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At the height of WWII, Abraham Maslow proposed a “hierarchy of human needs,” often depicted as a pyramid, where it was necessary for one need to be fulfilled in order to meet the next.  By the mid-1950′s he had written a book popularizing this same idea. The theory is that lower needs, like food and shelter, capture our attention until they are met.  Thereafter, “higher” needs, referred to as “self-actualization,” can then be attained.


Maslow’s notions became popular with marketers at a time when the USA was king.  We were one of the few industrialize countries left untouched structurally by the ravages of war.  Industry and advancement was an unquestioned good.  Oil flowed freely, and the GI Bill offered returning soldiers a chance to take advantage, “self-actualize,” as they never were able to before.


WWII also gave a tremendous boost to the field of psychology, as many tests were developed to rank, measure, and place thousands of people along an imaginary grid of ability, intelligence, and leadership qualities.  In addition, the end of the war also gave a boost to clinical psychologists, who found a new group of patients, left violently impacted by the War, either through their experiences abroad or here at home, and now with new economic resources to spend in order to “better themselves.”


When we no longer had to concentrate on physiological need, the argument went, we humans could begin a journey toward self-discovery.  “Safety” (securing your ‘stuff’) could be reached after physiological needs.  Once that was secured, “Love and Belonging,” became a need to be realized.  This was followed by “Esteem” of self and others, and finally, “Self-Actualization.”


All but the last group were considered building blocks- “D” or deficiency needs, necessary for self-actualization, but arising from deprivation.  In contrast, self-actualization needs were “B” or “being” needs, “growth” needs, where notions of morality, creativity, spontaneity, problem solving, freedom from prejudice, and “acceptance of the facts” allowed people to be free of the worry of what others thought, now possessing the capacity to live up to their “true potential.”


The distribution of wealth in the US, at the time Maslow wrote, was dramatically different than today.  Today, one percent of the population continues to expand their wealth, while the remaining ninety-nine percent sink, making us now an “Underdeveloping Nation.”


Many in the Peak Oil community accept Maslow’s paradigm without question, but this has serious implications for how we conduct our lives and our preps:


  • Does one set of needs have to be met before the next can be satisfied?
  • Does one improve one’s marginal existence first, or does developing community facilitate this improved standard of living for all?
  • Do we need to secure more “stuff” in order to build community?
  • Do poor people lack the capacity for creativity or self-pride?
  • If you are “busy putting on your oxygen mask first,” do you forget that a larger system supplied you with that oxygen mask to begin with?
  • Is property a more basic need than friendship, family, or sexual intimacy?
  • Does sex always precede sexual intimacy?
  • If we, in the wealthier countries, have the “foundations” for self-actualization, don’t we have an obligation to lead the rest of the world to do the same?
  • If some of us (wealthy/industrialized) have a superior grasp of the “facts” isn’t it our duty to shape reality for the remainder of the planet?
  • Are we so certain that bio-systems have no role to play in our self-actualization, that we destroy them without thought?

Another View

These notions of human “nature” have led to increasing poverty throughout the world, not to prosperity and self-actualization.  While marketing theories have used Maslow’s work to promote increased consumptive patterns, this approach has resulted in massive debt and ecological devastation.


    Development is about people, not about objects. 

Manfred Max-Neef


An alternative view proposed by Manfred Max-Neef, rejects the “hierarchy” notion, choosing instead to focus on universal needs that are integrative and additive.  These include:


  • Idleness (Relax)
  • Subsistence (Survive)
  • Freedom (Choose)
  • Affection (Love)
  • Identity (Belong)
  • Protection (Protect)
  • Understanding (Understand
  • Creation (Create)
  • Participation (Stand Up)

Greed should be among those who have nothing.  No.

The more you have, the more greedy you become…                                  Manfred Max-Neef

Chilean economist Max-Neef, proposed that human needs are seen as few, finite and classifiable.  While the strategies may change in an attempt to meet them, the needs remain the same throughout the world, and at all times throughout history.  In sharp contrast to a hierarchy, these needs are interrelated and interactive.  This model replaces the notion that humans are driven by insatiable needs for consumption, replacing it with a notion of “satisfiers” which can either be genuine or false.

Max-Neef points out that an attempt to satisfy one need can inhibit or destroy others.  For example, an ‘arms race’ satisfies the need for protection, while destroying the need for subsistence, freedom or participation.  Materialism can express identity, while removing time for relaxation or subsistence of the biosphere.  We have to learn to calculate the real costs of our needs, not just the obvious price-tag.

Formal democracy, which is supposed to meet the need for participation often disempowers and alienates; commercial television, while used to satisfy the need for recreation, interferes with understanding, creativity and identity – the examples are everywhere.                                          Source

In contrast to satisfiers that violate or destroy, others are “synergic” where two or more satisfiers cooperate together for an even more gratifying outcome.  Think of examples such as preventative medicine, group sing-a-longs, or breastfeeding.  Every implementation of a satisfier has to be examined through the lens of its capacity to provide multiple benefits, or antagonisms to other satisfiers.  In other words, we need to grasp the trade-offs.  An essential feature of needs satisfaction is the evaluation of its benefits and costs.

