We're Having a Maslow Moment

People are worrying more about basic needs than they are about the environment.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs, updated.
Maslow's hierarchy of needs, updated.


In Abraham Maslow's 1943 book "A Theory of Human Motivation," he introduced the concept of the hierarchy of needs. Kendra Cherry of Verywell Mind writes that "Maslow believed that people have an inborn desire to be self-actualized, that is, to be all they can be. In order to achieve these ultimate goals, however, a number of more basic needs must be met such as the need for food, safety, love, and self-esteem."

After the Great Recession, we noted a significant drop in interest in all things environmental, and we wrote a lot more about frugal green living and do-it-yourself, really catering to those basic physiological and safety needs. "Peak Green" was around 2010 and it has really never fully recovered.

Now Suzanne Shelton of the Shelton Group notes in Greenbiz that the pandemic is having the same effect. According to her recent survey:

  • Pre-pandemic, 41 percent of Americans wanted to be seen as someone who buys eco-friendly products. In the middle of the pandemic, that number has come down to 33 percent.
  • Pre-pandemic, 27 percent of us felt as if we personally could do something about the plastic waste crisis. Today, only 18 percent of us feel that way.

Shelton raises Maslow's hierarchy as an explanation for how people worrying about more basic things.

"It’s clear in our data that Americans feel less able to self-actualize for the environment because they’re panicked about meeting their safety and physiological needs. The top two worries we have — by far — according to our recent polling are the health of the economy and disease outbreaks."

Shelton confirms what my colleague Katherine Martinko wrote about in "Shoppers Have Become Less Concerned About Single-Use Plastics." Katherine noted that "the perception of single-use plastics drastically changed. They went from being vilified to being seen as protection against contamination by the virus." I have also written about the boom in takeout and delivery, and how we will all be poor, fat, and buried in plastic. Shelton explains why:

"In fact, you might say that the Great Awakening of our massive systemic issues — spurred by COVID-19 and the murder of George Floyd — has allowed us to go to sleep, for the moment, on the environment. One last thing for context: With all the noise about the economy, coronavirus, politics and so forth, we’re all hearing less about every single environmental issue we track. For instance, last year 63 percent of Americans said they had heard about bans on single use plastic. Now that number is down to 54 percent."

It's all pure Maslow now.

"This is truly about self-actualization and Maslow’s framework. We just can’t spend the energy to create ourselves, our actions, our lives as environmental stewards when all that energy is being taken up with worry about finances and health."
The Future We Want
The Future We Want. Tesla

I have often invoked Maslow and complained about how self-esteem and recognition come below self-actualization, which is why people are so excited about Elon Musk and "The Future We Want" – solar shingles and big batteries and a Tesla in the garage – rather than a Passive House where you can't see anything, it's all in the walls and the windows. You can't get recognition when nobody can tell what you put your money into. I noted earlier:

Abraham Maslow was right when he described his hierarchy of needs; housing and bikes are in many ways, down at the physiological level, the first things that people need to survive. Passive House, in a lot of ways, gives one security and stability, at least when it comes to temperature and comfort. But the Tesla package really talks to self-esteem, to recognition, and respect. It is what people in America appear to want, what they aspire to, what they want to show off to their neighbors.

But that was written before the pandemic. Now people might be concerned about more basic needs. Shelton notes that "climate change IS the next big health issue and economic issue," but she suggests that we start at the bottom of that pyramid, discussing those basic issues of society’s safety and physiological needs as a way of leading into the issues.

I have tried to do the same thing in green building and green living; start at the bottom of the hierarchy of needs, stop chasing expensive add-ons and baubles, and go for the basics, the stuff that delivers security, stability, shelter, and warmth.

And of course, WiFi.