Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: What this pyramid says about us and climate change

 

A A A

Abraham Maslow was an American psychologist of the mid-20th century, a scholar of human behaviour generally known for one particular imaginative insight into how people behave: his hierarchy of needs.

Sometimes depicted as a pyramid with several layers (pictured) and occasionally referred to as Maslow's hierarchy of values, this is a simple but convincing visualisation of human motives – from the basic, at the bottom, to the more rarefied, at the peak. And the point is, lower ones always affect us before higher ones.

Thus, at the base are the physiological needs that simply have to be satisfied before all else, such as oxygen, water, food and sleep (and, somewhat controversially, Maslow in this category included sex); while one step up from these are needs that might fit under the label of safety, and would include shelter, health, employment and the possession of resources to defend oneself and one's family.

Then the needs, the values, get less worldly, more spiritual: with the next layers up, Maslow focused on the ideas of love and belonging, of friendship and family, then on the more specifically positive idea of esteem, of self-esteem and esteem for others; at the top, he placed the need for what he termed self-actualisation, which we might interpret as how people act to bring out the best in themselves.

You could see this as creativity, perhaps, or morality; certainly, altruistic behaviour, such as concern for the environment, is up in that top bracket. And the implication, which will become increasingly clear to us as the economic downturn takes hold, is that many people have to satisfy an awful lot of other personal needs before they climb up to the top, where the environment seems important.

Let us admit it: environmental concern, in the developed world, at any rate, is largely a phenomenon of prosperity, of times when these other basic wants have been satisfied. If millions of people have no jobs, they will not give a fig for climate change or endangered species; they will want to keep their homes and feed their families, and the rest can go hang.

The great outburst of environmentalism in the late 1980s, when people flocked to join groups like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, and took up arms over whaling and deforestation and global warming, occurred during a colossal economic boom; and the fairly shallow recession of the 1990s was not enough to derail it. There followed 10 more years of unbroken economic growth, the Blair years, if you like, when greenery became a young person's religion, and the world was able to agree an emissions-cutting climate treaty, the Kyoto protocol.

But now prosperity has vanished, and environmentalists are going to find that the political resonance of their concern is vanishing, too. A straw in the wind was the language used by the Chancellor, George Osborne, in his Autumn Statement on Tuesday: openly contemptuous of green policies if they get in the way of growth. You may think that this was mere arrogance, and a political mistake; but you may also think he had a shrewd idea it would now strike a chord with a majority of the voters.

Environmentalists will have to face up to the fact that environmental measures will be more and more difficult to implement over the next few years of economic pain, so they will have to fight harder to bring them about. But they should remember that, even though the political resonance may be ephemeral, the problems themselves are enduring.

The threat of climate change will not diminish if ordinary people understandably discount it for a few years – just the opposite – and a cherished ecosystem that goes under concrete has gone forever, and cannot be brought back when prosperity returns. The health of the natural world is worth fighting for, whatever the state of the economy.

A charity that's made such a difference deserves saving

Another sign of all not being well on the green front; one of Britain's oldest environmental charities is to close down. It's presently called Environmental Protection UK, but, when I first ran into it more than 20 years ago, it went by the slightly more cumbersome but definitely more memorable name of The National Society for Clean Air; it is the nation's foremost lobbying body specifically concerned with air pollution.

As such, it was largely responsible for the Clean Air Act of 1956, which banned coal fires and thus put an end to London smogs, and it also had a lot to say in the campaign for lead-free petrol in the 1980s. But its origins go way back to 1898 when it began as the Coal Smoke Abatement Society.

As long as I've known it, its specialised expertise has been formidable. Now cuts in funding from local authorities mean it is heading for closure at the end of the financial year. Any bankers out there who want to give some of their bonus back, and save it?

m.mccarthy@independent.co.uk; twitter.com.mjpmccarthy

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Leah Devine is only the ninth female to have made the Young Magician of the Year final since the contest began more than 50 years
peopleMeet the 16-year-old who has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year
News
Jonathan Anderson was born in Northern Ireland but now based between London, where he presents a line named JW Anderson
peopleBritish designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
News
Andy Davidhazy at the beginning (left) and end (right) of his hike
video
News
Taylor Swift is applying to trademark song lyrics from 1989
people
Voices
The popularity of TV shows such as The Liver Birds encouraged Liverpudlians to exaggerate their Scouse accent
voicesWe exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

How to make your own Easter egg

Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

Cricket World Cup 2015

Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing