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Cooperation Versus Accumulation

Grassroots movements have been instrumental in pushing governance toward sustainability. But many well-meaning efforts have gotten off track by trying to reconcile sustainability with the dominant ideology of growth and accumulation. The governance hierarchies are sometimes in conflict: the mandate of the global economic system to grow and accumulate trumps lower-level efforts. Progress has been made in designing policies to shape individual behavior and to guide institutional change at the community level. But at the top of the hierarchy—the global socioeconomic system—little has been accomplished toward redesigning institutions to promote sustainability and individual well-being. It is the imperative of growth and accumulation that ultimately drives individual decisions.

An example of this is shale gas extraction in the United States. This extraction contributes to climate change, disrupts local communities, and may cause numerous environmental problems. But it is the needs of the world socioeconomic system that dictate shale gas extraction and use. The decision to use the resource almost seems out of human hands. Journalist Richard Manning observed about drilling efforts in North Dakota's Bakken shale formation:

Once we had the Bakken's [production technology] recipe right, there were no decisions left to be made, save the hundreds or thousands of piecemeal decisions made over kitchen tables when people sign leases. You might hate the idea of oil rigs on the family ranch, but if you don't sell, someone else will, and it's all going to hell anyway, so might as well sign. We do not decide whether to drill oil. Price decides. Price and how much is in the ground.

An evolutionary perspective can help us focus on trajectories and dynamic paths to sustainability, not just static milestones like a steady-state economy, zero population growth, or limiting atmospheric carbon dioxide to some fixed level. These are laudable objectives, but unless we understand the forces driving human expansion, policies to achieve those objectives will continue to fail.

Consider a simple thought experiment: suppose the human population could miraculously and painlessly be reduced to a few hundred million, and Earth's forest and ocean ecosystems restored. If we kept the current dominant socioeconomic system of growth, accumulation, and expansion, within a few decades we would be right back where we are now: more than 7 billion people and many of Earth's life-support systems teetering on collapse.

So far, the global capitalism juggernaut has had the evolutionary advantage in terms of natural selection. But just because the system is the outcome of “natural” forces does not mean it is desirable. If we value the future of our species, and the rights of the other species that share this planet with us, we should assert human intentionality and eliminate the worst aspects of the global economy. There has always been resistance to the power of the system, but it must be informed with a recognition of the power of the system as a highly evolved, interrelated whole. The question for governance is whether we can gain control over a global system that has made us, in E. O. Wilson's words, “a danger to ourselves and the rest of life.” So far, it is an open question as to whether the power of human agency will be sufficient to confront the magnitude of our predicament.

The global economy acts “as if ” it were a superorganism driven by the forces of natural selection to survive and expand. Like an ant colony, it works by rules that have evolved to facilitate the production of economic surplus. And like an ultrasocial insect society, the needs of the superorganism tend to override the well-being of individuals within the colony. Humans are not ants, however, and examples abound of human agency actively overriding the worst abuses of the economic system. For example, by a variety of measures, the most successful societies in providing for the well-being of their citizens are the Scandinavian countries. Those countries have long histories of difficult but successful struggle against the powerful economic interests that are always fighting against attempts to limit the power of the market.

To achieve sustainability, we must, one way or another, design institutions to assert control over the global economy. Can this be achieved successfully by a world government acting in the best interests of individual humans and the rest of the natural world, or is such a system bound to degenerate into a self-serving dictatorship of the few? Can a bottom-up revolution successfully challenge the political and military power of the ruling elite and control the abuses of global capitalism? Can Ostrom's rules for successful community governance be scaled up to the level of the global economy?

These questions are difficult to answer. But the way to begin to address them is through an understanding of the evolutionary dynamics that created the current human enterprise. One thing is certain: if we continue to let the blind, mechanical forces of ultrasocial evolution determine our future, our prospects look bleak.

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