While Western psychology has had a decidedly individual perspective, that model no longer fits the situation we’re facing.  Embracing “Maslow’s Hierarchy” no longer fits the problems we are confronting.  We have to get, on a cellular level, that economic growth is no longer a possibility.  We either get or reject our place as a part of the biosphere, and not the Masters of it.  It isn’t some romantic notion.  It is preparation for a life that’s dramatically different from the one most of us are living now.

You learn extraordinary things [living among the poor].  The first thing you learn [from people] in poverty is that there is an enormous creativity.  You cannot be an idiot if you want to survive.  Every minute you have to be thinking:  “What next?  What next right nowWhat can I do here?  What’s this? da da da.  Your creativity is constant.  In addition there are networks of cooperation, mutual aid, all sorts of extraordinary things, which you no longer find in our dominant society. .. which is individualistic, greedy, egotistical, etc.  And sometimes, it is so shocking that you will find people happier in poverty than you would find in your own environment.  Which also means that poverty is not just a question of money, it’s a much more complex thing.”  Max-Neef Video Here

These are more than the words of an idealist.  This is a vision for our time, a psychological view of humans that extend back well before the oil age, and will, if we survive, extend well into the future.  Like Max-Neef, I listen to the stories of the poor, stories of survival, creativity, community.  Unless we collectively begin to grasp the fundamental nature of this truth, and reject Petroleum-informed models of individualism–a belief that only wealth can bring tolerance and creativity–we will handicap ourselves beyond our imagination.

Views: 1060

Tags: Change, Climate, Oil, Peak, Psychology, ecology, economics


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Comment by David Eggleton on May 20, 2011 at 6:11am

WFP = well-formed personality

While the concern may seem tangential, I agree with Bill that how individuals consider, approach and interact with each other will make or break Transition initiatives.

As Stephen Covey noted, interdependence is a choice only independent people can make.
Comment by Nick Stanton on May 20, 2011 at 4:56am
I have a small question.  Bill Sharp wrote, "

I will be working the WFP model into a program related to our local Transition Town."  What is WFP?
Comment by Avdhut on May 18, 2011 at 2:06pm

...sorry, just to add to the point I was making....if we observe nature we see that human beings only see part of the picture, and tend to anthropomorphisise what we observe inorder to suit our own aspirations, aspirations that seem to stem from primitive anxieties about owbership and status, involving a lot of mental and emotional devices that become ever more complex, until breakdown ensues, emotionaly and a more spontaneous, centred, balanced approach needs to be adopted....we can see that nature operates spontaneously, it is only we who try to rationalise it...of course we learn from experience, and that way we can determine scientifically ( in the greater sense of the word ) what is conducive to peace and harmony, and thus true sustainability within the autonmous parameters of me Maslow was describing the innate parameters within ourselves that we need to ALLOW to happen in order for the human being as an organism to evolve in the manner most conducive to longevity, diversity, co'operation, benign competition, and abundance....and thus maximising well-being and enjoyment for all...peacefully.


Comment by Avdhut on May 18, 2011 at 1:54pm

In my understanding Maslow's pardigm is best considered with respect to transcending needs and wants, as certain criteria are met within our sphere of activity and concurrent thought and emotion, innate autonomous physiological and psychological criterai to do with choice, freedom, and evolution, are automatically satiated, allowing the individual to exist in a 'path of least resistence' so to to speak, thus evolving according to autonomous boundaries innate within nature.


In that respect, problems arise if the model is associated exclusively with material needs and wants...consumerism perpetuates needs and wants artificially, it cultivates desries that temporarily give purpose to one's existence, but without allowing one's self to be satisfied with what ever one has, which requires a modicum of FAITH that nature in fact knows what it is doing and that it operates most effciently with minimal intervention, then one cannot evolve, instead the human organism begins to act like a virus, again, entirely within the remit of nature, but devoid of our will to 'be', harmoniously........all a bit fuzzy wuzzy in the language, but it is the simplest way I can out it. Haven't read all the comments here, so please excuse me for any repitition...with thanks.


