Human Need and the Economy

Human economies have no separate existence; they are not some universal latent design waiting for the human substrate to be displayed. We ask the wrong questions with: “What is wrong with the economy and how can we fix it?” Our first efforts must be to understand the origin of how we have come to exchange materials and behaviors, and then to ask: “Is this how we want to do our exchanges and what are the consequences?” It may seem a monumental task to retool the present way of assigning value and doing exchanges, but the current depth of troubles are pointing more and more directly to the conclusion that our present economic structures have run their course and are placing us, and the earth’s living systems, in the greatest peril.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs may have begun as a classification of the internal motives of human action and the order in which they dominate our experience of life, but they have become a ‘selling’ list for the entrepreneur. A most basic biological tenet is that an organism is to be in primary control of the behaviors, environments and situations that meet its essential needs; that is to say, it is to be well adapted to its environment. A basic tenet of the entrepreneur is that no human need should be able to be met by the simple and direct action of the person; a way is to be found to intrude into the space between need and the behaviors or the material for the need’s satisfaction and to extract some amount of the energy in the transaction. And that is to say, a defining quality (as I have drawn it here) of the entrepreneur is very similar to the biological definition of parasitism.

In today’s human environment people do not directly meet their own needs, they purchase the terms of need satisfaction with abstract tokens that are intended as representations of energy or work. Such tokens only have power when a large enough number in a population honor that representation. And here is the tricky part: once people, structurally, have no means to meet their own needs by their direct action, then they must have a design or device that will move others to meet those needs. The consequence of this ‘reality’ is that ad hoc systems of exchange have transmogrified into economic structures. This is understandable, but what is not clear is why humans would see such tertiary, quaternary, etc. designs as primary… with magical properties.

Actually, it is not so mysterious; once we came to depend on these Rube Goldberg systems for the movement, storage and protection of abstract tokens of exchange, imbuing them with magical powers was a very human thing to do. This leads, ultimately, to a conflict of global proportion. The primary biological directive: ‘stay in direct control of need meeting behaviors and situations’ is challenged by the economic realities of an overpopulated and abstracted world where no need can be met without tokens of exchange; need-meeting opportunities all now have tollbooths.

We are at a place where the loss of faith in this Madness can destroy millions of lives, human and non-human. If we stop and wonder at the efficacy of existing money systems, if we even ask that they be examined or re-examined against biophysical models of reality, there is a great cry of foul, the threat of “economic failure” and even physical force. Also, those most vulnerable to perturbations in the system are actually harmed by the very suggestion of concern.

This is not to say that we are discouraged from giving attention to economics; it is understood that the designs of exchange can be a compelling study. How the tokens of exchange are given stable trade-able value, how items and behaviors are given value based on the stabilized token values or where and how these tokens move or are be stored and by whom, these are all questions that generate real, complex and fascinating options. But when such processes are seen as essentially immutable and more important than life itself, then a high level of insanity, strutting as authority, is doomed for a fall.

In our present situation this thinking leads to powerful contradictions: people are consuming less, which is a good thing for the biophysical reality. If this were to become habit and expectation, we just might be able to begin letting the planet heal itself, slow the loss of biodiversity, restructure human-environment relationships and just maybe begin to discover how to act in recognition of our outsized powers as change agents. Everyone would discover how to do with less, much less, that we do with now.

But… people are consuming less, so ways must be found to get people to consume more because the designs of the economic system require that consumption increase over time. If consumption slows, then the movement of the tokens of exchange slow and the designs that stabilize the value of the tokens and that assign token values for items and behaviors are perturbed. Trust is lost in the tokens and the whole structure becomes endangered. Since the only way to deliver essential needs is by the efficient functioning of the economic system, millions will suffer from even the slightest doubt or concern about its efficacy.

Not to put too fine a point on it, this is nuts.

No one is of the opinion that humans can increase in number and use of earthly resources forever. It is clear, even to crazy people, that a bucket can be filled and then can hold no more. Sensible humans recognize that we have been for sometime now trying to overfill our place on the planet. This is bad news and most people do not like bad news, but then again most people prefer bad news to worse news.

