1.3.3 Human needs

Helpful prior learning and learning objectives

Helpful prior learning:

Learning objectives:

In November 2022, OpenAI launched ChatGPT, an artificial intelligence chatbot capable of writing, coding, composing music, generating business ideas, translating and other tasks. This technology could transform work, easing routine tasks and boosting the efficiency of our economies.

Yet, ChatGPT raises concerns. It may lead to job losses, affecting people's income and ability to meet their basic needs. In the wrong hands, AI could spread misinformation and create conflict. Using AI requires significant amounts of energy and water. 

As with any innovation, it is important to consider how AI is being used, so we can determine whether the benefits are worth the possible downsides. Are all uses of artificial intelligence worth the costs? If not, which uses of AI are worth the costs?

Photo of ChatGPT responding to a prompt

Figure 1. Which uses of AI really serve the goal of human and ecological wellbeing?

(Credit: Jernej Furman CC BY 2.0)

If the goal of our economy is to support human and ecological wellbeing, we must understand human needs, so we don’t waste energy, matter, time and effort on things that are irrelevant or even harmful to human wellbeing. 

What biological and social needs do humans have?

Like all living organisms, humans have essential biological needs like energy and hydration for survival, alongside protection from harm such as weather (Figure 2), diseases, and threats from other organisms including humans.

Social needs, while harder to define, are vital for community participation. Social needs include positive relationships, understanding the world, leisure, creation, identity, and freedom, all of which support a sense of agency, belonging, and purpose (Section 1.3.2).

Village in a desert

Figure 2. Humans have a biological need for protection from harsh environmental conditions like the Mauritanian desert

(Credit: Carsten ten Brink CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Two people holding hands

Figure 3. Social needs are deeply connected with biological needs (CC0)

Biological and social needs are connected. Survival and health enable societal participation, which in turn supports meeting biological needs through human cooperation in producing and distributing goods and services. Strong social bonds not only help us meet basic needs, but they also improve health and long lives by reducing stress, boosting resilience, and enhancing happiness, leading to fulfilling lives.

What is the difference between needs and need satisfiers?

A human need is a condition that must be met for basic survival or for human wellbeing. Human needs are similar across societies and time. On the other hand, need satisfiers are the specific ways people meet these needs, which vary among societies and over time.

For example, the need for energy and hydration is universal, but food and water sources differ. People in Iceland may eat more fish, while those in India may eat more lentils. Water access also varies, from rivers to community wells (Figure 4) or private taps.

A boy sitting next to a tap from a community well

Figure 4. Hydration is a universal human biological need. Water is a need satisfier and can be accessed in different ways, like this community well.  (Credit: Shawn CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Human needs are met by various need satisfiers, including physical goods, services, institutions, and social practices. For instance, housing and family both fulfill the need for protection. A single satisfier can address multiple needs, like schools supporting understanding and human relationships. 

However, choices of need satisfiers may involve trade-offs, with some satisfiers fulfilling one need, but neglecting another. Additionally, not all desires are real satisfiers. In wealthier societies, misleading advertising often promotes excessive consumption of non-essential goods that fail to support human wellbeing. For example, fast fashion retailers are very good at making people feel like they need new clothes to stay up-to-date with the latest fashion trends, which leads to overconsumption of clothes and excessive clothing waste. It is important to select need satisfiers wisely, considering how effective they are at satisfying true human needs.

What factors affect how we meet our needs?

Societies use different need satisfiers based on access to energy and material resources, access to technology, and social factors. These factors influence what goods and services we produce, how we produce them, and who receives them. 

Access to energy and material resources

Societies’ access to energy and material resources may limit how they meet human needs. For example, a society may use wood for constructing shelter where forests are abundant or stone in rocky areas (Figure 5).

Iceland utilizes its abundant hydroelectric and geothermal energy resources, while Qatar relies on oil and gas resources. Higher incomes and  trade can widen access to the resources that societies use to meet their needs.

An alleyway in a village made of stones

Figure 5. Access to material resources, like stones, impacts how we build shelter (Credit: Francesco Foianesi CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Access to technology

Humans transform energy and materials into usable forms using technology (Section 1.2.3). Early tools were simple, like Aztecs' bone needle (Figure 6). Advanced technologies have become more complex, expensive and energy-intensive, like desalination plants (Figure 7) that convert saltwater into freshwater. Technological advancements aimed at human and ecological wellbeing can significantly improve standard of living, such as decentralised solar energy.  Access to technology varies, with wealthier countries having more options. United Nations agreements encourage sharing finance and technologies to meet the needs of all.

Aztec bone needles

Figure 6. Aztec bone needles used to sew clothes 

(Credit: Gary Todd CC0)

Desalination plant in Saudi Arabia

Figure 7. Desalination plant in Saudi Arabia, expensive and energy-intensive

(Credit: Waleed Alzuhair CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Social factors: culture, institutions and power relationships 

Culture is the beliefs, values, attitudes, behaviours and traditions shared by a group of people and transmitted from one generation to the next. Culture affects how we prioritise different human needs. Culture also shapes which need satisfiers we consider appropriate and desirable. Culture impacts the types of foods we eat, the housing we live in, the clothes we wear, and our relationships with our family members and wider community.

