Needs and Wants

A distinction between needs and wants has been made by many critics in the green movement and its predecessors, who have argued that consumption in response to our needs is justifiable and sustainable, but consumption in response to our wants is not.

The American economist Thorstein Veblen (1857–1929) insisted that the desire to satisfy wants had but one overriding explanation: “conspicuous consumption”. Wants, Veblen tells us, are manifested in unnecessary things like decoration (“architectural distress” in the case of buildings), and in such pointless symbols of an idle and wasted life as flowers, cats and dogs, sports and higher learning. Such conspicuous consumption, he tells us, has no practical value for human life and well-being; its purpose is simply to impress, to intimidate and to provide evidence that the consumer is lucky enough not to have to do a full day’s work and so can exploit other people’s toil. Once people have felt the buzz of material excess, it develops an addictive hold over them as powerful as that of alcohol.N63

So, that leaves “needs”—and what are they? The utopian Marxist Herbert Marcuse (1898–1979) explains,

The only needs that have an unqualified claim for satisfaction are the vital ones—nourishment, clothing, lodging.N64

The distinction between needs and wants became an issue of even greater concern when people started to realise that the high levels of consumption enjoyed in the market economy are too great to be sustained by the environment. Evidently consumption must be cut back: envy must be slain; wants must go; needs can stay. “Needs”, wrote Duane Elgin in 1981, “are those things that are essential to our survival and growth; wants are those things that are extra—that gratify our psychological desires”—and to indulge wants is a bad thing, reducing “the vastness of who we are” to a mask, an image, an “ill-fitting shell”.N65

Mahatma Gandhi—and E.F. Schumacher, quoting him—came close to a simple equation of need and greed: “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not for every man’s greed.”N66 Jeremy Seabrook’s view of the commodities that reflect wants rather than needs has been consistently blistering: they are akin to heroin, addictive and alienated from human need, and people are goaded into thinking they want them “by the vast and abstract power of capital. . . . Need has been turned against life”.N67

And the responsibility for much of this was down to industry, as Kenneth Galbraith explained. Producers, he wrote, create wants along with the goods to satisfy them, like the town doctor deftly knocking over pedestrians with his car in order to keep the town hospital full. Since these wants are synthesised by advertising, catalysed by salesmanship, and shaped by the discreet manipulations of the persuaders (which itself shows that they cannot be very urgent), consumers find themselves on a mad squirrel wheel of ever increasing, ever-unsatisfied, desire.N68

Now, one thing to be noted about this critique is that it does not care about the nature of psychological desires; all that really matters is the means which are used to satisfy them. None but the most extreme critic, such as Veblen, really has any objection to wants so long as they are of a kind which non-material—or not-too-obviously-material—means can satisfy: poetry, conversation and dancing, it seems, are all right, as are “thinking, singing, laughing, reading books from the public library, interactive electronic entertainment, hiking, painting and playing cards”: in Factor Ten’s ethic, these are approved occupations.N69 The behaviour that causes the problem is the use of material means for psychological ends—especially if those ends are suspected of being related to social status. If people had a true understanding of what makes them happy, and of what their real needs are, they would keep their material requirements down to an uncluttered, physiological minimum. They might, with Henry David Thoreau, be content to “derive a real vigor from the scent of the gale wafted over the naked ground, as from strong meats, and realize again how man is the pensioner of nature”.N70 From this point of view, the austere repudiation of wants is claimed to be the road to enlightenment.

And yet, this distaste for material goods will not do as a response to the market economy’s material intemperance. In the “No Time to Indulge Your Wants” sidebar, we observe a confused, if competent, John Wesley. He thought there was nothing inconsistent about making goods for other people while, for himself, his family and his co-workers, there was little comfort, and little time to enjoy the money he made.