Sensible people must continue to hammer away with the ‘bad news’ that material possession is a drug delivered by a pusher economy, and that devoting time to avoiding the ‘tollbooths’ is more species verifying than working for the tokens to pay at them (I don’t think it bad news at all, since a simple life has proven for me to be far more fulfilling and purpose filled than the “economic” life).

We will only be able to change the present total domination of almost every detail of our lives by an exchange token economy by being able to meet the most essential of our needs by our own efforts: that is the bad news. And it is also good news since there is nothing more rewarding than to be in real control of even a short life compared to being the disenfranchised observer of a life owned by an economic system.

James Keye is the nom de plume of a retired academic and small businessman living with an Ecological Footprint of 1.6 earths. He can be reached at Read other articles by James, or visit James's website.

27 comments on this article so far ...

Comments RSS feed

  1. Don Hawkins said on April 13th, 2009 at 10:41am #

    The current standard of living is not going to work out well we have to give it up and try. So far the fight is the other way around. A little secret on this present path same thing happens without the fight. A few have made the decision to go out without a fight and they act so nice and think they are so tuff. Those few are neither tuff or nice and very sure they don’t know what a radiator is used for in there car or where it’s at. They like white shoes to hit the ball down the green that they know. That’s fightin words yes it sure is. The decision has been made to not try by only a few and a good part of those few are old in age and old in there mind. They think with an old way of thinking with what we now know and the augments they use to keep this old way of thinking so they can hold on to the money and power is pathetic and they still fool many. To give up this so called standard of living for the few drives them mad as well it should because this so called standard of living is for only a few our standard of living that would be we the people hasn’t changed much. The fight is on and so far nobody is winning. Unless people start working together this will not work out to well. Capitalism will crush Socialism I heard someone say on TV. Well the Earth is getting ready to crush the human race and yes it will be somewhat slow 20 than forty than 60 years in 60 survival is the game. Still time to slow this down think in months 98 months. The clock is ticking in more way’s than one.

    There is still time and mush start now. Read this an old man with a new way of thinking, get it.

  2. Michael Dawson said on April 13th, 2009 at 12:10pm #

    Mr. Keye’s concept of the overclass being parasites is more than just an analogy. Very, very important…

    Thank you.

  3. bozh said on April 13th, 2009 at 1:11pm #

    yes, it is futile to ask, What’s wrong with the economy? ‘Economy’ cannot exist without people. So it might be better to find how many and which people manage it.
    and then we talk to the managers of the economy and the managers of americanism or the amer capitalism, etc.

    one cannot obtain any elucidation by talking solely about the first and leaving aside american way of life, religion, laws of the land, plutocratic rule, serial wars, ‘education’ , media disinformation, etc.

    if one wants to find how a printing shop runs, you better talk about it to the management of the shop. You’d learn a lot unless the management lied.
    same advice is good for the ‘economy’ [single quotes alert people of the fact that economy does not exist per se] uless it also lies. tnx

  4. Don Hawkins said on April 13th, 2009 at 1:43pm #

    After reading this think fair and unbalanced. Would you say the economy is unbalanced and the big one the climate of Earth. Unless we try and bring the climate system back the other is academic and from the looks of it the economy has already went way pass the tipping point. We will bring it back to normal and the moon is made of green cheese. Anyway going to watch Glenn Beck on Fox New’s now and see if he say’s anything about Fascists or Socialists and climate change is no big problem we have to stop the Fascists at all costs join our group make your voice heard. Yes Glenn needs some help boy you can say that again.

  5. Monkismo said on April 13th, 2009 at 3:12pm #

    All we hear these days are plans from both sides of the traditional political spectrum for returning this parasitic economy to 3-4% annual growth, even though it’s that growth that threatens us and the ecosystem.

    And most of us won’t complain, because we’ve been co-opted into believing that our fortunes are somehow linked to those of the ultra-rich. We pray for a stock market turnaround so our 401K’s will start growing again; we accept without question that it’s normal for people to be homeless while millions of homes stand empty.

    As far as “the vulnerable” are concerned, I’ll confess that it’s hard for me to be too sympathetic when I see the poor folks in my area driving around in gas-sucking giant SUVs and pissing their money away on Bluetooths and other pointless fashion accessories while their kids live in squalor.

