Max-Neef’s Theory and Minimalism

My recent self-reflections have turned to fundamental human needs. I already established in my previous writings that unwanted materialistic desires can be a miss-understanding of the true fundamental non-materialist needs we have. That we get confused by society, advertising etc to equate consumerism with fulfilling all our needs but that leaves us continually dissatisfied. And that even for people like myself who have adopted a minimalist lifestyle there can be a continual plague of unwanted feelings of desire for material things that create a constant struggle. Working out what (non materialist thing) is therefore lacking in our life and addressing those needs makes these feelings disappear and what I believe the key to living a happy sustainable minimalist lifestyle.

I was pondering more about these fundament non-materialist needs and thought i’d come up with a list of what i think they might be as I do believe they are the same for everyone. I came up with: companionship, health, feeling useful, creativity, exploration, security, approval from others? (this one is with a question mark as i’m not sure it is a ‘good’ need, note later i believe this is better expressed by the category of ‘understanding’ as outlined by Max-Neef).

Then I decided to search what others had to say about this and found Manfred Max-Neef’s writings on fundamental human needs and human-scale development. These writing completely fit with the philosophy behind a minimalist lifestyle and therefore I believe are something everyone who cares about these types could benefit from knowing about!

Max-Neef’s theory of fundamental human needs is that these needs are shared by all human beings regardless of culture, age or time period and that they are part of what makes us human (therefore are ontological). That there are a finite number of classifiable needs of which none is more important than the other, and that these are separate from economic ‘wants’. These needs are:

  • subsistance
  • protection
  • affection
  • understanding
  • participation
  • leisure
  • creation
  • identity
  • freedom

Max-Neef goes on to demonstrate examples of how these needs are met by being, doing, having and interacting but i won’t go into that here.

The other aspect of this theory that is entirely relevant to minimalism is the discussion of satisfiers. He talks about ways in which people try to meet these needs. This is on a scale from those things that claim to satisfy a need but not only do not meet this need but make it even more difficult to satisfy the need (violator), to those that claim to meet a need but have little effect (pseudo-satisfier), to things that meet single needs only to things that meet multiple needs.

The wonderful thing about this theory for minimalist is this is exactly what we are all trying to do. We are trying to meet our fundamental human needs through non-consumerist means and this theory entirely supports that this the right way to go. This is in direct conflict with the dominant conventional economic approach that views needs as subjective and desires as preferences that can be met with consumerism.

Max-Neef’s theory suggests this consumerist view is actually a violator or at best a pseudo-satisfier and preventing true contentment and happiness.

So what can a minimalist actually do with this theory apart from spurt it out to family and friends if our goals and motives are questioned?  Well it can create a structure in which self-development and reflection can occur during times of feeling dissatisfied. This isn’t really the intention of the theory as Max-Neef appears to have made it to assist in development of disadvantaged groups of people (that’s what’s referred to as human-scale development), but I do not see why it couldn’t also be applied this way. Each of the categories of human needs could be thought about individually and you could consider how you are feeling for each of these needs. It is also an opportunity to see all the abundance and to be grateful for it in our lives when we consider how most of these categories are already being fulfilled.

Overall it is nice to know that there is a very well thought out theory – by an economist no less that describes for us what we as minimalist probably already intuitively felt to be true. We are the living test and application of this theory.


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