Wants and Needs


Human needs are often understood as whatever is necessary to enable a human to continue to live. It is generally understood that humans need food, clothing, and shelter, in ways that they do not need art and literature and perfume. People can and do die of starvation and exposure. Nobody dies of the lack of music or good books.

Merely listing human needs - food, clothing, shelter, and so on - does not explain how these things, and not others, act to maintain life.


Nobody wishes to merely possess food. They need to eat it. By eating food, humans take on a store of chemical energy, which provides them enough energy to sustain them for some future period of time. Humans are always expending energy, every second of every day of their lives. This energy goes into the work that a heart does in pumping blood around the body, and the work that lungs perform inhaling and exhaling air, and the work that muscles perform in walking around or lifting objects, and the work that other organs perform in synthesizing compounds, sending messages, removing wastes. All these activities, in one way or other, release heat, and act to warm up the human body. All the energy that a human being receives in the form of food, or as heat from fires or from hot food, is ultimately released through conduction from the body surface, or in water vapour from lungs or sweat. Human beings thus remain in energy balance, expending as much energy as they receive.

Humans generally try to maintain their internal body temperature at 37 degrees Celsius. This is the optimal operating temperature of the human machine, rather as an automobile engine has an optimal temperature range, below which engine oils become viscous and act to inhibit moving parts, and above which engine coolants (water) may boil. At temperatures much above or below 37 degrees, some essential body processes cease to operate.

The rate at which humans lose heat largely determined by the temperature of their environment, which is usually lower than 37 degrees. The greater the temperature difference between body core and the external environment, the greater the rate at which heat is lost. An unclothed human in cold high latitudes loses heat far more rapidly than a human in hot low-lying tropical regions. In cold climates, the threat is that body temperature may fall too low. In hot climates, the threat is that body temperature may rise too high.

In cold regions, without clothing, the only way that a human can maintain body core temperature is to keep busy, or remain in close proximity to a heat source, such as a fire. In cold climates, near-naked football players only manage to maintain core body temperature through vigorous activity. Where people rely on increased physical activity to maintain body temperature, they must take on more energy - eat more food - to offset their increased energy expenditure. Or, if they rely on the heat from fires to offset their body heat loss, they have to burn more wood. Eating hot food serves to directly raise body temperature.

A similarly unclothed human in a hot climate must often remain relatively inactive during the hottest part of the day, lest that activity raise body temperature too high. Hence the practice of the afternoon siesta, when temperatures are highest. Or else they must maintain proximity to something cold, such as a cold water fountain or pool or river. The practice of bathing may historically have been more about keep cool than keeping clean. Food consumption, by contrast with a cold climate, was relatively low.

(There may be cultural traits associated with climates. "Keeping busy", in a cold northern european climate, was a matter of necessity. If one had nothing to do, it was necessary to invent some activity in order to continue to receive the heat generated by muscular activity. At the same time, eating substantial amounts of hot food at regular intervals through the day was necessary to fuel this level of constant activity. "Keeping busy" in a hot tropical climate, by contrast, is suicidal. Energetic activity in a hot climate tends to raise body temperature, if that heat cannot be lost through evaporation (panting and sweating), or body surface conduction and convection. In the hottest climates, keeping physical work to a minimum was the enforced way of life.)

The upshot is that the same meal with the same calorific content will provide a longer period of future existence in a warm climate than a cold climate, because humans in a cold climate will be generally more active, and hence consuming food at a higher rate, than humans in a hot climate. The energy content of food is not a measure of the value of food to humans in forward days of life. Other factors, including environmental temperatures, body mass, age and sex also influence human energy requirements. In general, the larger the human, the higher their energy consumption. And the older the adult humans, the lower their energy consumption. And, in general, women have lower energy consumption than men.

Since food requires physical work to be done to acquire it, then food is something which costs some amount of energy to come by, and which yields some amount of energy. If humans perform physical work at the same rate whether they are busy or idle, then the amount of energy required to get food can represented by some amount of human time given over to work, and the energy this food supplies can be represented as some amount of idle time.


Both clothing and housing perform essentially the same task, and so can be lumped together as shelter. Both serve to insulate humans from the environment, with clothing taking the form of a kind of glove which humans don, and housing providing an insulated space in which humans can move. The major difference between the two is that houses also provide shelter for human possessions which would otherwise rot or rust or be damaged, and houses are - in cold climates - usually heated.

In cold climates, shelter provides a layer of insulation which reduces the rate at which humans lose heat, and therefore the rate at which humans must acquire food energy. In a cold climate, a clothed human does not have to be as active as an unclothed human. Thus a clothed human has a reduced requirement for food, and also for direct heating using fuel fires, central heating systems, and so on.

In hot climates, shelter acts to reduce the rate at which humans gain heat. Clothing may act as a sun screen, and houses maintain a cool internal environment while the external environment is hot.

