How to Be Human
I'll be using Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs as a model for developing the ideas in this series. The theory presented by Maslow and other ‘positive psychologists’ is that each human being requires that these needs be fulfilled at each level before the needs at a higher level can be fulfilled. It is not necessary that the lower level needs be perfectly and completely fulfilled before one can start to pursue higher needs. But one will be stunted in their development as a happy individual unless the needs are settled at lower levels, freeing one to pursue fulfilling needs at the higher levels.
Here I will recap the main points of the hierarchy. Starting at the base:
- Physiological Needs and Drives
These are the needs of any animal to survive. The primary needs are:
- Air to breathe (intake of oxygen and output of carbon dioxide produced by metabolism)
- Water to drink (needed in metabolism and to keep the body in its quasi-fluid state, flushing of wastes)
- Food to eat (nutrients for building and repairing the body, energy to power the body)
- Procreation (driven to have sex as an inducement to reproduction)
- Clothing and shelter (provide insulating microenvironments against cold and wet conditions)
- Fire (source of external warmth and cooking)
- Safety and Security Needs
These are primarily psychological factors that translate into behavioral modes. There are emotional correlates such as fear or anger associated with threats, and contentment associated with perceptions of safety.
- A sense of personal security (e.g. adequate nourishment, absence of danger)
- Resource security (territorial food supply, water catchments)
- Health and well-being (absence of disease or injury)
- Safety net (presence of general conditions to guard against accidents/illness/hunger and their adverse impacts)
- Love and belonging
Positive emotional needs that are experienced cognitively. Also may involve some forms of positive conflict, e.g. sense of being engaged in group decision making.
- Friendship (having comrades with whom one can cooperate and play)
- Intimacy (humans have a strong need to mate, more or less monogamously, leading to needs for stronger ties to certain individual others)
- Family (babies and young children elicit strong positive emotional responses - more complicated emotional milieu when children are older!)
- Social networking and purpose (most people feel a need to belong to organizations that have some purpose even if only to have fun)
The need to be viewed by others in a positive light. To have others indicate through their actions and words that they hold a person in regard and enjoy being with that person. Along with the esteem of others one needs to have self esteem, to view one's self as worthy, competent, etc.
- Recognition (being seen and heard by others in a variety of social and personal situations)
- Acceptance (being taken for who one is and not feel a need to impress or submit to other's expectations)
- Respect (acknowledgement of worthiness)
- Attention (being paid attention to in various ways showing one is a valued member of a network of people)
- Positive Self Image (cognitive awareness of the receipt of the above from ones social groups)
- The need to expand and grow in mind and spirit, to learn much, to perform well, and to better understand life and the world
- The need to achieve more than has already been achieved
Starting with the Basics
The basic physiological needs is the best place to start this discussion. Clearly humans living in a future uncertain world will need to have these needs met in order to have a shot at the higher needs being met. Remember the goal of this exercise is to consider how a future life can be arranged so as to achieve the highest levels of self-actualization. But to do so, we must consider each level starting at the bottom.
Food, water, shelter, warmth, facilities for cleansing and toilets are the basics for physiological needs. The per capita capacities for these needs can fall in a range from subsistence level, in which everyone is barely eking out a living, scrabbling for food and water, to an abundance sufficient to provide buffers against times when environmental contingencies might lessen the capacity. Our objective should be to shoot for the high end of that range because it helps ensure that, on average, the physiological needs of all will be met.
The task, then, is to define what an abundance capacity in fulfilling these needs will look like and set up a plan for achieving that.
As most long-term readers will know I advocate the permaculture approach to designing those capacities. I like to think of permaculture as the application of the principles of systems science, and in particular those of systems ecology, to the human-built environment. That environment needs to integrate smoothly into the natural world in which it is embedded. In a very real sense, the human-built environment should be just another kind of natural environment. It does not violate other ecosystems, it is just a specialized ecosystem constructed and managed to allow humans to achieve their highest status as self-actualized beings. My own feeling is that part of real self actualization is a realization of being a part of nature, not above or outside of it. Just from a whole systems perspective it seems to me that that would be a safe approach. It beats seeing our kind as in battle with nature. We know who would win that battle!
This blog will outline some approaches to planning a future social system based on principles from permaculture and more general information from systems ecology and systems agriculture. But our basic objective is to scale the operation properly in order to achieve true sustainability. Let me emphasize this last point.