Working like a Puritan

“The sound of your hammer at five in the morning, or eight at night, heard by a creditor, makes him easy six months longer; but if he sees you at a billiard-table, or hears your voice at a tavern, when you should be at work, he sends for his money the next day.” This is from Benjamin Franklin’s Puritan Credo, whose first instruction is, “Remember, that time is money.”N71

All work and no unnecessary expenditure is a recipe for getting rich; at first sight, it might also seem to be in conflict with the Christian ideal of poverty but, as Max Weber explains, the Puritans were able to see money as “a sign of God’s blessing . . . and at the same time the most evident proof of rebirth and genuine faith”.N72

Here is John Wesley struggling with this problem:

I fear, wherever riches have increased, the essence of religion has decreased in the same proportion. Therefore I do not see how it is possible, in the nature of things, for any revival of true religion to continue long. . . . Is there no way to prevent this—this continual decay of pure religion?

His answer is heroic:

We ought not to prevent people from being diligent and frugal; we must exhort all Christians to gain all they can, and to save all they can; that is, in effect, to grow rich.N73

The formula was certainly effective: the Puritan states of New England raced ahead of the different traditions in Rhode Island and the South in their early economic development,N74 but the legacy of this, as Tibor Scitovsky writes, is “Puritan money-mindedness . . . distrust of all artifice aimed merely to enhance enjoyment . . . [and] an acceptance of dull food and drab surroundings.”

This “joyless economy” cultivates a disdain for the knowledge required to cope with culture; it presses “for the progressive crowding out of a liberal, humanistic education by the requirements of science and technology” and, faced with boredom, prefers quick kicks to the reflective skills required for culture. Culture, “the learning of the leisure class”, writes Scitovsky, becomes distrusted and disliked; to the Puritans, “skills and learning aimed solely at enhancing one’s ability to obtain enjoyment looked like instruments of the devil”.N75


For pre-market societies, on the other hand, goods had a significance which extended well beyond their functions as instruments for a practical purpose. Agricultural implements, household goods and weapons, along with houses, churches, fields and wells, were decorated, blessed and given names. And the conceit that goods have a life of their own—that you should therefore not only care for them, but be kind to them, and that they might even one day answer back—survives, if only in a muted way. D.H. Lawrence once reflected on the furnishings in his seedy lodgings in Florence like this:

We have to choose between the quick and the dead. . . . In this room where I write, there is a little table that is dead; . . . and there is a ridiculous little iron stove, which for some unknown reason is quick. And there is an iron wardrobe trunk, which for some still more mysterious reason is quick. And there are several books, whose mere corpus is dead, utterly dead and non-existent. And there is a sleeping cat, very quick. And a glass lamp, alas, is dead.N76

The idea that such objects can be alive is (aside from the cat) absurd, but an imaginative engagement with them is not. A healthy delight in goods—Mary Douglas and Baron Isherwood’s “visible part of culture”—is a characteristic, alike, of jackdaws and of enduring political economies. And a regard for goods, which assigns them a value beyond their instrumental function and pretends they have a life of their own, is not wholly unconnected with a regard for people. Neither the careful concern for the chattels of the eighteenth century household described by the historian Margaret Vickery, nor the consuming interest in accumulated household goods demonstrated by the Dodson women in George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, were cases of gullible and greedy acquiescence to clever advertising; the pleasure they took from the company of the meticulously pressed linen and from the artefacts of their households is frank and refreshing and, in some cases at least, there was no visible join between their concern for their household’s goods and their concern for its people.N77

A person’s possession of material goods tells you something about him or her. In most societies until the late market economy, they elaborately communicated (among other things) social status, particular loyalties, obligations and belonging. Clothes, goods and demeanour are signals of personal availability, statements you make about being interested in interacting with other people: invitations, in a sense, to play. In the market economy, the signals given out by goods are much weaker, but this is not a concern because social roles are substantially replaced by money exchange: it does not matter who you are, so long as your money is good. But, in the absence of an efficiently-functioning market, the identity of the person you are dealing with will be important again; each party has to be sure that the other one can be reliably identified, that he will deliver when the debt is called in, that he is a willing participant in the society and its culture, and that he is happy to show it.