Food, shelter and fuel are intimately connected with each other, in that all act to alter human energy transfers to the environment. In a cold climate, humans can either spend their time in heated houses, remaining comparatively inactive, and eating relatively little - or else they can spend their time in the open environment, living highly active lives, eating a lot of food, and only finding insulated shelter to sleep.

In Northern Europe, some centuries ago, most of the population lived and worked on the land. A great deal of work was performed outdoors. They can be taken to have lived active and energetic lives, and to have had high food requirements. After the industrial revolution, most of the population worked in factories or offices or shops, in sheltered and heated environments. In that environment, their clothing levels were reduced. At the same time, with most heavy work being performed by machines, their activity levels fell, and their food consumption was reduced. The long term trend has been away from a highly active, heavily clothed, and largely outdoor life, to a relatively inactive, lightly clothed, mostly indoor life. This has meant a shift away from heavy woollen clothes to light cottons, and away from high calorie suet puddings to low fat, low calorie diets, and from relatively unheated housing to insulated and heated housing. 20th century humans wear less clothes, and eat less food, but burn far more fuel than 15th century humans.

The Necessities of Life

Food assures the continuity of life. Shelter assures the continuity of life. The underlying nature of these human needs is that they provide time for people, forward days of life. The value of human needs is measured in the time - hours, days, years - that they supply. A necessity is anything that makes time for men. Necessity is not just food and shelter, but all the tools and techniques which serve to expedite their production, or increase their value.

But food, shelter, and anything else that creates time for humans is only acquired at a cost. Food in the form of bread requires that men grow wheat, and harvest its seed, and grind it into flour, and bake it into bread. And shelter in the form of clothing requires that sheep be sheared of their wool, and the wool spun into fibres, and those fibres woven into cloth, and the cloth cut and sewn into garments. Shelter in the form of housing requires that stones and bricks and timber be assembled into walls and roofs and floors and doors and windows. Fuel for the hearth must be gathered and brought to the fire. Thus while needs provide time for men, they also cost men time in effort to come by them.

If the time cost of providing food and shelter is the same as the time value realized through their use, then human life would be an unending round of toil. For then a man could only make in one day what would give him one day of life. If the cost of human needs exceeds their value, then men cannot live. Only if the value of human needs is greater than or equal to their cost does human life become possible.

Where the cost of necessities is less than their value, then life is not continuous work to meet needs, but is interspersed by periods of idle time, or leisure. The more valuable a necessity, and the lower its cost, the greater the idle time that results. If the necessites which provides someone a year of life can be found at a cost to them of three months of effort, then the remaining nine months are idle time, or leisure time, may be disposed of in whatever way that person pleases.


If humans needs create time for human life, human wants arise and can only be satisfied during idle time. Human wants consist of things which are desired for themselves - amusements, diversions, luxuries, toys, games, art, music, literature, and countless others. If human need is singular, human wants are plural.

Human wants appear when people have idle time on their hands, and begin to wish to amuse themselves in their idle hours, in one way or other. Human wants act to fill idle time, to use up idle time. The problem for idle people is not how to come by idle times, but what to do with it once they have got it.

What is commonly called "wealth" consists in human wants. "Rich" men are commonly held to be those who possess large mansions, with stables and gardens, yachts and fast cars and airplanes, fine art, expensive furniture, tailored clothes, jewellery, and so on. Or if not these things, then the money that can buy them.

Idle Theory takes little interest in human wants, except to the extent that wants have effects upon needs. Idle Theory offers no explanation why humans should want to live in large mansions, with swimming pools and tennis courts and games rooms, or wear clothes made by fashion designers, gold jewellery, coiffured hair, perfume, and the like. If people want these things, then it is their own personal, subjective desires which motivate them to these ends. There seems no obvious reason why people should prefer eating partridge rather than porridge, apart from custom or fashion. There is no obvious reason why a man should regularly prefer a large house over a small house, except ostentation.

Human wants arise in idle time, and are satisfied in idle time. Whoever has a wish to play chess requires the idle time in which to make a chess set, and then to play the game. Whoever wants to sail in a yacht requires the time to build a boat, and then to sail about in it.

The principal danger of human wants is that they may usurp human needs - that the chess player plays chess so long that he neglects to perform necessary work. Or - the same thing - that people come to value luxuries above necessities. For should this happen, then the necessities which provide the idle time in which luxuries can be made and enjoyed will vanish, and idleness will fall. If in a trading society which supplies necessities - useful labour-saving tools which increase human idleness - production is switched to making luxuries, then useful tools will vanish from society, and social idleness will collapse, and the idle time in which these luxuries are made and enjoyed will vanish.

Real wealth is idleness. "Wealth" in the form of luxuries and amusements is entirely dependent on idleness. No idleness, no wealth.

Idle Theory

Author: Chris Davis
Last Edited: 28 july 1998