September 19, 2023

SCHECHTER | The Bottom Tier

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Last week, I sweated through my bedsheets for five nights in a row. Upstate New York was suffering through record heat and, like most of you, my dorm room has no air conditioning. A decision that probably made sense at the time when it rarely ever got hot enough to need it. Until, that is, the era of climate change.

My sleepless nights, coupled with what I’m learning in GOVT 2294: Politics of Climate Change led me to think not about my own discomfort, but about how hard an anthropogenically warmed world will be for people in underdeveloped regions, poverty-stricken areas, my children, their children and the generation after them who won’t be able to survive in Earth’s natural climate.

Let me introduce a little bit of psychology here from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Humans have needs, which can be placed into five tiers: basic needs, safety needs, social belonging, self-esteem, self-actualization and transcendence. These tiers can be visualized as a pyramid, with basic needs on the bottom and transcendence on top. With this model, though, humans can’t address the next level until the tier below is sufficiently satisfied.

That very bottom tier — basic needs — is filled with the things that we need to regulate our bodies. Food, water, air and heat are some of those. With a body out of homeostasis, we can’t reach the next tier; our bodies need a certain environment just to move to the next tier of needs. It’s not just our basic needs that are affected by a change in our climate, though. Our safety will  be challenged through natural disasters, our social belonging through forced migration and our self-actualization through a loss of livelihood.

I didn’t realize how much impact just a little heat made on my bottom tier of needs until Ithaca’s heat wave last week. Twisting and turning while not being able to fall asleep struck fear in my heart for the future. I sat awake in bed thinking about my Politics of Climate Change class with Professor Jeremy Wallace. Where, after every Tuesday and Thursday, I leave Goldwin Smith with a sense of impending doom. A fear that people just aren’t worried enough about our rapidly warming world. If we humans continue what we’re doing, we just won’t be able to meet our bottom tier of needs. It’s as simple as that.

Sometimes you need a reality check. A quick moment that, in and of itself, doesn’t mean too much, but snaps you back into reality. What do a few nights of lost sleep really mean for me? Not a whole lot. They’re a signal, a quick moment to remind me of the changes we need to make, and quickly. Climate change is a unique problem; it’s hard to keep your finger on the pulse of the issue, to monitor the intricate changes in our climate that will, at some tipping point, cause us irreparable damage. That will destroy coastal cities like New Orleans, sink island nations like Tuvalu and set states like California ablaze year after year. A night of sweaty sleep reminds me of the near future, it focuses the wide lens of climate change to one poignant moment.  

I can’t even imagine living in somewhere like sub-Saharan Africa, spending my days without any sort of cooling in a world that’s getting warmer and therefore more dangerous every single day. It’s not a future I can stand. We need a change, and we need it quickly.

I’m beyond lucky that I’ve lived a life where heat waves haven’t affected my daily life. A world where we can’t even survive without air conditioning, though, will be scary. It will open a whole new debate on who is entitled to it and who isn’t, who provides it and who pays for it. All I needed was a change in my bottom tier of needs to strike fear into my heart for the future of our world.

Henry Schechter is a second year student in the College of Arts & Sciences. His fortnightly column Onward focuses on policy, social issues and how the two come to bear in Ithaca. He can be reached at [email protected].

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