Material Implications

Perhaps the most important point of all about these investigations is the division between material needs and non-material needs. This division is explicit in Maslow's model. It is also inherent in the Max Neef framework. Subsistence and protection needs are inherently material needs. Satisfying them implies the need for material activity—primarily the provision of food, water, clothes and homes. Of course, there are more and less materially intensive ways of producing food, supplying water, providing clothes and building homes.15 Nevertheless, the existence of these vital physiological needs implies a certain minimum requirement for material activity. As we would expect, the human economy remains a fundamentally material concern: material inputs and outputs, obeying fundamental physical laws.

The striking feature of the remaining needs is that they are not inherently material in nature. The satisfaction of these needs is not entirely independent of material activities. But there may be a wide range of options for satisfying them. Some attempts will be highly intensive in term of material consumption. Others will be less intensive. Because the needs themselves are non-material, the satisfaction of them does not obviously dictate a particular level of material activity. Rather, the material throughput associated with satisfying non-material needs depends on cultural choice about appropriate satisfiers.

This is an absolutely vital point to have reached in our investigation. The whole book has been concerned with the potential for a dematerialisation of human activities. If we take the existing system of production and consumption for granted, we limit our intervention to technological improvements in process efficiency, and materials recycling. By introducing the idea of institutional changes, we open up the possibility of new commercial relations in the service economy. By questioning the fundamental principles of the system we reveal an immense new field of opportunities.

In the industrial economy we have tried almost exclusively to satisfy these non-material needs in material ways. Material possessions are used in the industrial economy to reflect status, to provide identity, to prove participation, to create a sense of belonging, to improve creativity, to strive for freedom and even to emulate affection. In some cases, material goods attain a limited measure of success in meeting these non-material concerns. But often they act as inhibitors, pseudosatisfiers and violators.

In Chapter 7 I discussed the provision of appropriate transportation services. I suggested there that there were more and less materially intensive ways of supplying passenger-kilometres. But I also indicated that the supply of passenger-kilometres was not the ultimate objective of transportation. In terms of the discussion in this chapter we could now argue that transportation is in fact just one way of attempting to meet a number of underlying human needs. Transport services get us to and from work. Work provides us with subsistence, participation and identity. Mobility also gives us access to our friends and relatives— supplying a need for affection and a sense of identity and belonging. Automobiles themselves are more than just vehicles of transportation. They are also symbols of freedom and identity.

Some of the needs provided by transportation are material ones. Others are non-material. But the present system is very intensive of materials use. It may satisfy some of our needs. But often it operates as a pseudosatisfier. The loss of environmental space associated with an expanding roads network inhibits the satisfaction of leisure needs, and violates our need for quality in the environment.16 At times—as congestion on the roads becomes more and more problematic—the system even fails to satisfy the identity and freedom needs promised by the iconoclastic motor car. There is no freedom and little personal identity attached to 'gridlock'!

There are ways of revising the transportation sector. Some of these involve technological alternatives. Others involve reassessing the demand for passenger-kilometres, and reconceiving our communities to reduce the need for travel. But our attempts to devise new systems will not succeed unless we address all the needs which the existing system promises to supply. There is no point in restricting private transport without providing accessible and affordable public transport. Equally, there is no point in discouraging mobility without encouraging better communities and improved participation. Perhaps most importantly, there is no point damning the car until we understand its status as a satisfier of needs. Freedom, identity and creativity needs are as important as participation and subsistence. If they are to be successful, our new communications networks must find—or perhaps simply allow for—new ways of meeting all of these underlying needs.

The important point is this: many of the needs which we are currently attempting to satisfy through materially intensive systems are nonmaterial needs. But the relationship between material goods supplied by this system and non-material needs is no longer clear. In fact, it never was clear. Mass production of economic goods was a misconceived enterprise when viewed from the point of view of fundamental needs. And the social implications of this misconception are as alarming as the environmental ones. Environmental degradation and resource depletion may just about be excusable, if they are fundamentally necessary for the provision of human welfare. But if material profligacy destroys the environment only to serve us with violators and false satisfiers, then it quite clearly represents an unforgivably foolish development path.

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