Hierarchy of Sustainability

“I want to show you the reality of the plastic situation, you live in a bubble in Vancouver…”

This was a line in a recent email I received from Mr Doble at the International School of Manilla. The school was inviting me to come and talk to their students about sustainability, permaculture and reducing plastic waste. I was honoured to be asked and intrigued by this last part of the email. I accepted.

I nervously placed the helmet over my head, quickly scanning the motorbike for, I don’t know what, it looked solid. I looked at my Luna sandals, shorts and t-shirt and questioned whether a cotton jumper would offer any better protection in an accident. I was already sweating having not exerted myself in any way, screw it, on I climbed.

I was about to be taken on a tour of Manilla’s plastic waste on Mr Doble’s (James) motorbike. I’d only been in the country five minutes, it was certainly different to Vancouver, the noise, the traffic, the plastic I had already seen, the bubble was well and truly burst.

As we weaved in and out of the cars, buses, trucks, mopeds, people, I managed to pry open my eyes enough to see the reality of the situation. First stop was the Pasig River.

I peered over the bridge and was left stunned. Plastic was everywhere. The banks were covered, there was a constant flow of plastic flowing downstream. We were stood only a half a kilometre from the ocean and it was heart breaking to see how much plastic was flowing directly into the ocean, all day every day. Canada has its own plastic problems but this was on another level.

View of the plastic continually flowing into the ocean down the Pasig River.

View of the plastic continually flowing into the ocean down the Pasig River.

James looked disappointed,

“I knew this would happen.”

“Whats that?”

“The one time I want to show someone the plastic and they’ve actually cleaned it up”

It did not look very cleaned up to me.

James assured me that this was looking good. A quick google search showed me the reality of what it usually looks like.

Photo from Greenpeace.org of what the river usually looks like.

Photo from Greenpeace.org of what the river usually looks like.

I spent a lot of time while in the Philippines comparing the plastic situation there to that in Canada. It’s a very complicated issue. We are all responsible and must all play a part in finding a solution. Governments, companies, shops, consumers, waste disposal, we all must be involved in this.

There seems to me a big difference between Canada and the Philippines, or any developed and developing countries around plastic consumption. On the surface (not just of the river) it seems like they produce more waste, but the reality is that on a per person basis, people in developing countries like the Philippines create less waste.

The other main observation is that the more problems, the more struggles you have on a day to day basis, the less you are likely to have capacity to change your behaviour to help the environment. If you are barely making enough money to pay rent, feed your family, etc. you are unlikely to be adding #zerowaste to your instagram account.

When I visited poorer parts of the Philippines I noticed more single use plastic discarded on the floor. The same is true in Canada. This is partly due to less infrastructure in these areas to clean it up, but it also seems consistent with this theory.

When I was paying attention at University, I remembered learning about Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs. Maslow identified that there is a hierarchy of needs that people need to achieve to be fulfilled. We must achieve the needs in the lower part of the hierarchy to achieve the ones higher up. This model has been appearing in my mind a lot since the trip. I think this is a good way of understanding our relation to sustainability, and our ability to take action to address the problem.

Maslows Hierarchy of Needs

Maslows Hierarchy of Needs

Is it not easier for those with certain needs already taken care of to change their behaviour to be more sustainable?

Below is my version of this Hierarchy to explain what I’m rambling about:

My version of the Hierarchy of Needs

My version of the Hierarchy of Needs

I want to be clear. I am not saying sustainability is for the privileged. Far from it. I met a lot of people in the Philippines who started some amazing sustainability projects, some had lots of money, some had very little.

What I am trying to say is that it is much more of a challenge to make changes in our lives to reduce plastic, eat locally, vote with your money if you are already struggling to meet the very basic needs. So if like me, you are lucky enough to not have to worry about money, food, security, friendships etc. then is it not our responsibility to be doing something?

Doesn't have to be much, but we’re at the point where it does need to be something.