Comment on page
The definition of scarcity introduced in Part One is based on the idea of needs, so to argue that we are currently experiencing a shift to attention being the new scarcity requires me to demonstrate that we have sufficient capital for meeting our needs. But agreeing on what constitutes human needs is not a simple task. What follows should be seen as a step along the way. A list of needs is the type of externalized human knowledge that can be improved over time through the process of critical inquiry.
In an early draft of The World After Capital, I grouped needs into categories such as ‘biological’, ‘physical’ and ‘social’, but the boundaries between them seemed rather arbitrary. So instead I distinguish here between individual and collective needs, where the former apply to a single person and the latter are the needs of humanity. Another challenge in putting together such a list is that it is easy to confuse a need with a strategy for meeting it. For instance, eating meat is a strategy for addressing our need for calories, but humans can, of course, acquire calories from many sources.
These are the basic needs of the human body and mind, without which individual survival is impossible. A single individual has these needs even when they are completely isolated, such as if they are traveling alone in a spaceship. The first set of individual needs relates to keeping our bodies powered. These include:
Oxygen. On average, humans need about 550 liters of oxygen every day, depending on the size of our body and physical exertion. Our most common way of meeting this need is breathing air ("How Much Oxygen Does a Person Consume in a Day?," 2000). Although that may sound obvious, we have developed other solutions through technology – for example, the blood of patients struggling to breathe can be oxygenated externally.
Water. We need to ingest two or three liters of water per day to stay hydrated, depending on factors such as body size, exertion and temperature ("Water: How Much Should You Drink Every Day?," 2020). In addition to drinking water and fluids that contain it, we have other solutions for this, such as the water contained in the foods that we eat.
Calories. To power our bodies, adults need between 1,500 and 3,200 calories per day, a need we mainly meet by eating and drinking (U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2015). The best way to obtain calories, however, is surprisingly poorly understood – the mix between proteins, lipids and carbohydrates is subject to debate.
Nutrients. The body cannot synthesize all the materials it requires, including certain amino acids, vitamins and minerals – these must be obtained as part of our nutrition. This is another area that is surprisingly poorly understood, meaning that the mix of nutrients we need to take in seems unsettled.
Discharge. We also need to get things out of our bodies by expelling processed food, radiating heat and exhaling carbon dioxide. Humans have made a great deal of progress around meeting our discharge needs, such as toilets and public sanitation.
The second set of individual needs relates to the operating environment for humans. From a cosmic perspective, humans have an incredibly narrow operating range. Even here on Earth we can live without technological assistance only in relatively few places. Here are some of our basic operating needs:
Temperature. Our bodies can self-regulate their temperature, but only within a limited range of environmental temperature and humidity. Humans can easily freeze to death or die of overheating (we cool our bodies through sweating, also known as ‘evaporative cooling’, which stops working when the air gets too hot and humid). We therefore often need to help our bodies with temperature regulation by controlling our environment. Common strategies to meet our temperature needs include clothing, shelter, heating and air conditioning.
Pressure. Anybody who has gone diving will be aware that our bodies do not handle increased pressure very well. The same goes for decreased pressure, which is one of the reasons why we find air travel exhausting (airplane cabins maintain pressure similar to being at the top of an eight-thousand-foot mountain).
Light. Most humans would be hard-pressed to achieve much in complete darkness. For a long time, our need for light was met mainly by sunlight, but much human ingenuity has gone into the creation of artificial light sources.
The third set of individual needs arises from how we deal with a complex and ever-changing environment. As we go through life, we all encounter challenges that we need to overcome, resulting in three fundamental individual needs:
Healing. Whenever we damage our body, it needs to heal. The human body comes equipped with extensive systems for self-healing, but beyond a certain range it needs external assistance. We have developed many solutions, which are often grouped under the term ‘healthcare’.
Learning. When we are born, we are quite incompetent – we have to learn basic skills, such as walking and how to use even the simplest tools. When we encounter a new situation, we have to learn how to deal with it. We group many of the strategies for meeting the need for learning under the heading ‘education’, but other solutions include experimenting to gain experience, self-study and parenting.
Meaning. As humans, we have a profound psychological need for meaning in our lives. One solution is to have a purpose. Religious belief and belonging to a community have long been a source of purpose for humans. Another key strategy comes from our interactions with other humans, including having other people acknowledge our contributions to a project, or even merely recognize our existence.
