The sun was high in the sky. It was the end of June and one of the hottest days of the summer. I walked at a steady pace. My fellow competitors and I breathed in the dust from the dry gravel road that swirled in the air. We walked past meadows and open fields. Along the way we got sporadic protection in the shades of single trees, but for most of the time we were exposed to direct sunshine. We had been walking for about 16 hours without a break. Many had already given up. We were tired, sweaty, dirty and, above all, very thirsty.

And suddenly, the car with the water came! Everyone rushed to refill their bottles. What a relief to take the first gulps of water and to wash away the dust in the throat. After several hours of thirst, my body’s need for fluids was met and I was able to continue walking for a few more hours.

This situation happened during Fotrally, a competition where participants walk 5 kilometres per hour as far as they can. For the previous few hours we had been walking on small roads and the support car had got lost. This was one of the few times in my modern and comfortable life that I had become acutely physically aware that the difference between life and death depends on our basic needs being met (and of course I was not close to death).

The basic survival needs

Before writing this blog post, I did some research. I came in contact with the term subsistence for the first time when I listened to one of Marshall Rosenberg’s recordings. Marshall talked about needs and referred to Manfred Max Neef, a Chilean economist, and his needs model. It consists of nine groups of needs out of which subsistence is the first group.

As I understand it, subsistence consists of our most basic physical needs, for example nutrition, water and physical protection. When I read about subsistence on the internet, it also contains physical and mental health and a sense of humour (!). However, in this text I stick to the absolutely basic physical survival needs.

Taken for granted

Air, food and water are all on the NVC needs lists, but when I was planning this project I first excluded them. I think it was because in my everyday life, I simply take the fulfilment of these needs for granted. They have the priority as I could not survive long without them being met. And because I have resources to meet these needs, I do it more or less automatically. I don’t need to pay attention to them.  

Most other needs are not so urgent, because I can live without fulfilling them, at least for a while. An example might be the need for contact. I may not be able to meet this need for a shorter or longer period of time. In the end, my longing for connection will attract my attention. If I don’t take care of it, it will continue reminding me about itself over and over again. This can go on for a long time – for some people it goes on throughout their whole life. On the other hand, if the specific needs of subsistence are not met, my life will be very short.

The people who do not have these basic needs sufficiently met suffer from malnutrition, brain damage and other diseases. In acute shortage, people die. The war in Ukraine has alerted my attention about our survival needs. At the same time, this has been the everyday life for millions of people around the world throughout human history.

The well being of all

This leads to questions about the distribution of welfare in the world. We live in a world where we have an abundance of clean water, food and other resources to meet our most basic needs. Today we have access to all means to distribute these resources in a more equal way. It is deeply unethical (yes, that is a judgement) that we have not succeeded in organising our societies so that we can effectively share our prosperity. I think future generations will look back at our time with wonder in the same way we sometimes look back with wonder at how people have treated each other earlier in history.

I believe that the awareness that I have access to resources fulfilling my basic needs can lead to a different approach. Because these needs are met in my life without much effort, I can accomplish so much more. I can focus on other needs and I can devote my time and energy achieving aims that contribute to both myself and other people. I can cultivate gratitude for my life situation and strive for all people to have their needs met.

What is your relationship to your most basic survival needs? Is it something you pay attention to or not?

Leave a comment below or, if you are a Premium subscriber of “The Needs’ Year”, at the online platform: 


Joachim Berggren (CNVC Certified Trainer)

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On 3 June at 10:00-10:45am CEST, you can participate in a Zoom Talk with me and Robyn Marie Bors Veraart. We will talk about the need for subsistence.

Sign up for the Needs’ Year and you will receive a link to Zoom.

If you read this afterwards, you can watch the recording when you become a premium subscriber. Check the details HERE.

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