Journal Article

Climate change and sustainable welfare: the centrality of human needs

Ian Gough

in Cambridge Journal of Economics

Published on behalf of Cambridge Political Economy Society

Volume 39, issue 5, pages 1191-1214
Published in print September 2015 | ISSN: 0309-166X
Published online June 2015 | e-ISSN: 1464-3545 | DOI:

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Since climate change threatens human well-being across the globe and into the future, we require a concept of well-being that encompasses an equivalent ambit. This article argues that only a concept of human need can do the work required. It compares need theory with three alternative approaches. Preference satisfaction theory is criticised on the grounds of subjectivity, epistemic irrationality, endogenous and adaptive preferences, the limitlessness of wants, the absence of moral evaluation and the non-specificity of future preferences. The happiness approach is found equally wanting. The main section shows how these deficiencies can be addressed by a coherent theory of need. Human needs are necessary pre-conditions to avoid serious harm and are universalisable, objective, empirically grounded, non-substitutable and satiable. They are broader than ‘material’ needs since a need for personal autonomy figures in all theoretical accounts. Whilst needs are universal, need satisfiers are most often contextual and relative to institutions and cultures. The satiability and non-substitutability of needs is critical for understanding sustainability. Finally, it is argued that human needs provide an indispensable foundation for many current ethical arguments for global and inter-generational justice in the face of threats from climate change. An appendix compares this theory with the capability approaches of Sen and Nussbaum and argues it to be more fundamental.

Keywords: Human needs; Well-being; Climate change; Sustainability; Rights; B5; I00; P46

Journal Article.  12834 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Other Economic Systems ; Health, Education, and Welfare ; Economic Methodology