Health Care or The Environment.

Which Comes First?
A look at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
By: Craig Cimmons

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

As an environmentalist, I paid close attention to the candidate’s environmental stances and solutions during the Presidential election of 2009. However, the more I listened, the more apparent something became. American citizens are not going to devote their full attention to the needs of the environment until their own needs are met. With America’s health care system in need of desperate repair, the average citizen is worrying about problems closer to home then the large scale, hard to understand, global environmental problems.

Families that are losing everything they own to fight a disease, (or live in fear of this happening) do not have any resources (time, energy and money) to devote to anything outside of these problems.  A family that is watching cancer slowly consume their loved one (and their life savings) should never be expected to fight enormous problems like global warming, peak oil and the steady decrease of drinking water.

Would you stop someone on their way to visit their dying child to educate them about the loss of polar bear habitat?  No, of course not, but this happens every day as the environmental movement works hard to educate the public about slowing down the rate of planet wide destruction.  However, with so many Americans fighting personal battles at home the message is falling on ears to full to hear anything else.
In his famous work on human motivation, the American psychologist, Abraham Maslow describes a hierarchy of needs that is predetermined in order of importance. “It is often depicted as a pyramid consisting of five levels: the lowest level is associated with physiological needs, while the uppermost level is associated with self-actualization needs, particularly those related to identity and purpose. The higher needs in this hierarchy only come into focus when the lower needs in the pyramid are met.” source
The base of the pyramid is supported by the physiological needs such as food, water, vitamins and minerals.  The aspects of life which control homeostasis.  As these are satisfied the attention of the individual starts to focus on the next level of needs – their safety.
In 1943, Maslow wrote the below statement about safety needs:
“The healthy, normal, fortunate adult in our culture is largely satisfied in his safety needs. The peaceful, smoothly running, ‘good’ society ordinarily makes its members feel safe enough from wild animals, extremes of temperature, criminals, assault and murder, tyranny, etc.  Therefore, in a very real sense, he no longer has any safety needs as active motivators.  If we wish to see these needs directly and clearly [in a modern society] we must turn to… the economic and social underdogs.  [We] can perceive the expressions of safety needs only in such phenomena as… the common preference for a job with tenure and protection, the desire for a savings account, and for insurance of various kinds (medical, dental, unemployment, disability, old age).” Maslow 1943

In other words; since basic safety needs such as shelter, and protection form physical harm are largely taken care of in American society other aspects of life become safety concerns.  Things such as physical health, economic security, the family, and property occupy the second level of the pyramid (notice these are all the aspects lost when an illness consumes a person’s life).
It seems to be that many people in our society are stuck trying desperately to fulfill their safety needs and only once these needs are intact, an individual can move further up the pyramid to the higher levels of need fulfillment, which include: love and belonging; self esteem; and finally self-actualization.
The question arises, are we living in a “peaceful, smoothly running, ‘good’ society”?  In addition, when we look at the “economic and social underdogs” in America we see exactly what Maslow describes above.   Plus we can’t ignore the 47 million Americans without health care. Like stated above this becomes a safety need and will take much of the persons attention until fulfilled.
As environmentalists, we can not expect a society to change its behavior towards the natural world until: either the vast majority of the societies safety needs are met or, the environmental problems represent threats to their safety.  Which option would you choose?
What does this mean for environmentalists?
To be an environmentalist one has to be a humanitarian. Yes, this is often the case but one needs to realize the amount of energy that would be redirected to preserving the natural world if the citizenry of the US were healthy and had medical coverage.  If, as a country, we can meet the safety needs of the people, their attention would either move up the pyramid to higher levels  or their definition of safety would change to include environmental problems.  Until the general population understands that environmental destruction is a direct threat to their safety the problems will never get the attention they deserve.
We have a responsibility to follow the heath care debate and do whatever we can to help every single person in this country have good affordable health care.  Until that happens we will forever be teaching important lessons to people with greater things are their minds.
If you consider yourself an environmentalist then in order to save the polar bears, you need to help get every American health care.

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3 Responses to “Health Care or The Environment.”

  1. mtnspirit Says:

    Craig, Nice post, and well said. I hadn’t thought of it quite the way you put it, but you’ve hit the nail on the head. Keep up the good posts!

  2. Matt"the bear"French Says:

    I agree with your perspective Craig. It is hard to care about polar bears dying when you are worried about dying yourself.

  3. Tony Cullen Says:

    Craig you make a very interesting and timely point. People will not care about the environment until all there basic needs are met. You see this in developing industrial countries like China and India. The environment is being compromised in order for China to grow, expand their middle class and become a wealthy nation. All the while the poor are dealing with the increase in pollution and toxic waste that threatens the livelihood and health of people in rural fishing and farming communities.
    Unfortunately it seems to be a necessary evil. In order for a country to be able to afford such a thing as universal health care they must first go through a industrial phase (cheap and dirty) where the earth comes last. America is at a crossroad, we are in a position that few other countries are in. If we can afford a better life for everyone, poor and wealthy, what is the problem?

    Nice article man, sorry for the monologue.

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