The first priority of people is economic. Our first concern is physical survival, which means access to water, food and shelter, and a means (income) to sustain that access. Only after these needs are met do we turn our attention to ‘higher’ needs like community, culture, love, political participation and the environment we live in. (Side note: Although sustaining the environment is closely tied to sustaining our physical survival from a holistic perspective, the intergenerational and global nature of this connection makes it appear weaker from an individual perspective. We can discuss that another time.)
It’s a commonly held belief that people in industralising countries would, initially, be willing to pursue the goal of economic prosperity, even at the detriment to civil rights and the natural world – because economic prosperity is a baser (as in, more urgent) concern than the others. This is part of the narrative of China’s past 30 years. At a more refined level, this is also part of the narrative of the fall of the Swedish welfare state in the 1990s: social and economic equality could exist only in the framework of a strong economy.
But the social, civil and political movements of 2011 give pause for thought. Global mass discontent has been building up since the financial crisis of 2008, fueled of course by the consequent economic crisis. Political inability to fix the problems of unemployment and poverty, and public inability to fix the political impasse, have led to frustrated citizens coming together to voice their demands for a systems change. Examples from 2011 include the Arab revolutions; Occupy in the US and UK; the Indignants in Spain; overthrow of Berlusconi; and protests against election fraud in Russia, to name but a few.
It makes me wonder whether calls for political accountability, social safety nets, environmental stewardship and so on could actually come before demands for economic welfare. These movements come from countries with widely varying economic situations and histories, after all. Could it be? Have we debunked the commonly held belief stated earlier? Are the people finally waking up? Because if they are, it’s only a matter of time before they – we – force politicians to also realise that economic growth is but a means to an end, and to see what folly it is to pursue it at the cost of our humanity and our planet.