the temporality of meeting needs; discriminating environmental consumerism
Welcome to Digestable, your mouthful of things happening in the world.
After reading last week’s issue on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, my friend Chris sent me this article: How Indigenous Ways of Life May Offer Us a Way Forward with Origins in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, by Teju Ravilochan.
It’s pretty common for white people to take things they’ve learned from BIPOC communities and reframe them as their own ideas. In this case, it remains unclear if that’s completely what happened. Young Maslow went to visit
“Siksika — which is the name of the people, their language, and the Blackfoot Reserve — in the summer of 1938. His time there upended some of his early hypotheses and possibly shaped his theories.”
Some scholars believe that Maslow didn’t publish how the hierarchy of needs, shaped by Western and individualistic culture, differed from and was transcended by Blackfoot beliefs and practices because this connection with Indigeneity would have discredited his work. While Maslow is not solely responsible for the Western fear of community-forward, non-individualist Indigenous lifeways, this lack of credit obviously isn’t ideal.
One thing that came up for me last week was the inherent tension around time and temporality of meeting needs, according to the hierarchy. When tiers of a pyramid begin on the bottom with food and water, things we need every day, and end with self-actualization, which supposedly can wait, time is only linear. Then, there’s the implication of a pyramid: more on the bottom and fewer on the top, which suggests that while everyone needs (deserves?) to eat, only the lucky, bootstrap-yanking few get to experience self-actualization.
Dr. Cindy Blackstock of the Gitxan tribe, who has done research with the Blackfoot in context of the Hierarchy, articulates that in the Blackfoot worldview, there is an “expansive concept of time and multiple dimensions of reality.” Further:
“Maslow appeared to ask, “how do we become self-actualized?” Many First Nation communities, though they would not have used the same word, might be more likely to believe that we arrive on the planet self-actualized. Ryan Heavy Head explained the difference through the analogy of earning a college degree.
In Western culture, you earn a degree after paying tuition, attending classes, and proving sufficient mastery of your area of study. In Blackfoot culture, “it’s like you’re credentialed at the start. You’re treated with dignity for that reason, but you spend your life living up to that.”
So, in this framing, purely being alive—and, doing so in a community with the skills and devotion to meeting collective needs and navigating conflict—grants you access to all of the so-called tiers at once, constantly in conversation with one another.
Ravilochan explains that this expansive view of time, as beyond the bounds of an individual life, makes First Nations’ commitment to passing on culture a part of this set of Needs. Unlike a society organized around the concept that individuals are each responsible for meeting their own needs, an intergenerational community is “capable of meeting multiple needs in parallel.”
It’s funny to try to talk about these ancient Indigenous concepts and understandings in English, a language wielded by colonizers and constantly shaped by its use to that end.
I encountered another example of this linguistic hiccup last weekend. I had the pleasure of attending an agroecology gathering with people from La Via Campesina, Rural Vermont, SAAFON, and Migrant Justice. All three of these groups are devoted to grassroots organizing by people who work with and on land; I encourage you to follow the links and read more about/support them.
The most basic definition of agroecology is “the application of ecological concepts in farming.” This is a big oversimplification. At the gathering, a number of Latin American attendees articulated that agroecology is “a shorthand for doing what our ancestors have been doing for thousands of years.” Women from Chile and Nicaragua and Mexico described agroecology as a means of cultivating food sovereignty and community that can exist outside of and beyond capitalism. Agroecology is not just a nice way to farm. It’s a way of meeting community needs, “top to bottom,” in a funny nod to Maslow’s pyramid.
As our assorted systems collapse under the weight of the extractive racial capitalism that long overstayed its welcome, it is easy to fall into dismay. As a white person, many parts of these systems were built for me. As a white person, it is my job to release my grip on these systems, and follow the lead of people who have been working around an in spite of them for thousands of years. Hearing directly from Indigenous and Black organizers this last weekend was a clear reminder of that.
Back to the dismay, for a moment: there are already people who know how, and who are doing the work already, of building what comes after this catastrophe runs its course. Our collective work—our collective pursuit of both actualization and meeting our daily physiological needs—is to dismantle the systems of power standing in the way of that new construction. We must devote ourselves to the project of drawing power away from agribusiness, from the fossil lobby, from the organized and resourced right, so we can clear the way for a very old, and very new, way of meeting our shared needs.
The Second Look
Half-baked cultural criticism from Gabriel Coleman.
I bought a little keep-cup last week, one of those 8 oz glass to-go cups that are perfect for a latte or a flat white. Walking home sipping a hot chocolate out of my new item, any drop of retail-therapy satisfaction I felt was drowned out by guilt. This is just how I feel when I buy anything I can’t digest now. A lot of it is financial: I don’t have any budget to throw around these days and the act of buying a €24 cup whose only purpose is making it easier to purchase more €3 hot beverages feels so irresponsible. But the bigger source of guilt is environmental: anything in packaging, anything brand new, or that I haven’t needed for some time stresses me out to even think about buying.
There is, of course, a positive side to this discriminating environmental consumerism. Considering purchases so carefully has allowed me to develop personal relationships with the things I own. The clothing I get is primarily thrifted or gifted so everything has a little story to it, and making rudimentary repairs with a sewing kit allows things to stay usable for years.
There is an emotional level to these connections. My bike, more than anything, exemplifies this. The thing is 10 years older than I am and I lugged it all the way across the ocean from Brooklyn. Every time I oil its chain or re-tighten the shifter screw that keeps coming loose, our relationship develops.
It’s a contradictory way to think: an anti-materialism developed out of care for materials. I feel a little bad buying a keep cup because, even though I have a use for it, they’re also a bit trendy and that makes me worry that it doesn’t quite fit authentically into my life. I also think about the insulating silicone band. If the cup were to break, most of it is made from easily recyclable materials, but silicone is much more likely to end up in a landfill.
It is harder to care for things that aren’t made with recyclability, reparability, and durability in mind, because it shows that care wasn’t taken in their manufacture. This care and intention can easily be fetishised, like in the case of Cradle-to-Cradle certified items that use their intentional design as an excuse for a markup. But things don’t need to be rigorously over-designed to be sustainable, they just need to be simple and understandable.
There’s a bit of the KonMari method in this philosophy of caring about and for things, but while Marie Kondo is motivated by simplicity and functionality, it still portrays things as disposable after they break or cease to “spark joy.” In addition to not keeping, or buying in the first place, things that don’t fit in your life, you should also be able to understand how your things work, how to repair or dispose of them properly if they break.
I’m of two minds about things: part of me feels that my guilt and anxiety around purchasing things is a kind of unproductive asceticism that negatively impacts my quality of life. But the awareness, though maybe not its associated anxiety, does help me live (and buy) intentionally. On one hand I hate buying stuff; on the other, I love the things I have. So maybe this little coffee cup can become an important part of my life for years to come—if anything, my receipt should hold me to that commitment.