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The problem of survival

Can we at least predictably meet our needs for survival? Maybe not…

The Happiness Problem is that we are motivated to predictably meet our needs even if doing so causes harm to others and ourselves. In a previous post, I looked at how this relates to our needs for connection. In this post, I will consider how the problem relates to our needs for survival.

As animals, we have various biological needs, for air, food, water, warmth, shelter, and so on. These are often described as our ‘basic needs’. However, they are far from straightforward. Supplying 7 billion people with food is something we’ve yet to work out how to do – people around the world still die of hunger, despite the fact that we produce enough food to potentially feed everyone. Even within rich nations, (far too) many people go hungry. So what exactly is basic about our ‘basic needs’?

For many people in rich nations, meeting their biological needs is something they can do with relative certainty and security. If you have a stable job, it is unlikely that you are going to starve. There will always be food in the supermarket, which can be purchased in return for your hard earned cash. Highly specialist and cooperative societies make surviving relatively easy. We do our job and in return we get to meet our needs for survival.

However, even within this situation, things are more complicated. Getting a job may not be so easy after all. In the US, up to 41% of high school dropouts are classified as ‘jobless’, which is astonishing. Even if you do have a job, successfully doing it is another thing altogether. Many jobs are often difficult, sometimes harmful. As the political philosopher Elizabeth Anderson argues in her book, Private Government, workplaces can be some of the most abusive and unequal environments we are forced to spend our time in. Even if we have a relatively safe working environment, being stressed and busy to the point of burn out is often considered to be the norm.

On a collective level, keeping the economy of rich nations going, so that as many people as possible within them can meet their basic needs, can be far more destructive. As Jason Hickel argues in his book, The Divide, international trade deals between rich nations and poor nations often exacerbate global inequalities to maintain our current states of affluence. On a planetary scale, we all want cheaper food and other goods (clothes, phones, cars, etc); this results in the mass destruction of natural habitats in the search for cheap minerals, and the mass exploitation of distant workers in the form of cheap labour.

Of course, things can be done differently. Each of the books I’ve mentioned above offers alternatives: we can have more democratic workplaces; we can reduce unemployment and global inequality; we can consume more sustainable goods, have more sustainable lifestyles; and so on. And of course we should do these things. However, to a certain extent, this misses the point.

Even if we were all to have enough food, water, warmth, shelter, etc, there will always be ways in which we can meet our needs for survival with even more certainty and security. The world is a complex place, whereby every potential solution for meeting our needs is likely to cause further problems. For example, industrial farming – which is responsible for feeding most people in rich nations – has ended up depleting the soil. According to one UN senior official, on a global scale, we might have only 60 harvests of industrial farming left before it becomes untenable. Solutions to complex problems are likely to cause further problems, which will require further solutions, and so on.

As another example, almost all goods we consume – including food – use oil in their production. As Leif Wenar argues in his book, Blood Oil, this oil often comes from poor nations with authoritarian regimes, resulting in further poverty, human rights abuses, civil wars, mass refugees, and international terrorism. Without oil, we would not be able to certainly and securely meet our needs for survival in almost all the ways we currently do. This is the problem of survival.

Predictably meeting our needs within all this complexity is a fantasy. There will always be problems to solve, and further problems created by those solutions. Uncertainty and insecurity are here to stay. Instead of desperately trying to eliminate them from our lives, we must face them head on and relate to them in a number of different ways. That’s what this blog is all about.

Before ending this post, however, consider how the problem of survival feels on a more personal level. We are all motivated to be physically comfortable – to have more energy, or at least not expend too much of it. For some, this will mean spending more time inside, keeping warm, sitting down. For others, this will mean eating food that provides a quick release of energy – high in sugars, fats, etc. We may know that these kinds of behaviours are not so good for us – better to get outside more or eat less. Yet, it can be incredibly hard to do so.

As mentioned in this post, our emotions and moods make us see the world in certain ways. When we are hungry, we see sugary and fatty foods as appealing; when we are cold, we see spending time outdoors as too physically demanding. It’s very hard to change how reality looks to us – kind of like doubting whether we are really awake, or noticing that we are in a dream while dreaming.

Nonetheless, this is exactly the kind of thing that is required of us, on both an individual and collective level, in order to begin solving the Happiness Problem.

3 suggestions for further reading:

  • Elizabeth Anderson: Private Government

  • Jason Hickel: The Divide: A Brief Guide to Global Inequality and its Solutions

  • Leif Wenar: Blood Oil: Tyrants, Violence, and the Rules that Run the World

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