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  • Writer's pictureSol J

The Hierarchy of Human Needs

How taking energy for granted has caused us to miss the point.


Humanist psychologist Abraham Maslow described a hierarchy of human needs in his 1943 paper "A Theory of Human Motivation" and his subsequent book Motivation and Personality. This hierarchy suggests that people are motivated to fulfil basic needs before moving on to other, more advanced needs. But he missed the one critically important underlying need - energy. This oversight has far reaching implications for the way we behave and interact in modern society.

"Most of our assumptions have outlived their uselessness." - Marshall McLuhan

It is arguable that at least in terms of the physical resources required to support life, all human needs can be reduced to about three items upon which all others are built. Maslow identified these in his Basic (Physiological) needs as food, water and shelter. In modern industrialised society, many of these are taken care of by our infrastructure, but for animals in the wild and in pre-neolithic societies most activities are directed at these three objectives.


Implicitly, all animals including humans know they must maintain access to food and if this cannot be guaranteed on demand then obtaining food must either be forward planned or reserves of food must be kept. Animals that fail to guarantee regular supply, reserves or the capacity to obtain food will eventually perish. Food is the energy carrier that directs and guides animal behaviour and if animals can't obtain sufficient food in their surroundings they will hoard reserves (for example over winter) or migrate to obtain it, either temporarily or permanently.


We can see that if human societies are unable to obtain sufficient energy from food they will not be able to engage in all other activities required for survival - obtaining access to water, shelter, opportunities for reproduction and more food. With sufficient energy we can have everything and without it we can have nothing. Energy sits at the bottom of Maslow's pyramid, under the Basic Needs layer. This is our first hint that energy is completely fundamental to life and that the need to obtain more energy than we expend is the single most important principle of sustainability.


The need for energy is so instinctual to our primal self we are barely aware of it yet it manifests itself as one of our strongest behaviourally motivating sensations - hunger. We are also motivated to conserve energy by developing clever mechanisms to maximise our net Energy Return On Investment (EROI), in other words our biological energy efficiency.


Human society has lived through three major transitions in technology and resource use:


1) Hunting and gathering

2) Farming, urbanisation and biomass-based empires

3) The fossil fuel based global industrialised world


Each of these transitions was driven by the need to obtain more energy to secure food and the other resources needed for survival. Each transition was facilitated by mechanisms designed to maximise our personal energy efficiency by reducing the requirement for human labour.


In the case of our transition to hunting and gathering, it was the development of tools that reduced the amount of energy required to kill prey and gather food, and about two million years later, progressively learning to master fire, which greatly increased the energy efficiency of digesting food and also provided protection from predators. The technology employed in our supply chain at that stage was limited to the size of our immediate environment and the societal structure that coordinated our various hunting and gathering activities.


When we moved to farming based societies our technology progressed. We learnt to grow crops that provided steady and dependable sources of energy and which were able to be stored over winter to provide energy security. This allowed (and required) a more settled lifestyle which permitted the development of more advanced uses for materials and structures to support our activities. The additional energy flows obtained from farming biomass gave us the capacity to build more stable reserves of energy in the form of stored food and livestock. This permitted forward planning and the allocation of the additional net energy in the form of labour to construction activities.


Our energy supply chains become longer and increasingly externalised with spent energy being stored in the form of technology based infrastructure that could in turn capture more energy (ploughs, animal yokes, water wheels, windmills, etc.) and the energy streams they were accessing (working animals, water streams and wind in these examples).


With the discovery of fossil fuels we again were able to access an even larger pool of energy that triggered the start of the modern industrial revolution. Advanced machinery, powered by high energy density fuels, allowed the ongoing and expanded extraction of large amounts of energy that rapidly transformed society with technology and high population growth. Over time, energy supply chains became even more complex and extended and although we still needed food to support our physical biology, most of the energy infrastructure to bring it to us became completely externalised. In consequence, as a society we focused on engagement with infrastructure through a financial system to obtain it. We lost our instinctive connection with energy as the source of life.


