Campus Sustainability Office

Basic Human Needs

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Economist Manfred Max-Neef recognized that economic growth-oriented development strategies were leaving too many people in some type of "poverty". He outlined an alternative view of development that includes nine areas of "basic human needs". Max-Neef then relates each of these nine areas to four conditions: "being" or qualities of being, "having" or possessing tangible and intangible things, "doing" or having active pursuits, and "interacting" or having access to settings or places to interact with other humans.These are are manifest in 36 measurable attributes of development.

NeedBeing (qualities)Having (things)Doing (actions)Interacting (settings)
Subsistence physical and mental health food, shelter, work feed, clothe, rest, work living environment, social setting
Protection care, adaptability, autonomy social security, health systems, work co-operate, plan, take care of, help social environment, dwelling
Affection respect, sense of humor, generosity, sensuality family, friendships, relationships with nature share, take care of, make love, express emotions privacy, intimate spaces of togetherness
Understanding  critical capacity, curiosity, intuition literature, teachers, policies, educational analyze, study, meditate, investigate schools, families, universities, communities
Participation receptiveness, dedication, sense of humor  responsibilities, duties, work, rights cooperate, dissent, express opinions associations, parties, churches, neighborhoods
Leisure imagination, tranquility, spontaneity games, parties, peace of mind day-dream, remember, relax, have fun landscapes, intimate spaces, places to be alone
Creation imagination, boldness, inventiveness, curiosity abilities, skills, work, techniques invent, build, design, work, compose, interpret spaces for expression, workshops, audiences
Identity sense of belonging, self-esteem, consistency language, religions, work, customs, values, norms get to know oneself, grow, commit oneself places one belongs to, everyday settings
Freedom autonomy, passion, self-esteem, open-mindedness equal rights dissent, choose, run risks, develop awareness anywhere


The chart above represents the goals of ideal social and economic development, based on the needs of the human mind, body and spirit. Max-Neef argued that failure to meet any of the needs could result in what he referred to as forms of "poverty" that could lead to unsustainable outcomes.

Furthermore, it is also incumbent upon us to understand the issues we face in the context of basic human needs and cognition. That is to say, once we empathize with and have a coherent and willful understanding of cognition and basic human needs, we can begin to explore the issues that give rise to our many faulty systems.

The economy is perhaps the biggest example of this. Supply and demand in this system leads to exploitation of labor, resources, and externalizes its negative aspects onto the environment or the collective (through taxes or health problems). Also, the increasing mechanization of jobs will lead to fewer and fewer people able to find work, earn money, and circulate currency back into the system to keep it going.

Basic human needs must be aligned with the natural world in order to find sustainability. Working within the current economic paradigm prohibits this alignment, as it is not the most efficient, cost effective, or wealth enhancing approach. All other social ills (at least in part) stem from economic scarcity in this current system.

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