Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
I remember watching with horror one year an Easter egg hunt gone awry. There was this one little boy – bigger than most of the other kids – swooping in and quickly filling his basket with eggs. Even though he couldn’t fit any more in his basket, he knew there were still plenty of eggs still out there. The little boy first jammed as many eggs as he possibly could into his pockets before stuffing his face with the contents of the eggs already in his basket in order to make room for more. With a grim mixture of jelly bean goo and chocolate oozing out the side of his mouth, the little boy was back at it in no time – pushing little girls in pretty pink dresses to the ground in order to get one more egg from behind the flowering forsythia.
When Psychologist Abraham Maslow introduced his Hierarchy of Needs theory in 1943, he articulated the progressive stages of growth in humans especially the order in which human needs are met – from the most basic physiological needs to the more complex self-actualization needs. But closer examination of Maslow’s famed pyramid shows that these are the needs of the individual and even at the highest level the perspective is fully inward self-interest in order to avoid pain and to experience pleasure.
Maslow’s hierarchy then can be expressed as:
· My physiological needs (food, water, clothing, sleep)
· My safety needs (security of body, health, property, employment)
· My love and belonging needs (family, friendship, intimacy)
· My self-esteem needs (confidence, achievement, respected by others)
· My self-actualization needs (problem solving, creativity, morality)
So it’s not surprising that in all of human interaction each day, selfish-interest is often a driving motivator for many of us. It is an extraordinarily evolved and enlightened being that is able to move up and out of Maslow’s pyramid, out of the role of self-interest TAKER to that of compassionate GIVER.
And while scientists certainly do not agree as to whether or not humans are inherently selfish beings, it is often hard to see the altruism in our species. Some believe that we are entirely selfish which drives the natural selection process – survival of the fittest - looking out for number one first and foremost. Others look at chimpanzees and see a remarkable ability to empathize with their fellow chimpanzees in a community based on caring and sharing.
Regardless as to where you come out on this debate, it is pretty hard to argue that there is not at least a hint of TAKER in all of us to one degree or another. Most of us have been faced with the decision as to whether or not to take the last cookie from the cookie jar or to buy something that we really don’t need and can’t afford. It is the addictive lure of hyper-consumption driven by the TAKERS economy. But the TAKERS economy is on its last legs – and for that reason alone we need to completely rethink what kind of economy IS possible going forward.
Here’s the deal: For the last half-century we have pushed the pedal to the metal in creating a TAKERS economy based on hyper-consumption and we have exhausted our ability to push much further. While logic suggests that in order for us to create job growth we need to continue to grow the economy, there are very good reasons that a hyper-consumption strategy is no longer a good economic strategy for America for a number of reasons – and saving the whales is not the primary reason:
1. The TAKERS economy is unsustainable. It is simply not possible to continue to grow at levels that we have experienced in recent decades and have come to expect for future decades. GDP grew at an average rate of 1.69 percent per year in the first 10 years of the 21st century – the slowest rate of growth since the 1930s - and the first two years of the second decade of the 21st century is proving to be more of the same. So while environmental as well as physical and mental health issues are extraordinarily important reasons not to support hyper-consumption, the primary reason has to be that it just cannot, will not mathematically continue. Pundits and politicians who call for 4-5 percent GDP growth are completely delusional. It simply will not happen. Therefore, we must fashion a new type of economy that is based on actual needs and not unrealistic desires;
2. The TAKERS economy is bad for the environment. It forces us to strip the earth of limited natural resources and at the same time make it harder for all living things to exist;
3. The TAKERS economy is bad for us physically. We work excessive hours, travel excessive hours, and try to keep work and home moving forward in harmony – usually unsuccessfully. The whole sprint makes us physically ill. Our bodies are breaking down. We ache from head to toe;
4. The TAKERS economy is bad for us mentally. The constant up-tempo pace grinds at us – robs us of sleep, of time with family, of time by ourselves. Our minds are breaking down. We consume drugs just to cope – based on our doctors’ recommendations, our own self-medication efforts, or both.
We have arrived at a place in the history of our economy where we cannot stuff any more eggs into our baskets. We have taken and taken and taken and now something has to give.
We all have needs. And those needs can be filled – or as is the case with far too many of us - they can be overfilled. This is the result of the TAKER’S economy – hyper-consumption without regard to actual need. How much do we actually need? How many cars do we need? There are 50 million more registered cars and trucks in America than there are licensed drivers. How many televisions do we need? The average American home has 2.25 of them and 60 percent have three or more. How much food do we need? When will we finally stop over-buying produce that ends up rotting in the vegetable drawer of our refrigerators? When will we stop putting things in boxes that we will never, ever use again? We can fill the entire island of Manhattan with all the stuff currently in self-storage in America – and that does not include what’s in our closets, basements, attics or garages.
What we all need is a TAKER’S check up – an assessment of what we have and what we really need. So here’s a simple exercise for you the next time you find yourself home on a rainy Saturday:
1. Empty all the contents from your closet and dresser drawers onto your bed;
2. Separate the contents into two piles: the first pile consists of clothing/shoes that you have worn over the last 12 months. The second pile consists of clothes you have NOT worn over the last 12 months. Be brutally honest;
3. Neatly reload your closet and drawers with the contents from pile #1;
4. Bag up the contents from pile #2 and give it all away to Goodwill or the Salvation Army
If you are like me, you will be surprised – no disgusted - at the size of pile #2 and will be shamed into action. After you’ve given it away, you will feel remarkably good to have all at once lightened your load and at the same time provided for someone in real need.
Now you’re a GIVER. Welcome to the GIVERS economy.