This last set of needs may strike you as being at a much higher level than the earlier ones. The idea of sorting individual needs into a hierarchy, as the psychologist Abraham Maslow famously did, is intuitively appealing, but it is misleading – all of these needs are vital. For example, Maslow put needs like calories at the bottom and needs like meaning at the top, implying that calories are more foundational than meaning. But we know from the work of Viktor Frankl and others that meaning is essential to human effort and that accessing calories requires effort. As a thought exercise, picture yourself alone in a spaceship and try to remove any of the above. You’ll soon realize that they are all equally important.
Our collective needs arise from living together in societies and sharing space and resources. Meeting them is what allows human societies to survive and advance.
Reproduction. Individuals can survive without sex, but reproduction is a need for societies as a whole. We have learned how to reproduce without sex; in the future, there may be different solutions for the continuation of a human society – whether here on Earth or elsewhere.
Allocation. Access to physical resources has to be allocated. Take a chair as an example. Only one person can comfortably sit in it at a time – when there are multiple people, we need a way of allocating the chair between them. If you are by yourself, you can sit on a chair whenever you want to – allocation is a collective need.
Motivation. This may seem like an individual need, but it acts as a collective one in the sense that societies must motivate their members to carry out important tasks and follow rules. Even the smallest and least technologically advanced societies have solutions for this problem, often in the form of rewards and punishments.
Coordination. Whenever more than a single human is involved in any activity, coordination is needed. Take a simple meeting between two people as an example. In order for it to take place, the two need to show up at the same place at the same time. We have developed many communication and governance mechanisms to address this need.
Knowledge. As I argued in earlier sections on optimism and humanism, knowledge is the central collective human need: without it, a society will encounter problems that it cannot solve. History is full of examples of societies that lacked sufficient knowledge to sustain themselves, such as the Easter Islanders and the Mayans. This is not about what any one individual has learned, but about the body of knowledge that is accessible to society as a whole. Later in this book we will examine solutions for generating more knowledge, faster.
These collective needs may strike you as abstract, but this is the result of identifying needs rather than solutions, which are much more concrete and readily recognizable. For instance, governments and laws are examples of solutions to collective needs such as allocation and coordination, as are markets and firms and, more recently, networks and platforms. In other words, many of the institutions of society exist because they help us solve a collective need.
Some things don’t meet specific needs in themselves, but instead enable different solutions. Consider energy, for example. You may well ask: isn’t it something we all need, both individually and collectively? For instance, individually we need energy to maintain the temperature of a house, and collectively we need energy to power our communications infrastructure. As these two examples show, energy itself does not meet needs—rather, it makes possible something that does. It is what I call an enabler.
Here are four foundational enablers:
Energy. For a long time, humans relied on direct sunlight as their primary energy source. Since then we have developed many ways of generating energy, including better ways of capturing sunlight. Capturing more energy and making it available in highly concentrated and easily controllabe form via electricity has enabled new solutions to human needs.
Resources. In early human history, all resources were drawn directly from our natural surroundings. Later, we started growing and extracting resources using progressively more technology. Many modern solutions have been made possible by access to new kinds of resources. For instance, mobile phones, which provide new solutions to individual and collective needs, are made possible in part by esoteric raw materials, including the so-called rare-earth elements.
Transformation. Energy and resources alone are not enough. To enable most solutions, we need to figure out (and remember!) how to use the former to transform the latter. This involves chemical and physical processes. Physical capital, in the shape of machines, has been a crucial enabler of many new solutions to human needs. For instance, a knitting machine can quickly transform yarn into clothing, one of our key solutions for maintaining the human operating environment.
Transportation. The final foundational enabler is the ability to move stuff, including people. This is another area in which we have made great progress, going from human-powered to animal-powered to machine-powered transportation.
As in the case of needs, I have deliberately chosen enablers that have a high degree of abstraction. Coal-fired power plants provide energy, as do solar panels – and nuclear fusion will do the same at some point in the future. These three examples have dramatically different characteristics, but they are all energy enablers.
While I expect further changes, I believe that my current version of needs and enablers satisfies my argument that there is sufficient productive capital in the world. To establish this in more quantitative terms, though, we need to consider the size and growth of the human population.