  6. Don Hawkins said on April 13th, 2009 at 3:32pm #

    Monkismo not me. My kid’s have been given most of what we had saved but they needed it. They are both doing good now as best they can in this mad mad mad World. For us it’s ok. All I have to do is turn on the TV and watch most people and I feel just like Einstein. Then I usually go have a cup of coffee and wonder how this happened. I will never buy a flat screen TV. What is a Bluetooth sounds painful.

  7. Don Hawkins said on April 13th, 2009 at 4:13pm #

    Oh I have these special glasses I found many years ago that let’s me see the World the real World. Not for everybody and I can’t keep them on to long gives me a headache. Did you know that some people are not what they seem? I have already said to much. Well one more clue beware of people in 5,000 dollar suits bearing gift’s.

  8. bozh said on April 13th, 2009 at 4:21pm #

    hi don,
    i’ve got bad news for us: I’ll be more stupid tomorrow than today. This is not a political promise; this is a real life promise.
    Yes i am losing brain cells by the day but not yet by the our. By the hour loss is coming; me being an youngold man of 77.

    did u know why ‘god’ did not give the dogs belief in him? Because, he cldn’t stand another specie talking back to him. This is not my worst joke.
    My wife loves reno and gambling; so we will be away for a weak starting this saturday. I say this so that u wldn’t think i took a position with obama. tnx

  9. Don Hawkins said on April 13th, 2009 at 4:49pm #

    Bozh I was born in Nevada small town. Crap table back line take the odds. We will see how the World looks when you get back. Older I am sure wiser yet to be seen.

  10. Deadbeat said on April 13th, 2009 at 5:15pm #

    What BULLSHIT dribble being passed off as analysis. This clown needs to get a copy of Capital and READ IT.

    [1] The author ASSERTS that the planet is “overpopulated” providing NO EVIDENCE what-so-ever. Overpopulation is NOT the problem the problem is the MALDISTRIBUTION of POWER leading to the maldistribtion of resources.

    [2] MOST of the planet lives on less than $2.00/day so there is NOT overconsuption. There problem is a very SMALL percentage of the world population CONSUMES most of the resources.

    [3] The current crisis is not about bits of metals being passed around. It was caused because those bits of metals were NOT passed around but CONCENTRATED in the hands of the few who then rather than invest they speculated on inflating assets. The power of the working class has been diminishing since the 1970’s.

    [4] Where has this clown been. There has been a crisis around the world for decades and his analysis is totally a distrastion. He couldn’t even identify “the economy” as Capitalism.

    Where the FUCK do these clowns come from?

  11. Deadbeat said on April 13th, 2009 at 5:19pm #

    Here’s a link to help educate this bozo. Hopefully by educating himself the next time he writes an article he will help to advance knowledge and understanding to his intended audience …

    Reading Marx’s Capital with David Harvey

  12. James Keye said on April 13th, 2009 at 7:23pm #


    I’d be happy to discuss your concerns with my essay point by point, but you have to learn to be civil. Anyone can yell personal attacks. So far, given your enumerated criticisms, I see nothing that relates to my piece. Be nice and I’ll respond as fully and completely as I can.

  13. Don Hawkins said on April 14th, 2009 at 3:03am #

    There is no greatness where there is not simplicity.
    – Leo Tolstoy

    Almost nine out of 10 climate scientists do not believe political efforts to restrict global warming to 2C will succeed, a Guardian poll reveals today. An average rise of 4-5C by the end of this century is more likely, they say, given soaring carbon emissions and political constraints.

    Such a change would disrupt food and water supplies, exterminate thousands of species of plants and animals and trigger massive sea level rises that would swamp the homes of hundreds of millions of people.

    The poll of those who follow global warming most closely exposes a widening gulf between political rhetoric and scientific opinions on climate change. While policymakers and campaigners focus on the 2C target, 86% of the experts told the survey they did not think it would be achieved. A continued focus on an unrealistic 2C rise, which the EU defines as dangerous, could even undermine essential efforts to adapt to inevitable higher temperature rises in the coming decades, they warned.