We treat a human-built ecosystem as a semi-permeable bounded system (see Figure 1 below). It receives flows of energy to drive the order-preserving processes within (such as growing food and trees), flows of materials such as nutrients and water, and excretes some high-entropy materials and waste heat to the larger environment. The latter represents a minimum, but unavoidable, recycling of matter at a rate that the larger environment can absorb safely. Low-entropy material goods such as crops, buildings, and human biomass remain bounded in the system and are regenerated by a social form of autopoiesis. This means that every process contributes to the maintenance of every other process in some fashion. For example, the resource production processes (food growing and preparation) supports the educational process, which reciprocates by educating the young in the ways of producing food, among other skills and knowledge. Every process should contribute to the production of energy, either directly or indirectly. It should provide support in a way that maintains its own energy sources and can possibly support some excess for savings, for a rainy day.
There is an optimal scale and degree of complexity that humans can enjoy in their human-built ecosystem. Once that scale is achieved the system cannot and should not grow in size. Similarly, there is a manageable level of complexity in social and physical structures and functions that should not be exceeded, but this speaks more to higher levels of the needs hierarchy, so I will return to it in a later blog. The point taken here is recognition of the scale issue with respect to what an “ideal” sized community would be. For guidance we note from the archeological record that band sizes prior to agriculture rarely got to be more than approximately 100 individuals and, depending on the supporting ecosystem, were often fewer. After the advent of agriculture tribes appear to have grown in numbers until the emergence of villages. This is most likely the result of adopting a sedentary life style. From these bits of evidence and modern psychological investigations, it appears that an optimal village size is between 200 and 500, give or take a few. No one really knows for sure, but below 100 there might not be enough labor or specialization to have a balanced society. At 300-400 you have a stimulating crowd! Above 500 it may be getting too complex for the average human mind to be comfortable. As I said, these issues will be covered in a future installment.
True sustainability means that a system is in very long-term steady state equilibrium with the larger environment of nature. This does not mean that everything is absolutely stationary. There will be natural fluctuations upward and downward. All that it means is that the physical structures will fluctuate around a general mean and the fluctuations will have manageable variances. But there can be no scale or complexity trends unless they are supported by our evolution to a species that can naturally handle higher levels and sizes. We need to exercise self-restraint and wisdom to achieve this.
A steady-state ‘economy’ does not mean that knowledge need stop developing. Quite the contrary. Knowledge is the one thing that needs to grow. But knowledge of what? By knowledge I do not refer to increasing our ability to build better widgets, necessarily (although if the widget is a tool and we can find ways to make that tool more efficient, then that counts). I refer to knowledge as understanding of the world and ourselves — what philosophy used to be before people thought they needed to sound sophisticated to impress others. But again I anticipate myself in future blogs.
Nothing on Earth is truly sustainable forever. We shouldn't expect it to be. There will be ebbs and flows, ups and downs, re-growth and decay. But always there will be evolution. What we should seek is a stable sustainability from which to launch the future evolution of humanity in what will be a wholly new environment. We can neither predict nor control the future. All we can hope for is to stake a claim on a viable future for whatever species we can become. And that we do by building a sustainable human-built ecosystem. Ultimately what I am talking about is having a sustainable capacity for evolution of a human kind. Perhaps we should consider the hierarchy of needs of a genera of sentient beings. Perhaps humanity is seeking to become self-actualized as a species.
The Only Feasible System
Any concept of sustainability has to begin with what is feasibly sustainable in the context of the whole Earth system. From what we know from systems ecology and energy balance (stocks and flows) there is really only one possible systemic design for a human-built ecology. This is depicted in Figure 1.
Figure 1. The only “system” that will work for a sustainable future!
There are NO choices for humans to make here! Our whole civilization has been based on an anomalous supplemental flow of energy from the sequestered fossil sunlight. And that supplement is about to run out. We are going to HAVE to learn how to live on real-time solar energy input alone. And here is a wake up call for all those who think real-time solar can simply replace the power requirements that we have developed based on fossil sunlight. It won't! We do not have the technology to overcome the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The power contained in fossil solar energy is the collection and magnification of real-time solar from millions of years in the past. No technology in existence or even possible by the laws of physics can substitute for that fact.
What we need to do is design a feasible system for sustainably supporting a population of humans in this natural world. I'm not saying this system cannot include some kinds of appropriate technologies. I am definitely not advocating we live as our ancient ancestors did in Olduvai. My sense of evolution as a progressive process leads me to believe that it is quite appropriate for humans to utilize technologies that, in fact, contribute to true sustainability. Such technologies involving low power electrical energy, for example, might be feasible as long as they can be maintained and replicated over time. This implies low-tech sorts of technologies. Things that can be built in a well-tooled (hand) shop. It also implies that things like metals (esp. copper) be assiduously recycled. I will return to this subject as well in the future.
