(This piece is a slightly modified excerpt from my upcoming book, Spinning Threads of Radical Aliveness: Transcending the Legacy of Separation in Our Individual Lives, which is scheduled to come out early in 2014.)
My vision is of a world in which needs are routinely met, in which the experience of need satisfaction is the norm rather than the exception. Considering how far this vision is from what we mostly know in our modern world, the question of the possibility of meeting human needs takes on a great deal of significance.
In this excerpt, I am skipping the section that deals with some theoretical questions related to this problem, as my intention is to focus on the practicalities.
Ultimately, the question of need satisfaction can only be answered in practice. Unfortunately, as far as I know, no human society has been solely dedicated to meeting human needs, and the data for assessing this question on a large scale simply doesn’t exist. However, on a smaller scale, my work over the years has shown me beyond any doubt for me that more satisfaction is possible even before changing social conditions.
This brings me to some deep questions that so far humanity as a whole has not found a way to answer. What would it take for optimal need satisfaction to become a societal goal? How can we produce and allocate resources in a way that’s most conducive to meeting everyone’s needs? What societal and individual changes are most likely to change patterns of consumption to make resources available more widely? In large part, these are the questions that led me to embark on the project of writing this book and its sister, Reweaving Our Human Fabric: Working together to Create a Nonviolent Future, which I imagine will be out in the summer.
The claim that human needs are in principle satisfiable tells us nothing aboutwhether or not they will be satisfied, or even can be satisfied in given conditions. Clearly, it is not possible to satisfy human needs if there is no limit to how many of us there are or to our consumption patterns and social habits. Human beings are now in a time and place where physical reality is imposing clarity on us. Because of physical constraints given by living on a finite planet, there is an upper limit to just how many of us can live on the planet and reproduce without destroying the planet. Determining this number is not simple, because part of what affects it is our consumption patterns as well as our collective ability to utilize and create resources for satisfying needs.
Two facts remain incontrovertible. One is that with each passing year there are more of us here and we have fewer natural resources. Sooner or later, unless we change our collective ways on the planet, we will exceed the earth’s carrying capacity. The other is that many more people’s biological needs could be met if consumption patterns were changed and/or resources were allocated differently.
Thus, although the underlying question of available resources is a true physical limit, we can only address it at the level of social organization. It is only at that level that the real moral and political issues become primary.
Every form of social organization includes in it implicit (or explicit) decisions about whose needs are prioritized, which needs are recognized and valued, and how resources are allocated towards meeting such needs. Our dominant liberal theories resolve the question by not addressing it, or by assuming, implicitly, that the function of the system is to use the mechanisms of the market to meet pre-existing needs. We regularly reduce the question of whether or not human needs can be met to an empirical matter of market supply and demand.
Under capitalism, a system of social organization pitting us against each other, the most valued needs are those relating to individual autonomy, narrowly defined. Our legal system, for example, is based on protecting us and our property from each other, not on fostering community and shared resources. Our economic system offers individual rewards for work that creates wealth for other individuals, while ignoring or under-rewarding work of equal or greater social importance that does not; so selling luxury goods nets a lot more money than providing childcare. Connection and community, primary in many other social arrangements, are increasingly left up to the individual to create in a world of shrinking time, increased mobility and dislocation, and growing mistrust.
Indeed, autonomy has become a fierce non-negotiable for many of us in advanced industrial societies, to the point of being used as an argument against social programs designed to provide universal services such as access to health care. Ironically, even autonomy often gets measured by or translated into consumption patterns and decisions.
In socialist and communist regimes, on the other hand, other needs have been prioritized. Autonomy, in the form of freedom of speech and in the form of life choices, has not usually been high on the priority list. Instead, access to education and healthcare has been prioritized. From the perspective of a Western, liberal democracy, conditions in such societies are entirely unacceptable. Indeed, the level of repression and horror in many such societies, including the killing of millions of people, has been a dark chapter in human history, equivalent only to other totalitarian regimes. From the perspective of many people in socialist regimes, however, including many who wish they had access to more consumer goods, the level of poverty and isolation within capitalist societies is unacceptable.
This level of poverty exists despite the fact that there is more than enough food to feed everyone in the world adequately. The reasons that a billion people or more are chronically malnourished lie more in the realm of distribution than availability.
The Problem of Inequality
How are we going to evaluate this disparity in access to resources? What makes it equitable or not? There is no simple answer to this fundamental question, because we have at least four different schemes for evaluating what counts as justice in resource allocation, and no method for deciding between them. Our current system for allocating resources is based on what is known as equity of output, namely how much we each produce in the market economy (traditionally ignoring, for example, women’s output in the home or volunteer work for helping the community). The quantification itself is made monetarily, and it’s our access to money that gives us access to resources.
Resources can also be allocated on the basis of equity of effort, which would imply some way of measuring how much effort we each put into attempting to contribute, regardless of how much contribution we are actually making. Paying employees on the basis of hours worked allocates resources based on effort. Paying employees on the basis of units of production is based on output.
Yet another method is allocating resources on the basis of equality, a numerical distribution where everyone gets the same amount. This system is the one we use when we set up a buffet of food that is being served by a caterer and where everyone gets an identical plate with the same amount of food.
The final method for allocating resources is based on needs. Regardless of what we produce, or how much effort we put into contributing, we get a share of resources that is related to our needs.
Allocating resources on the basis of output equity is the method least tied to empathy. It’s a way of obscuring from view the fact that having fewer resources means we are less likely to be able to contribute, which means we receive less and continue to have our needs unmet. We have created a cycle which reinforces patterns of economic inequality while making them appear to be based on a just distribution. One result of such a system is insensitivity to others’ needs, and an overall decrease in empathy.
Privilege works in part by masking the needs of others and habituating some segment of the population to having some of their needs met at the expense of others without even knowing this is so. In particular, many people with privilege protect themselves from recognizing the effects of their privilege on others by attributing others’ suffering to their own actions. This is what I see as the common view that people are poor because of not working hard enough. Indeed, research indicates that people with lower income score better on measures of empathy than people of higher means. It is one thing to cultivate an abstract recognition that others have needs. It is a whole other matter for all of us who have access to privilege to give attention and consideration to how we might change our daily actions in order to be more responsive to others’ needs.
Allocating resources on the basis of needs is most closely related to empathy. This method invites us to understand and care about each other’s needs as we share resources. Whatever anyone produces, we all need to eat, for example. We cannot share resources based on needs without relating to each other and understanding our needs. In such a system empathy becomes invaluable, because cultivating empathy as a central value and a way of life increases the possibility of attentiveness to as many needs as possible, and to the unique and varied ways in which needs manifest themselves in people of different cultures, ages, and groups more generally. Conversely, when human needs are satisfied, empathy is nurtured and expanded.
Since I am always so interested in how vision and understanding relate to actual choices we make – individually and collectively – I plan my next piece in this series to be about the implications of all this for the daily and mundane decisions we all make, wherever we are in the overall economic system. I want to explore whether, as individuals, we can make a difference if we want to move in this direction of using needs as the foundation of resource allocation. And, where we cannot, what we can do internally to achieve some modicum of inner peace and capacity to keep aiming for that dream even if we never get there in our lifetime.