    Many of the experts stressed that an inability to hit the 2C target did not mean that efforts to tackle global warming should be abandoned, but that the emphasis is now on damage limitation The Guardian

    Hit with a double whammy of spiralling carbon emissions from the coal-fired boom in developing countries such as China and political stalemate, many climate scientists have become noticeably nervous in recent years. While technical papers in academic journals have tracked increasingly desperate predictions, most have put on a brave face in public. Likely failure to meet the 2C target, and the certainty of dreadful consequences, has been the worst-kept secret in climate science.

    No longer. Today’s Guardian poll of attendees at a climate conference last month in Copenhagen exposes the gulf between political rhetoric and scientific thinking. Of more than 250 experts surveyed, more than half said the 2C target could still be achieved but only 18 thought that it would be. By the end of the century, most thought average temperatures would rise by some 4C.

    The figure is not plucked from their imaginations. The authoritative report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2007 laid it out in simple terms. If carbon emissions continue to rise at present rates, then the IPCC’s best guess is a 4C rise by 2100. The Guardian poll merely highlights a belief that the warning has simply failed to penetrate. As one said: “I think a full understanding of what must be done quickly, and the consequences of insufficient action, is lacking among the policy makers and the public.” Another said: “Current government actions are playing into the hands of … an electorate that doesn’t quite understand how serious climate change is.”

    Survey respondents were promised anonymity. Many scientists are reluctant to admit publicly that the 2C target is unrealistic, and several warned that simply raising the subject was sensitive. One said: “Telling people that x% people think it can’t be done would be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Great things can only be achieved by everyone believing it can be done … Churchill didn’t stand around saying most people think we will lose the war. He said we will fight it on the beaches.”

    Several scientists said the G20 summit in London, where climate change was barely considered, had convinced them the action required would not be taken. Simon Lewis, a climate researcher at the University of Leeds, said: “The summit shows that political leaders do not regard climate change as an urgent issue. They were tasked to re-configure the global economy and they chose to re-affirm the old model, and not move to a low-carbon economy as scientists have urged. The summit was more of an end-of-the-world order than a new world order.”

    Bob Doppelt, director of the climate leadership initiative at the University of Oregon, said: “One of the problems is that the issue is still being framed as a scientific and environmental issue. This is a major mistake. Climate change is just a symptom of dysfunctional social and economic practices and policies. It is a social and economic issue. The emphasis needs to shift away from the biophysical sciences now to the social sciences if we have any hope of solving this problem.” utv news

    Leo of course is not alone when witting about simplicity and it sure looks like now more than ever probably a good idea. Let’s watch the Senate in action the next few month’s and see if simplicity is seen probably more like stupidity crazy talk bullshit nonsense from both sides. Will we see working together reason, wisdom? See that question mark don’t kid yourself people know. I know tell them we are trying the old perception of reality thing. What do you think just could work for awhile. What is the main problem for a few with simplicity

  14. Don Hawkins said on April 14th, 2009 at 3:30am #

    You may deceive all the people part of the time, and part of the people all the time, but not all the people all the time.

    Abraham Lincoln

    You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time.

    Abraham Lincoln, (attributed)

    Mr. President in just a few months many will know if we are going to try. You know this little problem called climate change. What’s the plan so far perception of reality. The smartest minds on this planet are watching and do you talk with them? They like to talk and think bullshit isn’t high on there list of things to do. Remember reality hasn’t gone anywhere it’s still here and going to get rather hard to change into perception. Here’s one example of perception of reality. The last President and his man at the IPCC asked the question, ok if the ice melts it will come back right. Right and on this present path the Earth will turn a light shade of gray as seen from space. Let’s try. ? do you see that it’s called a question mark and in just a few years that question mark will not be in the back of people’s mind’s but right in front. Just a thought. Let’s try

  15. Don Hawkins said on April 14th, 2009 at 3:41am #

    Protest and direct action could be the only way to tackle soaring carbon emissions, a leading climate scientist has said.

