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Les Gilets Jaunes and the Hierarchy of Environmental Needs

How good intentions and social dissonance fuels the “yellow vests”

History has an ironic way of repeating itself - or at least humanity does. In the streets of Paris during May 1968, the student and worker revolution shattered the old French order more drastically than any popular uprising since the Great revolution of 1789. Students and police clashed amongst burning buildings, barricades and tear gas. Half the French workforce stood in solidarity to halt the gears of society which appears— seemingly — très français.

The modern French riots may be seen as a new version of the 1968 uprising, where the current political and cultural wreckage engage the collective mindset of French citizens. One has to ask: is this violence justified for a rise of 6.5 cents on diesel? You don’t have to dig far to find that the issues are deeper than many could have thought - France is in flames.

France's president Emmanuel Macron had insisted fuel prices needed to rise to support the country's green initiatives. These policies were a product of the Paris Climate Change agreement and influenced by the IPCC report designed to help reduce environmental harm. As a result of these reports, our understanding of nature and environmental welfare has dramatically changed; there is no doubt now that the oceans and forests, and the organisms that inhabit them, are more vulnerable than ever. Environmentalists argue that human consumption of ecological resources needs to change radically if we want to avoid irreparable damage to the planet. It was on this argument that Macron justified his fuel tax policy.

However, good intentions do not always mean good outcomes and, in this case, I think Macron seems blinded to the importance of human and social needs; the needs of the Gilets-Jaunes. The priority of human and environmental needs would be exponentially more effective if civil servants, environmentalists and politicians apply Maslow's hierarchy of needs when attempting to balance protecting the environment with the immediate and long-term well-being of citizens. Abraham Maslow in his 1943 paper "A Theory of Human Motivation" in the journal Psychological Review, designed a classification system which reflected the universal needs of society as its base, (“the must haves”) and then described other needs and desires that build upon those essential needs.

Maslow's hierarchy is illustrated as a pyramid with universal human needs at the bottom and working towards what is referred to as "acquired needs" towards the top. The needs are, according to Maslow, physiological, safety, love and belonging, esteem and self-actualization. Needs lower down in the hierarchy must be satisfied before individuals can attend to needs higher up. The base of the hierarchy represents more universal needs—psychological requirements that are true of all humans. The levels represent the quality of life experienced by individuals or groups. There is the well known, psychological aspect - how people feel about their lives - however, people also look for a good standard of living with environmental, social, political and financial qualities, which remain relatively unknown.

In terms of attainment, very few actually manage to hit self-actualisation at all or do so for a very short period of time. In application, the elite class (politicians, celebrities, the rich) are at the top of the pyramid. I argue that environmentalists should also be included in those that reach the top of the pyramid.

To clarify, there is nothing morally wrong with being a minority, or an elite in society (depending on how you get there, obviously). But in reality, those with above-average wealth progress quicker, where they can reach the top more easily and with fewer barriers.

A lack of awareness of this dynamic social concern is why, with recurrence, politicians are continuously out of touch with the needs of the ordinary man. In France, the cost of diesel increased by around 23 percent in the last year and this directly and immediately hurts those on the periphery of French society—it threatens their ability to meet their basic felt needs. According to the BBC, it’s no accident that cars were the spark that ignited this anger. Not needing one has become a status symbol in France. Those in city centres have a variety of public transportation options to choose from. But citizens need to be rich enough to live in the centre of Paris or Marseille or Bordeaux—an almost parody of those living as Les Bourgeois Gentilhommes; the upper crust of society supporting environmental policies are the only ones that can adapt undisrupted. It seems that policymakers that design certain economic budgets increase the moral hazard for those on the periphery of society because they are motivated to design it in such a way that would not affect them, especially if the program requires significant funding. Ask yourself: would senior National Health officials ever promote the privatization of health services even if it provides better health services? The fear of job losses might incentivize the department to act in a way that is counter-productive to the public's interest. The same could be said about environmental departments.

The fundamental problem of using planet-saving, environmentally justified policies is that they are impossible to critically challenge without it being assumed one is against protecting the planet. It takes time, education, and tools to evaluate the effectiveness of environmental policies and most ordinary workers will not have the possibility of challenging these policies, especially in cases where it will affect them significantly. It is just easy to accept that it will protect the planet and that the so-called experts know best. There is an implicit reliance on politicians to inform the public on any national environmental progress. These are not tangible results that are observable, unlike promised infrastructure improvements, increased budgets and social spending, among other things. This does not mean that environmental protection is not of the utmost importance, it just means there is a direct reliance on other centralized individuals to inform the rest of us of the progress; especially when progress is scientifically debatable.

There is a secondary problem with these unchallenged policies; it can be used as rhetoric to facilitate easy policies for raising taxes. Canada is a prime example with their carbon tax policies—even environmental critics have pointed out that the current Canadian tax is too low to make a substantial environmental difference. As Scott Moe, the premier of Saskatchewan, recently said last December, “This is not in any way, shape or form an effective environmental policy — it is only a policy that costs families money unnecessarily.”

This is why there is the chasm of dissonance between policymakers and the ordinary man. There is, in essence, a set of expanding human communities over which we can exert more care and influence only after we feel we have met the needs of the one prior. This can be represented as an expanding circle. Any policy (including environmental policy) needs to account for how individuals’ basic needs will continue to be met. It starts with the heart of the individual: “Make sure you can look after yourself before you try and look after some else” and “Care for your family before you care about someone else’s.” These ideas applied to the situation in France would mean that Macron would need to communicate that people can better ensure their basic needs are met in light of any change to environmental policy. Policy that asks people to look 30, 50, or 100 years down the road will not resonate with the general public if they believe their ability to meet their immediate, basic needs will be jeopardized.

The people on the periphery of French society — teachers, students, post delivery drivers, and those of low income, are those most affected by the environmental taxes. Their message is simple but clear: ‘On a marre!’—we're fed up! It's hard to make long-term issues relevant to citizens that are focusing on more pressing priorities such as how to make ends meet.

Many of the protesters live in tight financial circumstances, often in rural or outer-urban areas where there is "weak economic growth and high unemployment," and are depending on a car for transport is "essential, and increasingly costly."

This change in the political climate has indeed fueled their anger — metaphorically and literally. The best solution would be to combine the self-relevance and environmentalist improvements at the same time. State and environmental welfare matter, but so does personal welfare.

If educational programmes showed how decreasing waste, reusing and recycling effectively and directly lowers overall costs of living, then the dissonance gap could be narrowed and environmental messages may land more effectively. Maslow confirms this. The hierarchy is not an “all-or-none” scheme, despite the “the false impression that a need must be satisfied 100 per cent before the next need emerges.” But humans have to have a sense of continued growth; whether progressing at work, increasing their salary, and developing educationally or socially. Most of us desire to do better than we currently are doing. Hence if there has been stagnation or diminished quality of life from any of these fields, even if they are of good quality, there will be reactionary attitudes towards the root cause of stagnation.

Macron needs to engage more with the French people now or they may not give him the same luxury down the road.


Alexander Finer is an undergraduate in Business at the University of Exeter (BSc). He is the business editor at The Falmouth Anchor and is published in Conatus News. He specialises in the circular economy and environmental sustainability as part of his program.

He can be reached via email at ajfiner2@gmail.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @ajfiner21


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