Human need, natural systems and dialectics

| 25th January 2019
Human need is the driver for ecological and social change. How can we use dialectics, and systems theory, to examine need as a concept.

The system of human needs can only be understood in the context of need as a universal of nature. 

'Need' is a concept, and therefore can be subjected to the same dialectical investigation as any other concept. From this, we find that need can only be fully understood in relation to its opposite. The opposite of need is the state of fulfilment, and the movement from need to a state of fulfilment is the act of fulfilment.

Any one need cannot be understood or exist unless its fulfilment simultaneously exists. To appreciate need in its full manifestation one must examine both need and fulfilment. At the same time, need is the very opposite of fulfilment: need is the negation of fulfilment and fulfillment is the negation of need.

Need is best described as the negation of its negation: need is the absence of fulfilment. These findings can be derived from dialectics in general, but are also confirmed when examined through material dialectics alone. I will later in this series explain why dialectics has been adopted in this study, and more fully describe the form of dialectics that provide the findings briefly outlined here.


There is also a very real practical (a real, concrete) relation between need and fulfilment. We begin with the second law of thermodynamics that entropy (randomness, disorder) increases over time: the universe in general is expanding, cooling, and becoming less complex.

This movement from order to disorder is not even. Matter in this universe is differentiated. As a result, there are organisations or complexes of matter which are differentiated from their environment and what surrounds them.

What we find in this particular universe is that some complexes of matter have evolved to a state of existence where they are capable for varying periods of time to counter this law of thermodynamics: systems and complexes exist today that become more complex, more ordered, in direct opposition to the universal natural law of entropy.

Energy and matter cannot be created or destroyed, the first law of thermodynamics. Therefore, in order for any system to counter the movement to entropy it must somehow be able to access energy. Therefore, in almost all cases systems are able to capture energy, in our solar system this often means the capture of energy and light from the sun. 

Extant systems have over a considerable amount of time developed an extraordinary variety of patterns and processes that act in this way. This has led to an assertion that systems themselves are universal. The universe as a whole is a system, made up of parts. These parts are almost always in turn systems themselves. Where any parts are not themselves systems they form a function within a system, or have been produced (and will be destroyed) by a system.

Complex brains

The systems that surround us use energy to counter entropy. In these terms, every system has a need. Need, therefore, is a universalising concept. Need, which is real, concrete, is general to life. All systems are identical in having (or expressing) a need. This is true of all living things, which are by necessity systems. Need is the driver of evolution: the system that does not meet its need is selected negatively, they cease to exist.

The system of human needs can only be understood in the context of need as a universal of nature. 

To put it the other way around, all things that do not fulfil the need to counter entropy will by definition and by necessity degenerate into a state of randomness and disorder, white noise, void, nothingness. 

Need comes into being when it is simultaneously met, both conceptually and materially. Every living thing is meeting its needs, and has evolved in order to meet this primary need for energy and complexity. Those living things that cannot meet their own needs die, no longer exist, are selected out of the flow of evolution. Death itself serves a need: evolution can only take place if one generation makes space and frees resources for the next iteration.

Needs are met through objects, or through processes. Plants meet the need for energy through photosynthesis, herbivores through eating plants and carnivores, animals. It is assumed that more complex animals (and then humans, and human societies) evolved through hard necessity - to meet complex needs in challenging environments, including competition with rivals.

However, this dialectical systems examination suggests that more complex systems could only evolve in circumstances where greater needs could already be met. Humans, with complex brains requiring significantly greater levels of energy than less complex brains, will have evolved because the material and energy to sustain them was already available. The need can only appear and evolve when the conditions exist for them to be met, and not vice versa.

Human needs

The catalyst for human development was not ‘survival of the fittest’, the desertification of the savannah, but it's opposite, a new abundance of food. Perhaps this took the form historically as the discovery by humanoids of the great rivers and coastlines (supporting the aquatic ape theory). Having chanced upon a habitat of extraordinary rich resources, humans developed the ability - and the need - for complex thought, and social relations with each other - working together.

In any case. human beings are complex, and have complex needs. Perhaps it is the quantitative difference of complexity of our needs that differentiates us from other apes, from other forms of life, rather than any one isolated characteristic or trait. Humans are different because we have greater needs, not greater abilities, compared to other forms of life. This is certainly true of the need for socialising care in early infancy.

Some of our human needs are self evident, others our friends and colleagues are perfectly capable of articulating and negotiating. Others, however, are less easily understood. Some needs are functional, some dysfunctional. Some are the result of our biological manifestation in the world, some are better understood as the needs of us as systems within systems, still others are artificial or imposed needs, such as the need for a Series 4 Apple Watch.

In this series I have described how human needs are the starting point in my theory of change, indeed in my own understanding of both epistemology (theory of knowledge) and ontology (theory of existence).

The change I advocate is towards a society that is focused on directly meeting human needs, and I argue that through practical necessity any deep social change can only take place when it is consciously and explicitly aimed at meeting immediate human needs. It seems therefore well worth taking some time for me to better understand - in the process of better explaining - what I mean my human needs.

We have arrived at this understanding of our human needs through dialectical systems analysis. I have suggested that needs can be understood dialectically as a universalising concept, and like all concepts can be best understood only in context of other concepts, beginning with its direct opposite (or negation), fulfillment. I have looked at needs from the standpoint of systems theory (or rather, looked at systems from the standpoint of needs).

In my next article I want to develop and explore the concept of a ‘system of needs’, firstly breaking down need in general into a series of categories of need (from the material, to the spiritual; the absolute to the artificial, and the radical). I then want to discuss how real, concrete systems of need in human societies are contextual and dependent on the systems (both interpersonal and material) that constitute those societies.

This Author

Brendan Montague is editor of The Ecologist, founder of Request Initiative and co-author of Impact of Market Forces on Addictive Substances and Behaviours: The web of influence of addictive industries (Oxford University Press)He tweets at @EcoMontague.

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