And for signals to work in this way, another need will become evident: constrained diversity. The ability of signals to inform depends on their being contained within a limited range, with an implied or explicit grammar and vocabulary. If the diversity is too great, it forgoes its grammar and ceases to communicate; it is merely off the scale. In the Lean Economy, signs of identity, of good faith, of availability, will be needed.N78

Clothes in the Lean Economy, for example, may need to work hard as signals of recognition and belonging. This was the business of clothes—not an entirely serious business, because play was integrated into it—before the weariness, the fever and the fret of a dirty and dislocated industrial market descended at the start of the nineteenth century. Dress promptly responded to that horror by turning to black, both because conformity and anonymity became commercial assets, and because it disguised the soot. The function of dress as a signal was sharply diminished, though never quite lost; but with the decline of soot, and with the post-market economy’s need to reinvent direct reciprocity between identified people, it will be plain good business to develop the semiotic (signalling) possibilities of dress, and to play around with them.N79 And not just with dress. For the same semiotic reasons, material goods, dwellings and places will again have something to say.

And here is an intention: what they will say in the Lean Economy is that every place is a sacred place; every ecology has its enchantment, its quiet music, its authority. At the very least, every town and village will need to be visible and communicative: places will have a meaning, giving signals of particular loyalties, of rooted obligations and belonging, of a cultural landscape. Public places and private homes will live up to the standards of the urban designer Francis Tibbalds’ Tenth Commandment: “Thou shalt, with all the means available, promote intricacy, joy and visual delight in the built environment.”N80 This will do as an aim for the local Lean Economy, whose inhabitants will have the confidence to be robustly materialist, fond of things, public and private—including attributes such as decoration which, through having least practical value, are able to give the strongest signals. The Lean Economy will restore the symbolic values and implicit functions of goods; it will be comfortable with material possession in a way that the market economy would envy (Invisible Goods).


The notion that needs are good and wants bad does not survive inspection. For the anthropologists Douglas and Isherwood, it is a “curious moral split [that] appears under the surface of most economists’ thoughts on human needs”. Indeed, Lean Logic argues that those economists may have it somewhat back-to-front.N81

The heaviest burden of the modern economy, by far, is that imposed by its own elaborations—the massive infrastructures and material flows of the intermediate economy—which are needed because of the special problems of sustaining a system of such a size. Regardless of whether we want them, we now need the sewage systems, heavy-goods transport, police forces, hospitals. Given the substantial scale of the task of feeding, raising and schooling a suburban family, and the increasing challenge of such routine needs as finding a post office, many of us undoubtedly need cars. The collapse of local self-reliance was both the cause and the effect of the massive elaboration of transport, and when that need is no longer met, its life-sustaining function will be bitterly recognised.

It is, then, the multiplication of needs by large-scale industrial life that causes the trouble. Our wants are squeezed out, much missed and—if freed of much of the intermediate economy on which at present they depend—light by comparison, not least because they often involve labour-intensive crafts and services: pianists, craftsmen, dressmakers, waitresses, gardeners with minimum environmental impact. Some wants are also needs, of course, and they cannot be cleanly separated, but if we focus our efforts on finding ways, under the stresses of the climacteric, of achieving a substantial and rapid liquidation of our needs, we will be getting somewhere.


Related entries:

Intentional Waste, Regrettable Necessities, New Domestication, Usury, Scale.

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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was a cultural historian and economist, based in London, England. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a pioneer of post-growth economics, and a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, 'Lean Logic' and 'Surviving the Future', published posthumously in 2016. These in turn inspired the 2020 launches of both BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong's feature film about Fleming's perspective and legacy - 'The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation?' - and Sterling College's unique 'Surviving the Future: Conversations for Our Time' online courses. For more information on all of the above, including Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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