With each transition the amount of physical labour required by the individual to obtain energy has decreased and people in modern society are able to access amounts of energy for their day-to-day activities that would have been unthinkable a couple of centuries ago. At the individual level, the amount of energy we have to commit to access a large amount of energy has become vanishingly small, for example we can simply get in a car, turn a key and hundreds of kilowatts of power are immediately available to us for hours on end in return for only a few man-hours of labour.


But behind this apparently very high Energy Return on Investment another relationship is in play - the energy that must be invested in the infrastructure itself. With every additional link we add to our energy supply chain there is an additional energy cost and hence a corresponding drop in overall energy efficiency.


As hunter gatherers, our EROI was typically in the order of 100:1, that is one man-hour of work may have yielded sufficient energy from food to perform another 100 hours of work. When we moved to an agrarian society, although we were able to access more energy using technology to harness our environment, our EROI actually dropped, something closer to 30:1, due to the energy overhead of the additional technology we built.


In the example of our car above there are energy costs associated with mining the materials, transporting them, building the car factory and supporting all the staff and equipment required to actually design and build a car to bring it to market. When we account for the energy input required in each of those processes, which are all part of the energy supply chain, then the energy we are accessing when driving the car has a much lower EROI. As a rough guide, the amount of energy we are able to use during the lifetime of the car is about the same as what it took, directly and indirectly, to build the car. Overall the full EROI is now trending to about 1:1, which means the net energy we get per barrel is trending towards zero.


What we lost sight of along the way is that in the first two transitions our energy supply chain linked back to the sun which provided continuous input into our energy systems. As long as we were able to access what we needed, the EROI wasn't especially important and limited our rate of growth. But our third transition using fossil fuels changed everything. From that point on we gradually moved all our energy systems over to a reserve of energy that had been built up over millions of years. It still traced its origins back to the sun, but it was now a finite resource with an exhaustion date.


This has caused a massive population growth and increase in our dependency on technology and energy supply chains to support modern civilisation. Now that we are approaching net zero return on our energy supply chains, we are in population overshoot and impending collapse. If we we do not establish a new energy supply chain based on solar influx with very high EROI, we will shortly be faced with prospect of societal disintegration.


There is no way our world can ever go back to the type of life we lived in the second or first transitions, such an energy supply chain is likely to only be able to support a population of 600 million people or so and only if we scaled up to that level. To attempt to scale back to that would almost certainly result in a terminal global conflict, followed by mass starvation, disease and possibly extinction. "Something else" is needed.


When we look at what this something else might be, we MUST consider the energy cost of implementing it. This is where our existing renewable and nuclear policy fails. The total EROI of these technologies is so low that they cannot ever become self powering in practice. Although they may be profitable to the manufacturer and various other stakeholders they are rarely - if ever - viable without government intervention and drag us ever closer to the thermodynamic cliff, the point where the backbone of our global energy supply chain collapses and our civilisation breaks down. The development of nGeni started from this point, the objective of high EROI from solar, before any implementation was contemplated.


As far as Maslow was concerned, we can't be too hard on him, he was psychologist not a thermodynamics scientist after all and was more concerned with motivators of human behaviour than the underlying machinations of life. But it goes a long way to explaining how our perceptions have shaped reality, including how economists perceive our supply chains, in terms of money, rather than energy. They have missed the point.


The economist's view of our energy supply chains have allowed the true energy cost of new infrastructure to become hidden in the figures. But the reality is starting to bite in the form of rampant money printing and impending runaway inflation as the capacity of the financial system to compensate for the declining return on energy drains away.


Our challenge moving forward is to educate ourselves about the true nature of our economy, that it is not driven by money, it is governed by energy and the dangers of continuing to go down the wrong path before it is too late. Money might sustain a financial system but it is net energy that sustains life and Energy Return on Investment is King.




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