Comment by Michael on May 18, 2011 at 8:12am
Is the solution really so complicated?  One must be a psychologist, an economist, a philosopher, and a theologian?  Only the experts have the answers and it is our problem to find the best expert?  I don't think so.  It is a simple matter a fully and completely embracing compassion.  No Maslow, Max-Neef, or other authorities, required.  Compassion is universally understood, so much so that it is considered "common knowledge", a term of derision.  But common knowledge is what is required here and compassion is at the root of it.  We neglect it at our peril.
Comment by mary rose on May 9, 2011 at 1:31pm

Well known Coach Carol Tuttle has developed an online Seven Chakra Course integrating "Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs" in the course.  This may be of interest to some people and i suggest Googling for the information.  I suggest this as there are new modalities of healing and moving people beyond their present status that can be accomplished in a very short period of time.  Everything is energy and it is understanding how we manage what the Chinese refer to as "Chi" so that our systems are "coherent" or "balanced" and operating smoothly rather than in a chaos pattern that is "The Secret."  This new modality is called "energetic healing" and can be accomplished very quickly by simply removing the stress from the system so that the immune system can work effectively.  And, when i speak of "system" i am speaking of both our physical system and our emotional (mental) system.  And moving people out of poverty into health and wellness can be as simple as changing the manner in which they think about themselves.  I am currently developing a program entitled "Moving Into: TOTAL WELLNESS which first addresses individual needs and then moves into developing healthy social systems that work for us and not against us as they do at present.

If anyone is interested in receiving information as i write the program and being able to input into it, please let me know and we can work out a way to do this.         

Comment by John F Neville on April 25, 2011 at 1:52pm

I think some people are missing the point of the Maslow hierarchy. It is not a prescription. It is an observation. As Gandhi said, "There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread." That too is an observation. There is a hierarchy, not that one practices with a purpose of achievement. It is one that we live within because we are human animals with certain basic needs. Pay attention sometime during a conversation with someone who suddenly become very distracted (it could be yourself). When you have to pee, it's hard to pay attention to philosophical discussions - or even discussions about where to eat. That's all that Maslow's about - observing and reporting. We've noticed the hierarchy at work in trouble schools where hungry, fearful children cannot learn - until their hunger is sated and their fears are allayed. It's difficult to get "beyond" this observation of our basic humanity. 

Comment by Mary Saunders on April 22, 2011 at 11:53am
David, I tried to reply, but somehow my reply did not appear here. For me, Maslow is completely materialistic. For many years I worked as a social worker. A completely materialistic outlook would not have allowed me to do that work. Though there was grumbling about it, the need for cultural diversity demanded that continuing-education credits would expect workers in the field not to downgrade the cultural perspectives of people with spiritual systems and practices that affected things like whether they would eat or not.

So, I am trying again. I hope this comment can be displayed.
Comment by sanjeev kumar on April 15, 2011 at 11:23pm
When you make the hierachy of needs into a span of needs it becomes pretty obvious that in the same plane we can engage in multiple needs satisfaction process at the same time.  what does it means in the practical sense.  Well I eat my breakfast and then go to school to learn or go to work to use my biolgical tool call the brain-depending on my own concerns i may want to structure time and hence use various sorts of 'work' engagements that satisfy 'craving'.  Imagine isolation and prisons as an instrument of isolation-does the feel changes when we use the word prison as against when we use the word monastery as an instrument of isolation.  Inherently we associate a lot of assumption & feelings associated with the mental construct called prison and monastery-Jiddu Krishnamurthy-the philosopher calls this "emotional emmories".  It is my state of deprivation at any given point of time that will decide what kind of emotional memory will be stored in me.  If my basic need is of food, prison may give me an emotional memory of a fond eating place and this emotional memory will make a very differnt mental map of the term prison in my mind.  The mental map of prison may differ in the mind of the judge who sentenced me to prison.  The judge's mental map is based on his emotional memory formed through study and practice of law.  In India, Ms Kiran Bedi, a very high profile Women Police Officer, believed that a prison is a place for 'reform'.  But reform from whose perspective-from the persepctive of justifying the mental construct called prison or from the perspective of the live human construct containing all the biological traist of the species or from the perspective of 'society'-which is nothing but a collective expereince of ages of particular group of humans existing together over a period of time.  Hierarchy is again a collective emotional memory of human species which goes on to show that we need bonding and communication as a biological need, yet enhanced intellectual engagement-be it religious, scientific, economic keeps denying this basic fact.  Desmond Morris-the well know Zoologist-captures this well in the preface of his book the Naked Ape. When he wrote about other species he was acknowleged as supreme but when he applied the same brilliance in studing humans-the species decided to crack the mirror whcih captured the scene behind the veils!  In a nutshell, the span of needs co-exist and what comes out as behaviour is just the most acutely felt need at any given point of time. Readers may refer to Alan Watts-Wisdom of Insecurity to relate to their own individual expereinces of life.  The crux is to expereince life and evolve-as an individual member of the species, this evolution needs the environment for each individual and that is where the onus on those of us to ensure that we do not encroach on spaces of other individuals-mental constructs and large systems have a habit of invariably clsoing space of indiviudal growth, especially so when the individual tries to go beyond the known limits of knowledge.
Comment by David Eggleton on April 14, 2011 at 6:51am
Mary, please say more!  Are you grateful for the understanding?  Or, do you now feel unwelcome here?

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