    James Hansen, a climate modeller with Nasa, told the Guardian today that corporate lobbying has undermined democratic attempts to curb carbon pollution. “The democratic process doesn’t quite seem to be working,” he said.
    Speaking on the eve of joining a protest against the headquarters of power firm E.ON in Coventry, Hansen said: “The first action that people should take is to use the democratic process. What is frustrating people, me included, is that democratic action affects elections but what we get then from political leaders is greenwash.
    “The democratic process is supposed to be one person one vote, but it turns out that money is talking louder than the votes. So, I’m not surprised that people are getting frustrated. I think that peaceful demonstration is not out of order, because we’re running out of time.”

  16. Brian Koontz said on April 14th, 2009 at 6:04am #

    In reply to Monkismo:

    “As far as “the vulnerable” are concerned, I’ll confess that it’s hard for me to be too sympathetic when I see the poor folks in my area driving around in gas-sucking giant SUVs and pissing their money away on Bluetooths and other pointless fashion accessories while their kids live in squalor.”

    Americans are not “poor folks”. The people who particularly suffer in downturns in the global economy are third worlders, such as the recent food riots caused by what Americans perceive as a “small” rise in the price of basic foods. For many of them, the state of the global capitalist economy is a matter of life and death.

    The American “poor” are part of the global middle class, and largely hold bourgeois values.

  17. bozh said on April 14th, 2009 at 7:06am #

    brian, yes,
    i wld say they hold the values that they had been thought from childhood. This is a sybaritic class of life which had always looked dwn on people with ‘tainted’ skin or the ‘underachievers’.

  18. bozh said on April 14th, 2009 at 7:25am #

    i also believe that the ‘overpop’ shld be much more researched than it is.
    we need to look at overuse and waste and who does that. It is not a nepalese or ghanan child/adult who wastes, as far as i know, anything.

    i’ve said before, we cld safely increase the pop in much of afrika, asia, s.’rica, if we wld/cld reduce euro-amer pop and poo a bn people.

    even their dogs are burden on us and the planet. So, ban/prevent ownership of dogs and other pets first.

  19. James Keye said on April 14th, 2009 at 8:02am #


    The ecological footprint work, which began over 15 years ago, is not just fad — although it has been fadisized — is based on research based evaluation of the issues you point out: different peoples’ use of resources.

    If you are not already familiar with the the founding organization: They used to have their databases available for download and perhaps still do. Interesting material.

  20. kalidas said on April 14th, 2009 at 2:32pm #

    “A society of cheaters and the cheated.” Therein lies the rub.

    This earth can easily support 10 times its current population if simple living and high thinking were applied. Of course the only ones wanting and needing this are the truly poor and the only ones practicing this are the truly evolved.

    Falsified biased science for whatever agenda(s) not with standing. We all know more and more “paid for” science, with the correspondingly correct reporting and lobbying = whatever the money masters wish it to equal.
    More and more we see so-called scientific expertise to be nothing more than false propaganda and faked/misrepresented results. sold by more cheating experts as doom and gloom predictions.

    P.T. Barnum should be “man of the year” every year.

  21. kalidas said on April 14th, 2009 at 2:33pm #

    Of course everything I offer could and will be countered by the opposite, but what the Hell..

  22. James Keye said on April 14th, 2009 at 3:31pm #


    Nihilism at least takes the trouble to sort of believe in itself.

    ‘What is real’ is the universal question for the living state and the consciousness state; and there are a variety of devices for making those judgments. Nihilism is just one of the weakest forms of the conscious devices: it just gives up when the decisions get difficult.

  23. Nuages de Nuance said on April 14th, 2009 at 4:21pm #

    I would like to extend gratitude to Mr Deadbeat and second his urging to read Karl Marx. I must be confessing to some bewilderment reading commentary by some who claim the identity “I am a Socialist”, while boastfully proclaim never to have read Marx.

    I find must be departing from Mr Deadbeat with reference his highly nuanced comment to Mr Keye’s article, which immediately evoked for me the first three chapters of Das Kapital, tracing the evolution of Exchange from earliest Barter up to the appearance of Money Economy, development of Banking and on from there.

    Capital ultimately resolves to Control over Labor. Which currently is primarily exercised via Money, “tokens” in which we all have faith, “In God We Trust”. But which can also be exercised by other means.

    Control over Labor, then, ultimately resolves to what most serious students refer to as “The State”.

    The State of course in turn resolves (“via a cycle of Force”;) to Ideological Hegemony, “Faith”.

