proclaim that the vision we have for the future will be significantly better for every individual than the world being created by capitalism. People’s needs will be better understood and better met when the human system of needs is the purpose and limitation of the world’s intersecting economic systems.

This argument can be made, and can be defended, based on a better understanding of how each of our needs can be understood only as a complex system of needs, and that these systems have evolved and developed (and continues to evolve) within - and as an aspect of - wider economic and ecological systems.

In my next article I want to provide a sketch of what the human systems of needs looks like within capitalism and how this will be transformed in a post capitalist, needs-centred society.

This Author

Brendan Montague is editor of The Ecologist, founder of Request Initiative and co-author of Impact of Market Forces on Addictive Substances and Behaviours: The web of influence of addictive industries (Oxford University Press)He tweets at @EcoMontague. Image copyright: https://pxhere.com/en/photo/472570. Read our On The Nature of Change series here.

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