Engineering the Future
There are several considerations that need to be taken into account for designing a future social system given the ultimate objective of creating a society in which every individual has the opportunity to self-actualize. Architects consider not only the aesthetics of buildings, but also the usability. They consider their clients' needs and desires and the functionality that will fulfill those while making the design pleasing to view. But they also are driven by a need (in the client) for novelty and uniqueness as well as their own need to express creativity. Much of our current design is driven by the kinds of needs and wants of ordinary humans, however, who are somewhat less than ideally sapient! The average client is wowed by novelty and uniqueness. In our present society the focus is on satisfying the perception of needs and wants, rather than a true understanding of needs and wants of a much more sapient user. The latter will be a realist and not a ‘consumerist’. We do not need to consider novelty in aesthetics, for example, as much as functionality. This doesn't mean novelty is to be avoided. After all, the designer wants to achieve self-actualization too! And what better way than to be creative? It just means that isn't what we do to sell products (e.g. Apple Computer's business model to cause us to upgrade at every possible turn).
Another consideration is the dialectic between top-down and bottom-up analysis/design. In the systems science world we use top-down analysis started from and always informed by a strategic vision of what the long-term objectives are. We formulate the abstract view of the ‘final’ product as it fits into the future environment. Then we start to decompose that high-level structure to find out what its components need to be. This is done recursively, decomposing each component into its components right down to the minutest operational level.
But at the same time we analyze each component at each level in terms of what is feasible based on what components go into it! This may sound impossible — how can you know what goes into a component until you've analyzed it from the top down? But in fact it is a simple (in principle) process of iteration. In other words you let top-down analysis tell you what you think you need, and then bottom-up analysis tell you if it is feasible. Depending on the level, this could force you to re-think your top-down assumptions and re-visit the top-down requirements.
In our case the component we are most constrained by is the human being occupying our system. Ultimately we can start with a bottom-up analysis from a real understanding of the human needs and wants that informs all of our top-down analysis. This is not what has been called “social engineering” (see also: applied sociology) per se. Rather this is usability analysis1 starting with the assumption that human beings do have a nature that cannot be (and should not be) manipulated. The twist is to start with a nature that is valid for more sapient beings than the average human. Put a bit bluntly, I suspect this means people who are not motivated by the desire to keep up with or surpass the Joneses! I doubt that the sapient society will include advertising.
So our approach is to start with the relevant needs of, and self-actualization wants of, more sapient human beings as the basis for designing a future society that is truly sustainable. We then look at the largest scale issues of what is feasible in terms of the environment of Earth, and iteratively bring these two ends of the analysis together. Mankind must fit into the Earth and the portion of the Earth that encapsulates mankind must provide the resources. Mankind must be in natural balance with a world that can support the existence of mankind.
Figure 1 already gives us a sense of the strategic vision. We seek a social environment, a human-built world, that is in balance with the rest of the Ecos. At this level of analysis there are already a number of things we can say about what this design will look like. For starters we can assert that the ecological footprint of the human population has got to be proportioned such that humans do not put stresses on the planetary system that it cannot handle. We can start with the primary productivity potential (PPP) of the Earth as a system and what portion of that can be safely directed to human use. This includes that proportion of PPP that can be used to satisfy human food, fiber, and shelter needs. Already at this level we see how the dialectic of top-down and bottom-up analysis mutually inform.
We could start by asking something like: Taking human needs out of the equation, how much slack is there in the Earth's PPP that might allow for human acquisition? What this question is asking is something like, what is the minimal Earth that could sustainably support all life other than human beings? There have been a number of attempts to address this kind of question, not always phrased quite like that, and there are a few preliminary responses. One reasonable approach was to consider the difference between the Earth pre-human (the genus Homo), and post-human but pre-agriculture. Clearly, the argument goes, the Earth could and did support the expansion of the hominids prior to agriculture2, so the ‘slack’, i.e. the amount of PPP available to support Homo was precisely that needed to produce the biomass of the genus. This argument takes more unpacking than I could possibly do here. It is complicated by such facts as the possible demise of other species (like giant ground sloths in North America!) as a result of human predation. And there are imponderables such as: had the human population remained stable and agriculture were never invented, would the world have been in effective steady-state? We can't know the answer to that question. But we can use the estimated population of humans pre-agriculture as a reasonable estimate of the amount of human biomass that is supportable without putting stress on the Earth system as a whole3. Also we need to point out that human biomass and human numbers are very different quantities. Today, human numbers represent substantially more biomass (individual weight plus the per capita biomass of pets, ornamental plants, etc.) per captia. In the early days prior to agriculture the average adult individual probably weighed about 80-90 pounds and needed less food to support.
