5.2 The Evolution of Needs

Hierarchy of Needs.jpg

Any relationship is a connection established to meet the needs of the two parties involved. Our relationship with the Earth is no different. Ideally, our relationship with the Earth must meet our needs as a species while also meeting the needs of the Earth and other beings on Earth, each giving to the other in a way that creates a mutually beneficial connection. In a slight variation on the standard Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the motivational speaker, Tony Robbins, breaks down human needs as follows[9]:

1. Need for Security/Certainty
2. Need for Novelty/Uncertainty
3. Need for Significance
4. Need for Connection/Love
5. Need for Growth
6. Need for Contribution/Giving

The first four needs are what he calls as "personality needs," which are necessarily met in some fashion or the other. The last two needs are spiritual needs, which are not always met, but when met, lead to true fulfillment and enhanced happiness.

During the Caterpillar phase of our existence, the human relationship with the world, born of fear, is based on domination and violence. In the early days of our Caterpillar phase, the core Dharma of our species, compassion for all Creation or kindness to all Life, had to be routinely violated in order for our ancestors to survive. After all, a kindly, peaceful presence is not an appropriate response when confronted by a hungry, saber-toothed tiger. Therefore, our ancestors were forced to teach their children to harden themselves, as a survival skill. They developed weapons to protect themselves and eventually turned the tables around and began to dominate over all other creatures. Scientists have discovered that the most reliable indicator of human arrival in any land mass on Earth, whether in Asia, Europe, Australia or North America, is the disappearance of large megafauna from that land mass. Evidently, the first thing that our human ancestors did when they arrived anywhere was to kill all the large megafauna that might otherwise have killed them instead[10].

During the Caterpillar phase, the domination paradigm meets the security needs of human beings through the exercise of violence and raw power.

The need for novelty is met through the process of material discovery and progress in the pursuit of a comfortable environment.

The violence that comes with domination meets the need for significance as other beings surely tremble before us.

The need for connection with the Earth is met through our pets and our agricultural endeavors.

But during the Caterpillar phase, it is very difficult for human beings to meet the spiritual needs, the need for personal growth and the need to contribute beyond oneself towards the Earth. We tend to substitute personal growth with physical and material growth through mindless consumption, which is spiritually unfulfilling. Such consumption makes it very difficult for us to meet our need to give freely towards a cause larger than ourselves.

Once people realized the difficulty in meeting their spiritual needs in the Caterpillar phase, they attempted to transition into the Butterfly phase. Pockets of steady-state human civilizations developed where people learned to coexist relatively harmoniously among themselves and with other beings in their environment. The purpose of these civilizations was to help people fulfill their spiritual needs in addition to their personality needs. These steady-state civilizations weren’t entirely nonviolent toward other animals and were therefore, not quite in the Butterfly phase.

In such civilizations, it is the community that meets the security needs of human beings.
The need for novelty is met through the arts or the search for enlightenment.

The need for significance is met through the achievement of excellence in some art or craft.

The need for connection is met through love and physical contact with the Earth.

The need for growth is met in the mental realm or the spiritual realm as opposed to the physical realm or the material realm.

The need to give freely of oneself is met in the service of the Earth community.

Such steady-state civilizations developed even as early as 60,000 years ago in places such as Australia[11]. In many cases, steady-state civilizations developed only after local climactic changes, desertification and other environmental catastrophes awakened people to the consequences of continuing with their domination paradigm in the Caterpillar phase. Steady-state civilizations existed in the Iroquois Confederacy and other indigenous communities of North America during the 12-15th centuries and still exist in indigenous communities throughout the world where people are generally contented and strive to meet their spiritual needs[12]. Historically, steady-state civilizations were not confined to small groups of people either. In his 1909 book, Hind Swaraj[13], Mahatma Gandhi wrote about the Indian civilization of the early 20th century as one such civilization where over 270 million people were generally contented with their lot, without constantly trying to “improve” some material aspect of their lives. This pervasive attitude of the Indians used to infuriate the British colonial rulers who ascribed it to "laziness,” but it was really due to the Indian's perceived lack of necessity for such material growth. Gandhi used the example of the plough whose design had been unchanged for over 1000 years in India, not because Indians were incapable of improving the design, but because Indians didn't feel the need for such improvement. In contrast, he pointed out that people in the Western civilization were still relentlessly improving every material product in a continual, competitive quest for greater profits. Over a thousand years ago, India had already imbued in her children the idea that spiritual growth was far more consequential and rewarding than material growth and bodily comforts, which only served to atrophy the physical health of human beings. Though these early steady-state civilizations were not utopian for all, they were successful at reaching equilibrium in Nature as hundreds of millions of people were living in an India with 90% forest cover, as late as the 18th century[14].

But such stable, steady-state civilizations also let their weapons technologies stagnate and thus became vulnerable to outsiders who were still in the Caterpillar phase and were continuing to develop weapons, seeking to dominate not just the environment, but other humans as well. Slowly but surely, a global industrial civilization linked most such pockets of human communities together in a connected presence around the world. This is a civilization that originated in the West, grounded in science and characterized by its development and use of sophisticated tools and technologies to meet its needs and desires. In the Caterpillar phase, this global industrial civilization is based on a hierarchical social structure derived from the domination paradigm and is rife with inequities and oppressions, as a consequence. Now, we are getting feedback from a personal health standpoint, from a compassionate standpoint and from an environmental standpoint, that it is time to evolve to an appropriate steady state version within this global industrial civilization. The loudest feedback of all is now coming from an environmental standpoint, through imbalances in various bio-geophysical life support systems on Earth. It is clear that the present human relationship with the Earth, based on the domination of Nature, cannot be sustained for long.

Though modern humans have been in existence for just 200,000 years or so, the ancestral split with our nearest living cousins, the bonobos and the chimpanzees, occurred about 3 million years ago. Those 3 million years have been truly unique in the Earth's history as this is when the Earth began transitioning between the cold ice ages and the warm interglacial periods in so-called Milankovitch cycles, with a periodicity of about 100,000 years[15]. The transitions were not smooth since the Earth's climate is a highly nonlinear system, exhibiting relatively rapid phase transitions from one metastable state to another. Global surface temperature changes on the order of 6 deg C (10 deg F) were common during those transitions, but over a period of thousands of years. During all those climactic gyrations, human impact on the planet was minimal at best, though all that changed with the advent of agriculture about 10,000 years ago.


[9] Tony Robbins describes his breakdown of needs in his TED talk: https://www.ted.com/talks/tony_robbins_asks_why_we_do_what_we_do

[10] George Monbiot reports on the connection between extinction and human arrival in this column: http://www.monbiot.com/2014/03/24/destroyer-of-worlds/

[11] Please read Prof. Will Steffen’s assessment here: http://www.isthishowyoufeel.com/this-is-how-scientists-feel.html#will

[12] Please see, e.g., http://www.firstpeoples.org/who-are-indigenous-peoples/how-our-societies-work

[13] The PDF of an English translation can be found online here: http://www.mkgandhi.org/ebks/hind_swaraj.pdf

[14] Klein Goldewijk, K., Beusen, A., Van Drecht, G. and De Vos, M., 2010: “The HYDE 3.1 spatially explicit database of human induced global land-use change over the past 12,000 years,” Global Ecology and Biogeography, vol. 20, issue 1, pp. 73-86, doi:10.1111/j.1466-8238.2010.00587.x

[15] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milankovitch_cycles