A Back Porch Conversation on Human Needs Satisfaction

Today “In the company of hysterical women” referred to Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in the post “Living Below the Line – Day 2”. The reference to Maslow led to bringing this draft commentary out from the file drawer where it’s been gathering dust since early August.  Here’s the reflection

Defining Human Needs and Their Satisfaction

Terry Gips, Sustainability Associates

Terry Gips, President of Sustainability Associates (click HERE for description), introduced me to Chilean philosopher-economist Manfred Max- Neef’s ground-breaking re-conception of human needs and needs-satisfaction. Max-Neef’s framework offers a different view from Abraham Maslow’s pyramid-hierarchical model of self-actualization that prevails in the West. While the Maslow model is typically Western in centering on the individual, the Max-Neef paradigm looks at the larger culture and society in terms of needs and needs-satisfyers. It’s focus is the community.

The basic human needs are listed here, along with a rating scale to measure how we’re doing (a person, group, nation, world).

Needs satisfaction rating: scale of 1 to 5 (5 = fully satisfied)

Subsistence              1 2 3 4 5                                           

Protection                  1 2 3 4 5

Affection                     1 2 3 4 5

Understanding            1 2 3 4 5

Participation                1 2 3 4 5

Idleness/Leisure          1 2 3 4 5

Creation                       1 2 3 4 5

Identity                        1 2 3 4 5

Freedom                      1 2 3 4 5

–          Manfred Max-Neef – Matrix, Human Scale Development

According to this framework, food and shelter, for example, are not regarded as needs, but as satisfiers of the fundamental need fo subsist.

In much the same way, education (either formal or informal), study, investigation, early stimulation and meditation are satisfiers of the need for Understanding. Curative systems, preventive systems and health schemes in general are satisfiers of the need for Protection.

There is no one-to-one correspondence between needs and satisfiers. A satisfier may contribute simultaneously to the satisfaction of different needs or, conversely, a need may require various satisfiers in order to be met. Not even these relations are fixed. They may vary according to time, place and circumstance. For example, a mother breastfeeding her baby is simultaneously satisfying the infant’s needs for Subsistence, Protection, Affection and Identity.

Think now of “The American Dream” – a phrase coined 1931 by J.T. Adams (1878-1949), U.S. writer and historian, in Epic of America. Here are the words that introduced the aspiration of “the American Dream” to the U.S. national lexicon:

“The American Dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”

Sipping coffee on Terry Gip’s porch with five seminary classmates, the discussion took a nose dive into theological and economic despair as the Christian pastors lamented the victory of environmental degradation, greed, concentration of wealth, militarism, and consumerism in American life. We were like the prophet Amos, or so we must have thought, thundering our cries of “Woe to you” when Terry, a person of deep and active Jewish faith, asked us to stop and think.

“We won’t get anywhere by negativity,” he said, or something like that. You guys are Christian pastors. People need good news. The old model is a model of scarcity; that’s not good news. We have to re-define abundance. Think about it. You can change the world if you take seriously what Jesus said by preaching a theology and ethic of abundance. We should be talking about a world of abundance, not scarcity.

Jesus: “I have come that you may have life, and have it abundantly.”

We left Terry’s porch wondering what it would look like to alter the approach to the proclamation of abundance re-defined in light of Jesus and Manfred Max-Neef’s human scale development. The “yoke” (responsibility) that brings satisfaction and rest, not only to the soul but to the body politic, is the shared yoke of humility and sharing.

The American Dream is again up for grabs on the road to the November election. I listen to every campaign ad asking which dream is being promoted, and the six Christian pastors go into the pulpit Sunday mornings chastened and deepened by a faithful Jewish brother who seemed to know our Lord, the Jewish rabbi, better than the Christian pastors on his back porch!