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Enough To Go Around

Paul Kando

There is a lot of fretting nowadays about the price of energy and about how there won’t be enough to run the world once fossil fuels are phased out. Enough for what, I ask, basic human needs or hyped-up consumer-wants?

Abundance on New England Farm
photo credit: Whole Systems Farm

Social scientists have described human needs in various ways. On my favorite list are nine interactive ones: subsistence, protection, affection, identity, understanding, participation, creation, idleness (rest) and freedom. It strikes me that, but for subsistence, fulfilling these needs requires precious little in the way of material goods or money, but they all require energy.

Contrast this short list of needs with a near-impossible catalogue of limitless human wants created largely by propaganda. Our “consumer economy” depends on us consuming stuff, regardless of whether we need that stuff or not. And to make us want more, we are subjected to a constant barrage of advertising and marketing. We are supposed to consume products – the economic system depends on it. In fact, we are more often referred to as “consumers”, than as citizens. We must keep on consuming, we are told, our prosperity depends on it. But does our happiness? The fulfillment of our needs?

In Portland, within a few blocks you can walk through Whole Foods, the opulent supermarket of food-feast-plenty, and past homeless panhandlers, soup-kitchens and underfunded shelters — plentitude for the fortunate next to shameful austerity. But visit a summer meadow or forest. There are no panhandlers, no soup kitchens there, only nature’s “whole foods” for every creature. Nature is bursting with plentitude.

We humans seem to have a management problem. All of nature depends on energy but, unlike in human society, nature’s energy management system is concentrated in the cells of each organism. From DNA coding to managing energy, everything of consequence living creatures do — from blades of grass to human bodies – depends on energy the cells make available, without interference by any intra-species pecking order or management hierarchy.

Furthermore, every single organism is part of a network of collaborators. Without microorganisms in our gut we could not survive. Trees communicate through networks of fungi intertwined with their roots. Members of the food chain are interdependent. Nature meets needs but caters to no wants.

Suppose we treated human society as an organism designed to meet everyone’s needs, forgetting our artificially whipped up wants. Let every “cell” — i.e. individual member of society — take responsibility for managing its own energy and meeting its own needs. No waiting for messianic solutions from above.

For example, we know how to build houses and create transportation systems 90% to 95% more efficient that today’s. We have the technology, the knowhow, the tools, all waiting for each of us to do our part, with support from a shared commons. What we lack is the commitment to act and the political will to meet fundamental human needs instead of whipped-up wants.

Who says there won’t be enough energy to go around if we all do our part, managing our resources to meet our needs, just as the rest of nature does day after day?