The range of global population numbers for humans at the end of the Paleolithic appear to vary (wildly) but none seem to exceed one hundred million. One reasonably authoritative estimate for global population size at the end of the Paleolithic is about ten million (Keyfitz, 1976). An estimate of the population density at that same time is one individual per square mile (259 hectare) of food producing (not agricultural) land. Taken together these estimates (flawed as they may be) still provide a compelling argument that the slack capacity for PPP for the Earth could not exceed the caloric requirements of a population of human (of modern healthy stature) of more than about fifty to one hundred million. This assumes that humans do have agricultural practices that can increase the caloric yield of usable land and not simply rely on natural hunter-gatherer food support. I will examine this again from a bottom-up approach later. Even if the top end estimate were correct it is a far cry from the seven billion individuals soon to be inhabiting this planet.
Many other ecological footprint analyses, especially those based on energetics (versus carbon footprints), arrive at numbers that are between tens of millions and two billion individuals as a supportable population. Much depends on their assumptions about energy subsidization for agriculture. At the low end, the Earth-slack sorts of arguments are used, in other words, no subsidization at all, and all real-time solar inputs are the only energy factors. At the high end, analysts assume some kind of technology breakthrough in solar energy (wind, photovoltaics, etc.) that supplement and replace fossil fuels in agriculture. I suggest we start with the worst-case scenario, e.g., no supplementation to be ‘safe’.
So we are compelled to pick a number. Assuming a biomass per capita that is what we currently consider healthy (e.g. a typical male adult around 165 pounds, 74.8 kilograms, females around 125 pounds, 56.7 kilograms, so rough average 65.75 kilograms) we choose the fifty million size for our global population. Our argument is that this number is still relatively large in terms of a viable population (for reproductive variability) and still provides us some margin of error (needed because our current estimates vary so wildly!) Note that this population will be distributed in village sizes that still permit lots of cross breeding! If our village sizes reach 500 individuals (about 25% of whom are not adults, but using the adult numbers for safety margins) we get about 100,000 villages spread across the food producing continents.
But at this point problems emerge. Remember global warming? The food production capacities of our planet are already undergoing changes. The draughts in West Africa and the Southwest US are just foretastes of what is to come. The food producing areas of the Earth are likely to shrink considerably in the next several centuries. It is possible that more northern latitudes will become viable food producers over the next several millennia. But, of course, that will take a lot of time compared with the loss rate of arable land. So it is possible that the supportable population of humans will be much less than fifty million. This is nearly an imponderable question. From a planning standpoint we should probably focus on regions where our computer models tell us there will be relative climate stability for the next several centuries and put our resources into those regions. I have done some very preliminary analysis of such possible regions and come up with an even lower number of sustainable population size. The bad news is that (if I am close to right) the population of humans sustainable for many millennia into the future is nearer to original ten million, or one order of magnitude less than the one hundred million some of our current worst-case scenarios allow!
The good news is that if those ten million are primarily of higher average sapience, we Homo just might stand a chance of being represented in the biota one hundred thousand years from now. It is going to take all the wisdom (sapience) we can muster to adapt to a world that will change radically but in unpredictable ways over that time frame.
Biotic Requirements from the Bottom-Up
What will this population of ten million individuals require in terms of caloric support in order to be viable with respect to self-actualization4?
Suppose we start with an analysis that conservatively estimates what a population of ten million adult males would require so as to provide a margin of safety. The average adult male of 75 kilograms biomass weight (rounded) requires approximately 3,000 to 4,000 kilocalories (or Calories, kcal) per day to maintain, depending on physical activity level (2,000 basal metabolism + 1,000-2,000 for activity). So lets use 3,500 kcal as a basis for our estimates. If all of the population were average males that means we would need to produce about 3.5 x 1010 kcals per day for the entire population as an upper limit just to stay alive!
The question I explored in the previous series was: How much land would be required to support one individual in a completely sustainable way? In “Toward a better understanding of a feasible living situation” I concluded, based on work by Pimentel & Pimentel (2008) that between 10 and 50 hectares per person would be required in temperate latitudes. This land area would be of mixed resources, including wooded areas, meadows, water shed with stream, rocky outcrops, and water catchments (lake), as part of a community commons. On considering more the effects of potential climate change this number could be somewhat greater, Combined with the estimate mentioned above of the population density for pre-agriculture humans of one per 259 hectares we can see that our design should start with a land area (including the above mentioned resources) of between 100 and 200 hectare per individual, total. So if we have a community of 200 people, we need an upper bound land area (consider it a territory) of 40,000 hectares, about 154 square miles. This is a lot of land!
