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Political Governance

Governance, Sustainability, and Evolution

John M. Gowdy

How has it come to pass that humans so completely dominate Earth's biophysical processes that we are now on the brink of a major shift in the state of the biosphere? Why, in the face of impending ecological disaster, does it seem so difficult to make the basic societal changes needed to ensure our long-term survival? The answers to both of these questions lie deep in our evolutionary history. Framing governance in terms of this history can help us solidify the successes we have achieved at the individual and community levels and, more importantly, inform us about the changes in governance that are needed if we are to gain control of our destiny as a species.

Governance systems comprise the formal and informal ways that humans manage relationships with each other and with the natural world. In an evolutionary framework, governance can be viewed on three different levels: the individual, the community, and the global socioeconomic system. At the individual level, behavioral science has made great progress in identifying regularities in human decision making. These regularities have been used successfully to design policies to promote sustainable behavior such as recycling and the use of energy-saving appliances, as well as other efforts to “nudge” people to make better personal choices. At the community level as well, strategies for the successful management of human and natural resources have been identified and incorporated into public policy.

At the highest level in the hierarchy, however, the world socioeconomic system thus far has proved highly resistant to the fundamental changes needed to avoid system-wide collapse. Each of these governance levels and the interaction between them can be explored from the perspective of evolution. A missing piece in governance has been the failure to recognize that these levels are sometimes in conflict. The same behavior may be rational at one level but irrational at others.

Contemporary behavioral science, neuroscience, and evolutionary theory have shown that human behavior is a combination of genetic, developmental, and cultural factors. None of these can be understood in isolation, but recent advances in understanding behavior reveal how they are intertwined, giving insights into the behavioral adjustments and policy formulations needed to manage social transitions, including the transition to sustainability. Today, research efforts in a number of disciplines are beginning to coalesce into what evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson calls a “science of intentional change.”

Evolutionary biology reveals a middle ground between the position that human behavior is rigidly determined and the “blank slate” tradition of the standard social science model. Our evolutionary history has instilled in the human species the ability to make rapid and complex adaptions, via culture, to special circumstances. Culture is what makes us human, and it offers the greatest hope for our species to successfully make the transition to a sustainable presence on planet Earth.

 
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