The bare necessities of life

What is an essential good or service? Recent months have seen some heated debates on this point. In Wales, one supermarket got into trouble by classifying period products as non-essential. In Ireland, a dog boutique selling canine accessories was able to stay open as it also sold pet food.

Sustainability First has a long history of working with the essential utility services that are necessary for existence such as energy and water. There is little argument that in meeting our basic needs, these are essentials.

But as we think about future tiers and lock-downs, there are real questions as to what makes something essential and the role of companies, and the state, in supporting people to afford the basics. And in keeping those parts of the economy going.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs (an important theory about human motivation) can help signpost where attention should be focused. This makes it clear that meeting our basic, practical and physiological needs is key. But as Marcus Rashford's campaign to end child food poverty has shown, getting a broad societal agreement as to what should be done even on this most basic of issues, can be challenging.

Building consensus on what we really value in society is crucial if we are to target government support in the crisis and for the recovery in an effective way. In ways that address real needs and build confidence in the decision-making process. As we do so, we are likely to realise that meeting our physical needs is necessary, but not sufficient, for society to survive and thrive. Just as Covid-19 is touching us in multiple ways - our physical and mental health, jobs and communities – so too must our approaches as to what is treated as essential in a modern affluent society.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs can again be instructive here. It also teaches us that people don't just need food, energy, water and shelter but also have deep psychological and self-fulfilment needs. In a one-off time-limited crisis, focusing purely on practical physical needs was crucial. However, the longer the crisis goes on, and as we hunker down over what could be a long winter, our wider needs are becoming more apparent. These include, above all, a fundamental human need for 'hope'.

Art and culture are key here. They are part of what makes us human, giving meaning to life and nourishing our souls. With an intrinsic value of their own, they can provide pleasure, inspiration, solace and balm through the ups and down of life. As Baloo says in the Jungle Book, such bare necessities help you 'forget about your worries and your strife.' Witness the success of Grayson Perry's art club in the spring lock-down.

But art and culture have a much deeper value for our society. They can also help us meet our more practical physiological needs.

Firstly, the arts by definition are creative. They engage the right-hand side of our brain, not just the left, reaching hearts as well as minds to make the most of our individual and collective talents. Through stimulating our sense of playfulness and experimentation, they help us come up with novel ideas and new ways of doing things. They are part of the innovation process. In the current environment, where we need all the innovation and creativity that we can get to come out of the crisis, this is particularly important.

Secondly, the arts bring us together. They provide shared societal experience and can help both reflect and shape collective thinking. They provide experiences that can connect people over time and place. These connections create positive energy between people and build social cohesion. This can be just as important as the energy delivered down pipes and wires and is essential when it comes to building societal consensus.

Thirdly, art and culture can help us deal with uncertainty. When it comes to the virus and the other major challenges that we face such as the climate emergency and biodiversity loss, we are in many ways looking into the unknown; it is difficult to know what to expect. These are not risks with a clear end date or ones that can easily be calculated.

The arts provide a platform and constructive space to explore these types of hard issues where there are few clear cut or quantifiable answers. They can give people who may be excluded from formal decision-making processes a voice and enable self-expression to try and make sense of what is going on. They can give us confidence to explore areas where we don't have all the facts, the answers aren't binary and we may feel justifiably anxious.

Finally, artists and writers are our storytellers. We need them to help build and communicate the narratives of how we can come together as a society to get through this – and the positive visions of how we can come out in a better place.

The arts and culture are a vital part of our wellbeing. Not just a nice to have that is incidental to economic growth. A bare necessity of life, they need, and deserve, our support. And like the long-term infrastructure that underpins our economies, they can't be turned on and off overnight. They need to be nurtured over time. In giving the arts our support, they can help us all get through the pandemic to a better place.

To strengthen the connection between utilities and society, and for all these other reasons, Sustainability First has been actively bringing the arts into our ongoing work and thinking. We set up an artist residency programme before the pandemic. We are delighted that our first artist in residence, Hugo Lami, is now completing his residency with UKPN. We can't wait to see what he's been working on. And in 2021, we hope that Geraint Ross Evans will be able to start his residency with SSE.

At the beginning of the pandemic we launched both an arts and essay prize to get visions and ideas from creative and young people on how to build from the corona crisis towards a more sustainable people. Many of the inspirational art works, and essays, can be found in the virtual book that we published on this subject in the summer. Covid permitting, we are delighted that in March UKPN will be hosting an art exhibition to showcase Hugo's work and that of some of the winning art entrants to our competition.

In 2021 our new Together for a Fair Climate Future programme will continue to bring artists into debates on the climate and sustainability with a series of key discussion events and schools outreach activity. Do get in touch if you'd like to be involved and help us achieve the societal and cultural change that is essential for a just transition and sustainable future.

From all at Sustainability First, do have a good festive break, even if your arts and entertainment have to be enjoyed online.