| Viagra may help to save endangered
species. That was the odd sounding headline of a recent Reuters
It turns out that Viagra has reduced demand for reindeer
antler velvet and for the sex organs of Canadian seals. It
may be helping green turtles, geckos, and sea horses, too.
Parts of these animals are used in Chinese cures for impotence,
and, because Viagra provides a cheaper, more effective remedy,
demand for the organs of these animals is diminishing.
Wildlife protection programs that have been trying to protect
these species for years have been pushing against a pressure
arising out a very basic human need. With the discovery of
a better way to meet that need, protecting these species might
no longer be such an uphill battle.
This story has its amusing side, but it also makes an important
point about the transition to sustainability. If a problem
is arising from an unmet need, meeting that need directly
can make the problem fade away almost effortlessly. This makes
addressing fundamental needs a powerful point of leverage,
a place where small efforts can create large changes.
So . . .
- What are our real needs?
- Are they actually met in the ways we expect them to be?
These tend not to be comfortable questions. If you don't
believe me play out these two scenarios in your mind.
Imagine yourself wondering aloud over Thanksgiving dinner
at Aunt Mary's house how well her new rug has filled her needs
for acknowledgment, respect, and self-expression. Or imagine
yourself standing up at a town meeting and asking if others
agree that your town has grown prosperous enough to have no
need to attract more businesses. You may be brave enough to
ask questions like these, but I'd be surprised to hear that
you find the asking easy.
These are hard questions because they reveal a growing tension
in our society.
On the one side lies the set of assumptions that most of
us grew up with. According to this way of thinking, we need
an awful lot. And much of what we need is scarce. We need
to be strong and smart to secure our share. The only way we
will be able to satisfy our needs is for our economy to grow
and grow and grow.
On the other side of the divide the assumptions are flipped
around. According to this mindset we have some basic physical
needs which could be easily satisfied on our finite planet
if we could just be efficient with resources and equitable
about their distribution. The rest of our needs, this way
of thinking proclaims, are non-material. We need love, respect,
appreciation, creativity, and a sense of contribution. The
resources to meet these needs are virtually limitless, although
not yet very well tapped.
If two such different ways of thinking co-exist within one
society then things are bound to feel uncomfortable. All of
us, from the most fervent believer in the status quo to the
most radical tree-hugger, carry at least a little bit of both
of these paradigms inside of us. We can't help it. Pretty
much all of us grew up in the midst of the first way of thinking,
and the second way is slowly percolating in the oddest places.
Movie stars question a looming war over oil. Demand for organic
food is rising. Quiet church congregations market fair-trade
coffee. Our culture embraces two contradictory views of the
nature of our needs and the best way to met them. As individuals,
most of us do as well.
That's why these questions are so hard to ask. It feels pretentious
to question Aunt Mary's apparent attempts to satisfy a non-material
need with a material object when we know that we did something
similar ourselves last week. And it is hard to have faith
that there really will be enough if we could just share, when
we have never lived in a world based on sharing.
New paradigms replace old ones when peoples' confidence in
the old paradigm is shaken by observations that can't be explained
by the old paradigm. That is why we must ask these questions
no matter how hard they are to raise.
How will having more stuff make any of us happier? Ask yourself,
your aunt, your church group and your senator. Ask as clearly
as you can, and as compassionately, remembering that each
of us is a mixture of the old thinking and the new.
Ask if it makes sense to spend so much on an army to protect
our access to resources and energy when rising levels of resources
and energy don't seem to be making us happier, healthier,
Build up the new, even as you see the old thinking faltering.
Talk about the happiness you find in family or community,
the joy that fills you on a walk to the sea, the meaning you
find in serving others. Make your own life a reference point
that shows how it looks when non-material needs are filled
What we take from the earth today shapes our children's future.
How we see our needs shapes what we take from the earth. And
the questions we ask shape how we see our needs.
Which is to say, our questions shape our children's future.
So be brave. Ask good questions.
Previous articles by Beth Sawin
Beth Sawin is a mother, biologist and systems analyst
who lives in Hartland, Vermont and works at the Sustainability
Institute. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
to receive a monthly column on systems and sustainability.