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Basic Human Needs

copy2_of_MaxNeefTablecopy.jpgEconomist, Manfred Max-Neef, responding to the reality that economic growth oriented development strategies were leaving too many people in a range of "poverties," outlined an alternative view of development. His vision includes nine areas of "basic human needs" that are manifest in 36 measurable attributes of development (see table on right).

Max-Neef argued that failure to meet any of the needs could result in what he referred to as forms of "poverty" that could jeopardize social harmony and, therefore, real development based on quality of life and sustainability.

The nine areas are: subsistence, protection, affection, understanding, participation, leisure, creativity, identity, and freedom (adapted from Max-Neef 1991). 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.

The needs and conditions produce 36 cells in a table that present a wide range of development attributes.

Basic human needs, as well as our cognition, greatly influences our idea's that revolve around sustainability. As sustainability is a rather amorphous concept that is more of a fluid framework rather than a rigid template it is incumbent upon us to understand the multi-faceted nature of basic human needs and human cognition as they are often neglected in the various environmental, social, and economic systems that we are bound within. As Max-Neef understood, neglecting aspects any of these needs will 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. Global "free-market" capitalism is rather ubiquitous today. While many correctly and acutely recognize that over-regulation and public and private manipulations spurn the ideal notion of this system, the capitalistic model is still a model that demands continuous growth on a finite planet, and has no self-regulating forces to deter exploitation. 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.

This problem, as well as all our others, must be seen through the needs of the populous within the confines of what the Earth's planetary boundaries, natural resources, and ecosystem services can supply. Anything that does not fit within the scientific (empirically founded and validated) data for achieving this, should not be allowed. While this sounds extreme, and a certain transition period will need to occur for us to reach this place, it is imperative for the health of our planet and our continued existence. The rate of biodiversity loss, climate change, the amount of social justice issues, etc., is exploding at an exponential rate. This path, left unaltered, most certainly leads to some form of social collapse. This may happen regardless, but it is imperative to have a vision for how to move forward, and attempt to implement it in truly democratic fashion as soon as possible.

An external link with Max-Neef's basic needs table

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(CC Image of homeless man by Geoff Wong (Flickr: Homeless II) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

by Sorby, Coty E last modified Feb 17, 2014 03:44 PM

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