Table Stakes for Humanity in the 21st Century

In the movie Men in Black, Arquillians are a race of small, shriveled aliens that operate humanoid hosts. It’s easy to picture consciousness this way — our amorphic “selves” sit behind our eyes and control our bodies. Our view of this expansive universe is from one limited perspective. Our experience shapes every part of how we view it as a result.

For the purpose of progress, leave the seat behind your eyes and imagine you’re an omniscient observer watching Earth from space. Forget your natural and learned prejudices for a moment and picture all the people on the planet. Zoom in to your town from this view, to your nation, to others. Look at all those people doing the best they can with what they have. Observe the complex systems we’ve built to keep society moving forward — from water purification to political establishments. Separate human constructs from the parts of life that are inherent.

Take human nature, for example. Do you believe it’s in our nature to steal and kill or that it’s more true to human nature to nurture and work together? There is enough evidence for both. You might think we’re doomed as a species because we’re little more than standing monkeys who believe we run the world. You may believe we have the power to work together for the greater good.

Whether you think our nature baser or better, consider how human constructs bring out our best and worst. Poverty and hunger are capable of expanding moral grey area. In the old paradox — steal a loaf of bread to feed your family — we picture a cart-pushing peasant vs. an Aladdin character instead of the disenfranchised vs. the systems that disenfranchise them, but you get the gist. The hard truth is that poverty and hunger are entirely unnecessary. Many want to believe we should compartmentalize what we consider inevitable consequences of life. We feel powerless; we feel comfortable.

These are “simply” logistical problems with devastating consequences — death being the worst and most permanent relief. Along the way, people get demoralized, cornered (which brings out reckless self-preservation in every species), and forced to climb impossibly tall mountains to improve for the next generation.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is familiar to most, the base of the pyramid being physiological needs (food, water, shelter) and safety (bodily, economic, and moral autonomy). Poverty can chain people for generations to the two most basic aspects of what makes us whole.

What’s above on the pyramid, if you’re not familiar, is a sense of love and belonging (friendship, intimacy, family relationships) and self-esteem (including respect and achievement). The cherry on top of a whole human is self-actualization. This is the pinnacle of our existence — where our humanity separates us most from the apes. Maslow included heightened morality, problem solving skills, spontaneity, creativity, tolerance for others and critical thinking.

Our man-made constructs are capable of creating a path to self-actualization with structure. Water purification, for example, reduces the energy people have to invest in their physiological well-being and allows them to invest that energy in moving up the pyramid. Other constructs block upward mobility for some or all people who rely on them. This is always the case within a corrupt system. Criminal justice can promote societal wellness by protecting our safety, however, if the system becomes corrupt, it does so at the expense of the powerless within.

We don’t have perfect answers yet to cure what ails humanity, but the point is that many of the systems we consider to be unchangeable are, in fact, entirely within our power to question, transform, teardown and rebuild.

That’s where we need to focus our collective energy. What’s in our power to change? What’s the best way to use our minds and talents to create the best version of its replacement? Some think we only have control over our own actions and vie for the strength of the private sector for harnessing individual contributions. The issue with millions and billions of individuals attempting to contribute the way they know best is a common one: One hand doesn’t know what the other is doing. With chaotic efforts, we build chaotic systems. Not together, but clawing over one another without understanding we’re working for the same end with often counterproductive means.

The result of believing we can only change what’s in our individual or limited group power is that we stop questioning how to change the red tape that constrains our everyday decisions. Money is a construct. If money — and especially fiat money — is your god, it’s a meaningless one. But on an individual level, we don’t have much choice. Money provides all of our basic necessities. We don’t often have the time, the power, or the wherewithal to question if we need money or to acknowledge that it’s essentially backed by hopes and dreams. If we can consider it, we don’t, because our lives are spent in dedication to its exchange. It can be too much to bear to think it’s not real. After the existential dust settles, however, we’re left with a tool of trade that can be reinvented.

Do we need jobs, for example? What if there were no jobs left, as the horizon of automation suggests? How will we earn and contribute? What could take its place? Maybe we’ll be slaves to sentient robots someday. Or maybe we’ll accept the future lies in our hands and work toward the best outcome for all people. I have hope we can think bigger picture as a species. If we stop choosing immediate gratification at the expense of the long-term, we can write the future together. We’re writing it anyway, in chicken-scratched, garbled visions of what’s best for each of us right now.

Today, it’s a luxury and a privilege to live beyond the bottom tiers of basics on the Hierarchy of Needs. It should be a right. We should consider basic needs as table stakes for humanity so we can put our efforts toward the things that will make us whole, for the betterment of our species. My Arquillian observer sees it as the only conclusion aside from waiting for entropy to cast us all into oblivion. I’d rather believe the first.