Every year, once a year, the High Holidays come and strip life down to its very essence. Thank God!
The veneers, facades and distractions we dutifully and skillfully craft to shield ourselves from the parts of life we don’t like, and the parts of ourselves we prefer not to see, fall away. If we give ourselves over to the season’s power, despite how raw and exhausting it can be, we may be able to find comfort in the truths we have feared.
I learned something new this year about need, satisfaction and desire.
I had the privilege of studying the field of Strategic Sustainable Development this past year. SSD is a methodology that assists businesses, industry and governments in understanding and embracing sustainable practices and behavior as the only way toward enduring success. (It is also known as the Natural Step Framework.)
Part of that methodology teaches us about the economist Max-Neef’s understanding of fundamental human needs. Differing radically from Maslow’s classic hierarchy of needs, Max-Neef offers a new construct based on the belief that people have simultaneous, not hierarchical needs, and that we often confuse needs with their satisfiers. A need, he explains, is “an internal state. It cannot be an outside object…” Satisfiers respond to and fulfill those needs. “Fundamental human needs are finite, very few, and classifiable.” And they are invariable. “They are the same everywhere, for every person, for every culture, in every historical period, the needs have
always been, and are still, the same. What changes is what you do in order to satisfy those needs that are common to everybody.”
He reduces fundamental human needs to nine: Subsistence, Protection, Affection (or love), Understanding, Participation, Idleness, Creation, Identity and Freedom. Food, shelter, work, for example, are not needs but satisfiers for subsistence. Responsibilities, duties, work, rights, privileges are not needs but satisfiers for participation.
Our task is to pursue appropriate satisfiers for each of our needs, and to help others find satisfiers for theirs. Two lessons powerfully emerge from this construct:
1) We need to choose our satisfiers well. Eating, drinking, working, exercising are healthy in appropriate amounts and attached to appropriate needs. They are unhealthy when used otherwise. When a satisfier is need-specific (some are precise while others are multivalenced), it cannot spill over and serve as a satisfier to another aching, empty need. We cannot fill our affection need through subsistence satisfiers.
2) We must rely on each other to satisfy our needs. Depending on the specifics, what I do in an effort to satisfy my need may essentially and reciprocally satisfy yours. For example, my need for affection can be satisfied through friendship which simultaneously fulfills your need for affection satisfied through friendship. Each of us can benefit only if both of us benefit. Or regarding the need for identity: these satisfiers are cultural elements such as language, religion, historical memory. My need for identity can only be satisfied when I join you in our shared sense of tradition.
(You can find a chart of Max-Neef’s needs and satisfiers at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fundamental_human_needs)
One more lesson puts this chart of needs and satisfiers in the economist’s domain: objects are not the stuff of satisfiers. As Max-Neef puts it: “In this matrix there is nothing material, there are no objects.” (save food and shelter)
Despite what advertisers tell us, enduring happiness, ie, the feeling we seek from satisfiers, is not found in purchases, consumption and the use of stuff. While there is no doubt that we need stuff; but how we need stuff, and how we use it, needs to be radically re-imagined. Max-Neef’s matrix offers us a way to create a new vision of a vibrant economy not based on unnecessary consumption; a way to define a healthier, sustainable use of our natural resources without waste; and a way to join these two - wise consumption and wise use - in a more successful and enduring pursuit of fulfilling human satisfaction.
Shana tova to you all.