Institutions, social systems like households, schools, governments, coordinate how we meet human needs. Some systems directly meet human needs like schools. Other institutions, like the legal system, meet human needs indirectly by providing rules and stability making it easier to meet human needs.

The political and economic power held by individuals and groups can influence how we distribute resources, impacting who has access to need satisfiers. For example, wealthy individuals and groups can lobby government officials to pass laws and make policies that benefit them financially, called political capture. The result can be unequal access to healthcare, education, jobs, and economic inequality affecting people’s ability to meet basic needs. Distributed power, equity and justice are important so that need satisfiers are available to all.

How do the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) relate to human needs?

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are objectives set by the United Nations in 2015 to meet human needs by addressing poverty, inequality, ecosystem health, and peace and justice. Countries are working to meet the goals by 2030.

Can you see evidence of the biological and social needs discussed above in the SDGs in Figure 8 below?

The 17 SDGs in the coloured tiles

Figure 8. The 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals

(Credit: United Nations)

So how are we doing? The UN’s SDG report has an interactive map showing the progress by goal and country. As of 2023, overall progress is fragile and slow. Only 15% of the SDG targets are on track to be met by 2030, 48% are off track, and 37% stalled or regressing. The COVID-19 pandemic and increase in armed conflicts have hindered progress.

Figure 9 summarises global progress in each SDG. Where do we seem to be doing the best at meeting global needs? Where are we falling short?

Progress on the 17 SDGs as of 2023, expressed as a bar chart

Figure 9. Progress on the 17 SDGs as of 2023 (Credit: United Nations)

Activity 1.3.3

Concept: Systems

Skills: Thinking skills (critical thinking)

Time: Varies depending on option, see below

Type: Individual, pairs, group - depends on the options

Option 1 - Mind-mapping needs and need satisfiers

40 minutes

In the centre of a large piece of paper, or on a digital platform, write the words “meeting human needs”. 

Draw lines outward from the centre to circles with the following human needs mentioned in this section: subsistence (energy and hydration), protection from harm, positive relationships with others, understanding the world, leisure, creation, identity and freedom.

For each one of the human needs, add additional lines and circles listing the different need satisfiers that you use to meet those needs.

Option 2 - Exploring what need satisfiers look like around the world

40+ minutes

Dollar Street is a website associated with the Gapminder Foundation. The website has documented more than 250 homes in 50 countries. In each home, a photographer spends a day taking photos of up to 135 objects, like the family's toothbrushes or favorite pair of shoes. All photos are then tagged (household function, family name and income).

The photos provide a fascinating look at the need satisfiers that different families around the world use to meet their needs. There are a number of different things you can do with this site:

Option 3 - Discussion - Are wants different from needs?

40 minutes

The definition of the economy we have used in this course is: 

All the human-made systems that transfer and transform energy and matter to meet human needs and wants.

This section on human needs doesn’t really address wants. With a partner, or a group, discuss wants and their relationship to needs:

Ideas for longer activities, deeper engagement, and projects are listed in Subtopic 1.5 Taking action

Checking for understanding

Further exploration


Doyal, Len and Ian Gough (1995). A theory of human need. Macmillan.

Max-Neef, Manfred A. (1991). Human scale development : conception application and further reflections. Apex Press.

Reardon, J., Caporale, M. M. A., & Cato, M. S. (2018). Introducing a new economics: Pluralist, sustainable and Progressive. Pluto Press.

United Nations. The 17 goals | sustainable development. https://sdgs.un.org/goals

Terminology (in order of appearance)

Link to Quizlet interactive flashcards and terminology games for Section 1.3.3 Human needs

chatbot: a computer program that simulates conversation with human users

efficiency: the ratio of resource inputs compared to outputs

economy: all the human-made systems that transfer and transform energy and matter to meet human needs and wants

income: the ongoing money earned (flow) from work or investments

need: a condition that must be met for basic survival or for human wellbeing.

energy: the ability to do work or cause change

biological need: conditions that the human body requires to survive and thrive

social need: conditions in society and relationships that people need to survive and thrive

agency: the sense of control that people feel they have in their lives

resilient: able to recover after a disturbance

need satisfier: the specific ways people meet their needs

hydration: the replacement of body fluids lost through sweating, exhaling, and eliminating waste

institution: human-made systems of rules and norms that shape social behavior

consumption: using resources and products to meet needs; or in food chains, eating another organism

overconsumption: buying and using more products and resources than you need

waste:unwanted or unusable materials

hydropower: a renewable energy source that uses falling or running water

geothermal energy: a renewable energy source that uses the heat produced inside the Earth's crust

trade: to exchange something for something else

transform: a change in the state, energy or chemical nature of something

desalination: the process of removing salt from seawater

finance: to provide funding for a person or organisation

culture: the beliefs, values, attitudes, behaviours and traditions shared by a group of people and transmitted from one generation to the next

values: ideas about what is important or good

power: the ability to influence events or the behaviour of other people

lobby: seeking to influence someone else in a position of power

political capture: when the government prioritises the interests of economically powerful groups over the general interests of the public

economic inequality: unequal distribution of income and opportunity between different groups in society

social equity: fair treatment in socity

justice: fair treatment

Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): 17 social and environmental goals established by the United Nations in 2015

poverty: the state of being poor

ecosystem: the interaction of groups of organisms with each other and their physical environment