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A multilevel evolutionary framework for sustainability analysis

Timothy M Waring, Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions and School of Economics, University of Maine
Michelle Ann Kline, School of Human Evolution and Social Change, Arizona State University; Institute for Human Origins, Arizona State University
Jeremy S Brooks, School of Environment and Natural Resources, The Ohio State University
Sandra H Goff, School of Economics, University of Maine; Economics Department, Skidmore College
John Gowdy, Department of Economics and Department of Science and Technology Studies, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Marco A Janssen, School of Sustainability, Arizona State University
Paul E Smaldino, Department of Anthropology, University of California, Davis
Jennifer Jacquet, Department of Environmental Studies, New York University


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Sustainability theory can help achieve desirable social-ecological states by generalizing lessons across contexts and improving the design of sustainability interventions. To accomplish these goals, we argue that theory in sustainability science must (1) explain the emergence and persistence of social-ecological states, (2) account for endogenous cultural change, (3) incorporate cooperation dynamics, and (4) address the complexities of multilevel social-ecological interactions. We suggest that cultural evolutionary theory broadly, and cultural multilevel selection in particular, can improve on these fronts. We outline a multilevel evolutionary framework for describing social-ecological change and detail how multilevel cooperative dynamics can determine outcomes in environmental dilemmas. We show how this framework complements existing sustainability frameworks with a description of the emergence and persistence of sustainable institutions and behavior, a means to generalize causal patterns across social-ecological contexts, and a heuristic for designing and evaluating effective sustainability interventions. We support these assertions with case examples from developed and developing countries in which we track cooperative change at multiple levels of social organization as they impact social-ecological outcomes. Finally, we make suggestions for further theoretical development, empirical testing, and application.

Key words

cooperation; cultural evolution; multilevel selection; sustainability; theory

Copyright © 2015 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087