Achieving high human potential is true prosperity

3 February 2021

Dr Trevor Hancock

700 words

Last week I suggested that true prosperity is doughnut-shaped, but I did not define what I mean by ‘true prosperity’, nor what Doughnut Economics means for this region. I will explore the first of these topics this week and the second next week.

One understanding of true prosperity can be found in many faiths, where it is not primarily about material wealth but about mental, social and spiritual wealth. For example, Paramhansa Yogananda, the first Indian yoga master to live and teach permanently in the West, wrote in 1939 that true prosperity is “being able to supply your mental and spiritual needs, as well as the physical”, and that it involves having “at your command the things that are necessary for your existence”.

The things that are necessary for your existence are the basic human needs of clean air and water, shelter, sufficient food that is safe and nutritious, education, good basic health care, an adequate income to ensure these and a safe and supportive community. These and other ‘social determinants of health’ are what Kate Raworth means by the social foundation in her model of Doughnut Economics.

In the mid-20th century the social psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed a hierarchy of human needs: First people must satisfy such basic physiological needs as hunger, thirst and bodily comforts (being warm and dry, for example), then ensure their safety and security. The third and fourth sets of needs are a sense of acceptance, belonging and being loved, followed by a sense of self-esteem – feeling competent, gaining respect and recognition.

But beyond these foundational needs, Maslow suggested that people have a need for what he called self-actualisation. There are several aspects to this, including being knowledgeable and curious, having an appreciation of beauty, finding self-fulfillment and realizing one’s potential, and finally what he called transcendence – helping others to achieve their own self-actualisation.

These concepts are very much how I understand health, as indeed does the World Health Organisation: “A state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing” (to which some would add spiritual wellbeing), or the achievement by everyone of the highest human potential of which they are capable. Clearly, while it takes a certain amount of wealth to ensure the social foundation, it is not necessary to accumulate vast amounts of ‘stuff’, of bling, to achieve this state, as it is largely non-material.

But the other key element of Raworth’s Doughnut model is the ecological ceiling. We cannot meet human needs for all in ways that undermine the ecological systems that are the ultimate determinants of our health.  As the Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity at the University of Surrey in England puts it: “Our guiding vision for sustainable prosperity is one in which people everywhere have the capability to flourish as human beings – within the ecological and resource constraints of a finite planet”.

Those constraints are very real and increasingly apparent. We see it in the changing climate and the decaying oceans, in the depletion of key resources and the pollution of ecosystems and food chains, and in the loss of natural habitat and the extinction of species. Already we exceed the planet’s limits, and yet we have more people wanting more stuff and an economic system demanding more growth.

Which of course takes us to Gandhi, who said “The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.” Or as Herman Daly, one of the key thinkers in the area of ecological economics, puts it in his foreword to the 2017 book Enough Is Enough: “Enough should be the central concept in economics. Enough means ‘sufficient for a good life’” And he added “this raises the perennial philosophical question, ‘What is a good life?’” – a question I have tried to answer above.

So what would it mean to redesign our economy and society to ensure human flourishing for all within the ecological and resource constraints of the Earth? That is the question that the Green New Deal and similar proposals for a sustainable, just and healthy post-Covid recovery seek to answer. It is the central question of our time, including right here in the Greater Victoria Region, and the topic for next week.

© Trevor Hancock, 2021

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy.


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