Some internal assumptions:
- It takes about 0.4 hectare of industrial agriculture land (e.g. with irrigation and chemicals) to support a single American individual with food calories and nutrition only.
- Permaculture can nearly match this PPP, but not for the long run. Crops need to be rotated and at least one quarter of the crop land needs to be left fallow over varying periods in order to replenish it.
- Due to the higher variability of weather conditions, higher high temperatures and lower lows, and annual variations (cold summers vs. hot) a greater variety of crops need to be planted so that a sufficient number will do well regardless of the growing season conditions.
For these reasons much more than 0.4 hectare per person will be needed. Using concepts such as one quarter fallow, three season crop rotation, crop losses to weather variation, etc. I come up with a reasonably safe estimate of four hectares per person for crops and the rest of the land, 196 hectares, for ‘managed’ natural ecosystem.
This basic system should supply all of the food, fiber, water, and waste treatment needs for a community. The management of the larger ecosystem comes in the form of forestry practices (e.g. allowing limited periodic burns of underbrush to prevent major forest fires) and general husbandry of stone and water resources. Nature will do most of the work, but some human involvement will help keep preventable catastrophes at bay. Using permaculture practices will allow the members of the community to raise an adequate amount of food (which can include some amount of animal protein) while not working at a subsistence level. In good years (ideal growing seasons) the amount of work required would be far less than most people realize. There are bursts of long work days during key parts of the season (planting, harvesting, preserving, etc.) but for most of the rest of the year the work hours devoted to food production are just a few per day. During bad years this is going to go up perhaps. But if the crops are managed by the principles of permaculture then people will find, on average, that they are not slaves to growing their food. Keeping animal stocks at a minimum and of the right kind (e.g. goats instead of cows) will also ensure that excessive time spent in food growing is not the case. More time is likely to be spent in meal preparation and clean up than growing. This is a prime example of ‘working smarter not harder’ — a principle that will come up again at the higher needs levels.
The construction of clothing, shelters, and tools (baskets, vases, knives, etc.) are episodic events that can be interspersed with the high demand days of food cultivation. Gathering natural resources like wood and stone, similarly, are episodic and can be planned to mesh with the rest of the work of the community. People will learn the seasonal and weekly rhythms that will even out the work load and amount of time spent doing chores.
Many people enjoy growing their own food. But far many more enjoy letting someone else do it. They even prefer to let others prepare their meals so that they can spend more time in front of their computer screens or TVs, or even at the office! I suspect that one of the attributes of higher sapience is an ability to recognize the value and wisdom in adopting a closer-to-the-natural attitude toward living a truly sustainable lifestyle. A vast majority of the current population would resent having to work in the fields, or haul rocks to line a root cellar. They would not feel the satisfaction of self- and cooperative-reliance that allows a community to live comfortably but simply and directly.
This is why I don't think the majority of humans alive today even need try to establish a sapient society. Only the most sapient will appreciate not just the need for this, but also the actual execution of it. The higher sapient will not think of giving up the consumptive lifestyle for this kind of life as sacrifice. It takes a keen consciousness and systemic thinking to see how everything is so closely and importantly linked together in this kind of community. The sapient not only will enjoy getting dirt under their fingernails, they will understand why they need to do it and why they do enjoy it! Self-awareness is a part of self-actualization after all.
In the next posting in this series I will start looking at the level of the Maslowian hierarchy between basics and self-actualization to see how the community needs to organize to support them.
- Usability engineering usually refers to making the human-computer interface more accessible to human beings, i.e. making it more user friendly. I have taken the liberty of expanding this notion to that of the usability of a human-built world relative to sustainable living for sapient beings.
- A reasonable time demarcation might be the end of the Paleolithic Period.
- Bear in mind that humans occupied every continent except Antarctica as well as Oceania pre-agriculture. An alternative argument holds that we should only consider the biomass of humans before they started immigrating out of Africa. The problem with this argument is that it assumes that we must ignore that shifting biota in the non-African continents was still in balance.
- There are increasingly compelling reasons to believe that the land area that will actually be habitable in the temperate latitudes may be decreasing due to climate change. Therefore the number of locations that might support the global population might be considerably less. A real bottleneck situation could end up pruning the population down to tens of thousands.
- Keyfitz, N. (1976). World resources and the world middle class. Scientific American 235: 28-35.
- Pimentel, D. & Pimentel, M. H., (2008). Food, Energy, and Society: Third Edition. CRC Press, New York.