Applying cultural evolution to sustainability challenges: an introduction to the special issue


Human activity at multiple scales is the primary driver of the environmental challenges humanity faces (Steffen et al. 2007). Numerous scholars have argued that addressing environmental problems will require large-scale change in human behavior and the institutional, social and cultural forces that shape behavior (Princen 2003; Speth 2008; Beddoe et al. 2009; Assadourian 2010; Kinzig et al. 2013). In fact, most definitions of sustainability and sustainable development implicitly or explicitly recognize the need for changes in human perspectives, aspirations, technologies, norms, or worldviews—in short, cultureFootnote1. However, calls for cultural change often stop short of proposing the precise mechanisms through which such change may occur precisely because the relevant mechanisms of behavioral and cultural change are not known. The multiple disciplines that comprise the social sciences and humanities have different and, often competing, theories of cultural change that operate at multiple levels of human organization. These disciplinary differences have been a challenge for sustainability science (Gardner 2013), and the absence of a robust, non-disciplinary, theoretical framework hinders progress towards a deeper understanding of when and how sustainable social-ecological systems emerge (Levin and Clark 2010). Recently, sustainability scientists have been explicit about the need to incorporate mechanisms of cultural change in their research (Beddoe et al. 2009; Caldas et al. 2015) and to clarify the exact mechanisms involved (Ehrlich and Levin 2005; Waring et al. 2015). Importantly, cultural evolution theory offers an integrative approach to studying the dynamics of cultural change based on causal models of the mechanisms through which individual and population processes interact. Despite many examples of sustainable resource management, exploitative and unsustainable resource management are common (Steffen et al. 2007). However, cultural change may be important for driving the proliferation of sustainable practices. This is because, although evolved genetic mechanisms, ecological processes, and socio-cultural mechanisms all influence resource use, social conditions often change more quickly than ecological conditions and cultural evolution is more rapid than genetic evolution (Perreault 2012). As such, there is an urgent need for sustainability scientists to develop more holistic or inclusive models to explain and integrate socio-cultural mechanisms of change at both individual and institutional levels (Borgerhoff Mulder and Coppolillo 2005). Such models are needed to inform sustainability policy solutions that can be applied cross-culturally and in divergent contexts. Currently, however, the dynamics of cultural change are not well understood in the context of sustainability. By focusing on applications of cultural evolution, we view this special issue as a starting point for determining how we can harness processes of cultural change (Wilson et al. 2014) to build more sustainable communities and societies.

Publication Type
Journal Article
Jeremy S. Brooks
Timothy M. Waring
Peter J. Richerson
Sustainability Science

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