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Maslow’s pyramid

The notion of needs was initially developed in the field of psychology by Abraham Maslow to explain individual motivation process (Maslow, 1943). His ―hierarchy of human needs‖ consisted of five needs, ranked in a pyramid (Figure 1) : physiological (hunger, thirst, warmth, sleep, etc), safety (protection, order, law, etc), belongingness and love (affection, family etc), esteem (competence, approval and recognition), and self-actualization needs (realising personal potential, self-fulfilment, seeking personal growth and peak experiences). The core principle according to his theory is that an upper need cannot be satisfied until those lower in the hierarchy are met.


This hierarchy has been criticised from many angles. For example, individuals can have affection even if their physiological needs are not fully satisfied. Moreover, the model implies that only sufficiently well-off people can achieve self-actualization, which contradicts the realities of for example, poor artists who have developed well their individual potential. In the context of environmental protection (which this model regards as a self-actualization need) the hierarchical assumption has been used to justify the position that poor countries must first meet their basic needs before tackling environmental goals such as mitigating climate change (Furfari, 2007). This kind of reasoning tends to legitimate any kind of economic growth in poor countries, a strategy that is not shared by everyone, especially from a sustainability perspective.

Refinements by Max-Neef

In response to the limitations of a Maslow‘s hierarchy, Chilean ecological economist Manfred Max-Neef created his model of ―Human scale development‖, aiming to build a human needs theory for development. For Max-Neef, ―fundamental human needs are finite, few and classifiable and are the same in all cultures and in all historical periods. What changes, both over time and through cultures, is the way or the

Table 1: Human scale development, Max Neef 2001 (Source:

means by which the needs are satisfied‖ (Max-Neef, 1991). Nine fundamental needs are identified (subsistence, protection, affection, understanding, participation, leisure, creation, identity and freedom). While there is some overlap between Max-Neef and Maslow with regard to the categories of needs (for example subsistence resembles physiological needs, protection is similar to safety, and affection is related to belongingness), Max-Neef rejects the hierarchical principle and considers fundamental human needs as a system where ―no need is more important per se than any other and [where] there is no fixed order of precedence in the actualization of needs (that need A, for instance, can only be met after need B has been satisfied)‖ (Max-Neef, 1991: 49).

Max Neef‘s model is composed of two other variables (see Table 1 below). Firstly, there are four ‖satisfiers‖, i.e. means to meet these needs: being (personal or collective attributes/qualities), having (institutions, norms and material things), doing (personal or collective actions) and interacting (settings). The second variable relates to ―economic goods ―defined as objects or artifacts affecting the efficiency of a satisfier, thus altering the threshold of actualization of a need, either in a positive or negative sense. With these variables it is possible to build a matrix of needs and satisfiers to diagnose the level of satisfaction of the nine needs in a specific group or society. The model can also be used to determine the satisfiers required for fulfilment of the needs of this group and, therefore, to conceive a strategy for development aimed at the actualization of human needs (Max-Neef, 1991).

Doyal and Gough (1991) have also developed a theory of human needs, considering their realization a precondition of a fulfilled life. In this model, two universal basic needs and eleven intermediate needs are identified.

Implications for sustainability

These recent models of needs have implications for well-being theory, at the individual and societal level, and in ecological economics (Jackson and Marks, 1999). Indeed, in Max-Neef‘s theory, unsatisfied needs are seen as poverties, broadening the concept of poverty to more than a lack of income and beyond monetary measures. Following this reasoning, development means the alleviation of multiple poverties and becomes the social analogue of individual self-actualization, relevant to both North and South (Dodds, 1997). Furthermore, by distinguishing basic needs from economic goods, a needs-based welfare conception puts in question the positive relationship between increased material consumption and increased satisfaction of needs, especially of non-material needs. Therefore it contradicts the conventional economic approach which regards needs as subjective desires and preferences that can be satisfied through consumer choices, questioning the primacy and the uni-dimensional role of economic growth in the improvement of human welfare. In terms of sustainability, this opens the door to arguments that environmental imperatives should not be viewed as constraints on human welfare and that the satisfaction of needs and development do not automatically imply natural resource depletion.


  • Dodds, S., 1997. Towards a ‗science of sustainability‘: Improving the way ecological economics understands well-being. Ecological Economics, 23, 95-111.
  • Doyal, L., Gough, I., 1991. A Theory of Human Needs , Macmillan, London.
  • Furfari, S., 2007. Le monde et l‘énergie. Enjeux géopolitiques, Editions Technip, Paris.
  • Jackson, T., Marks, N., 1999. Consumption, sustainable welfare and human needs- with reference to UK expenditure patterns between 1954 and 1994. Ecological Economics, 38 (3), 421-441.
  • Maslow, A., 1943. A Theory of Human Motivation. Psychological Review, 50 (4), 370-96.
  • Max-Neef, M., 1991. Human Scale Development. Apex Press, New York.