    Believe Me, Oh My People!!!

  24. James Keye said on April 14th, 2009 at 8:25pm #

    Nuages de Nuance,

    Reliance on an established vocabulary and dialectic almost guarantees confusions for the present context; a demand of allegiance is never to be trusted. Of course, Marx should be read; Smith, Ricardo, Galbraith, Keynes, Hayek, Lao Tzu and Pogo to. As to Deadbeat, his judgment seemed to be more of the clouded part than the Nuanced.

    The point is to understand in a way that can form into action. I am less confident of “capital ultimately resolves to Control over Labor” as a way to motivate than “being the disenfranchised observer of a life owned by an economic system.”

  25. Christophe said on October 25th, 2009 at 8:46am #

    This is a very compelling take on an unsustainable economic system, one that, in my estimation, only exaccerbates human (dis)ease, and that will have to be retooled, if the human species-and spaceship earth-is to survive and thrive.

  26. Don Hawkins said on October 25th, 2009 at 12:22pm #

    unsustainable economic system, man you can say that again, unsustainable economic system. Just the last ten years the system Wall Street and there outofcontrolness was amazing to see. Then just the last few years and the money/debt to keep it going. Now business is mad because they have lost control you know not as easy to control policy but still some in the system seem to be ok like some bank’s and in reality all just debt in an out of control system and with climate change coming down the track is making for strangeness and the few want to go for the outofcontrolness one more time I guess thinking the last tango as the rest of us go down the drain in not such slow motion. Coal is your friend and the health care companies just want to make an honest profit unless you had a tooth ache when you were six years old and now as you are 50 and have cancer denied, preexisting conduction or if you get sick after paying half your wages to these wonderful human’s sorry that is not covered. How many people now out in the road with no house because of the unsustainable economic system but the bank’s are ok sort of.

  27. Max Shields said on October 25th, 2009 at 2:08pm #

    Those who think that there is no such thing as overpopulation or peak oil or global warming; or think they can pick and choose which one to “believe in” really don’t understand thermodynamics, capacity, rates of consumption, function of expotentiality and biophysics.

    All of these define LIMITS. There are always limits. The planet we are on has an delicately balanced ecosystem that provides life. In fact, it is fair to say this is a living planet. It is also, empirically, fair to say that this ecosystem shifts and species are created, made extinct, and reduced. The forces that do that are the aforementioned list that comprise LIMITS.

    The fine point of these limits are dynamic. That is capacity is not fixed, nor is consumption rates. In other words, this is a non-linear process that cannot easily be gauged but can be estimated given high-speed computers today.

    But to argue that the planet does not have limits is really to defy rationality, logic, and observation. We see humans perish daily, we witness whole species disappear. The planet is a life force, but it does not protect one life form over another.

    That humans effect this limit (as do other species) seems not only plausible but irrefutable. If we eliminate ideologies, denial, and the mix of economics that is based on short-term consumption and endless growth, it is all too clear that there are limits. If we agree that Global Warming is happening, that humans have effected it, than it is only reasonable to understand that human populations can exceed the capacity of the planet to sustain human life (at least at the levels we have and the expotential growth of such a population).

    Now the human population is nearing 7 billion. Is that too many? Or do we have “room” for more? The answer is not a simple yes or no. It depends. It depends on the collective capacity demands of each of the human species, and thus the demands they make of the planet’s resources to sustain them. That the West demands more than the South makes no difference to the planet. We all suffer when the limits are reached.

    If we know the minimal capacity for human life – say around subtropical to temporate zones, with bare essentials and increase that to the kind of excessive use of the earth’s capacity we see today, then we see that the we and the planet are in deep trouble. If we reduce our capacity demands (which may require population reduction) than we can curtail the trajectory we’re on. This is non-linear and therefore it is not a fair question to say: How many people is too many? Until you can provides the key variables that may change the outcome.

    The living arrangement today appears unsustainable; if say the Chinese and Indians and others continue to follow the US model of material capacity demand.

    So, again, it is either ignornance of what is meant by LIMITS or an ideology of “hope” or “gratuitous greed” that would perpetuate this idea that we have endless resources, whether oil, air or water.