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Home arrow Political science arrow Sustainability of Agro-Food and Natural Resource Systems in the Mediterranean Basin

The Emergence of Human Ultrasociality

With the appearance of agriculture came a basic change in the economic organization of human societies: the switch from producing for livelihood to

Box 3–1. Can Networked Governance Help?

If evolution seems to have backed us into a corner when it comes to existential threats such as climate change, does it also offer a way out?

The failure of traditional human governance institutions to come to grips with climate change—to perceive the threat, formulate a coherent and flexible response, and then enact it with vigor and discipline—is all too plain. Nearly all climate scientists now agree that climatewarming trends over the past century can be attributed mainly to human activity, and it is no longer a matter of scientific dispute that climate change poses real challenges for current and future generations.

Humanity has been aware of climate change for decades, yet for the most part neither individuals nor institutions have been able to respond at the appropriate scale or speed. We have failed to significantly reduce carbon emissions or our reliance on fossil fuels, a triumph of short-term interest in sustaining or raising current levels of energy consumption over our long-term welfare.

The paradox is that our evolutionary history has equipped us for long-term planning and action. Humans possess a highly advanced capacity for mental “time travel” and are arguably unique in the degree to which we can recall past events and anticipate future scenarios. To an extent, at least, we can imagine and predict multiple, complex outcomes and act accordingly in the present to achieve desired outcomes in the future. This general capacity is very old; the first direct evidence for it is found in the 2-million-year-old stone tools shaped by our distant ancestors.

Moreover, humans regularly do make longterm plans: we invest in retirement accounts, establish trust funds and endowments, and buy insurance, for example. While these plans sometimes have long-term impacts on society, however, they frequently yield results that will directly affect only the individuals themselves or the next one or two generations. Evolutionary theory suggests a reason for that, too: we care most about our genetic relatives—our great-grandparents, grandparents, parents, children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, or an approximate span of 140 years that includes both past and future family members. Beyond that, most people do not care much about the past or the future.

To embody and act upon those concerns that extend beyond family to others and to times beyond our own lifespans, humans have created institutions. Governments are preeminent among the institutions that are supposed to perform this role, but, as noted earlier, they have not been effective at addressing climate change. Humans are creatures of culture—the product of learned human behaviors and actions that cannot be attributed directly to genetic inheritance. Governance is a cultural phenomenon and evolves similarly to physical traits: behaviors can be transmitted and can change over time.

We are now seeing the emergence of a kind of governance that departs from the centralized, top-down structures that we have relied upon so far to solve problems. Networked systems of governance are a shift toward a more self-organizing approach that brings together dispersed individuals from the state, civil society, and private sectors that have a shared interest. Each acts independently yet remains connected through exchanging information, planning for future events, and cooperating as is useful.

Systems of networked governance arose soon after World War II and have been growing ever since as an adaptation to meet the global challenges and complex problems that existing systems, which frequently are slow and hampered by the politics of entrenched interests, have failed to address adequately. Networked systems of governance make it possible for small groups to act quickly and in locally appropriate ways, testing solutions that can then be passed on to other groups with similar aims. Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye has described these networks as a cultural adaptation that is evolving slowly to supplant the formal mechanisms of international cooperation.

Some current examples of networked governance addressing the challenge of sustainability include the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, the Marine Stewardship Council, the Equator Principles, and the Forestry Stewardship Council. Each has been successful to varying degrees because they facilitate collaboration among a wider range of actors including the private sector, governments, international organizations, and nongovernmental organizations to achieve a common vision in the absence of regulation.

Networked governance may be the very type of social evolutionary development or adaptation that will make it possible for us to counter our inherent biases so that we can begin to reorder our lives in a way that moves us toward a more sustainable future. As systems of networked governance become more prevalent and stand (or fail) the test of time, we can help drive their evolution by exploring ways that they might be replicated at varying scales to share lessons learned and encourage adoption of good governance practices. The survival and evolution of cultures rely on the inheritance of learned behaviors, including cultures of good governance. (See Chapter 1.) Networked systems of governance are currently the most versatile, agile, and adaptive systems available to meet the challenges ahead of us. The task now is to identify and strengthen these new systems as they are emerging.

—Matthew Wilburn King President, LivingGREENNetwork.org

Source: See endnote 13.

producing for surplus. Natural selection among competing groups of early agriculturalists favored those societies that were the most efficient in producing economic surplus, and those that could take advantage of increasing returns to larger size. This led to (1) human domination of ecosystems, (2) explosive population growth, and (3) highly hierarchical societies. The population increase after agriculture was unprecedented in the prior 200,000-year history of Homo sapiens, exploding from about 4 million to over 200 million in a few thousand years. A second population explosion, from under 1 billion in 1800 to over 7 billion today, came when fossil fuels and the Industrial Revolution ushered in the Anthropocene—the Age of Humans. (See Chapter 6.) With the transition to agriculture, and the later transition to industrial society, our place in the natural world changed drastically. Today, the total dry weight of human biomass is about 125 million tons. The dry weight of our domesticated animals is about 300 million tons. The weight of all other vertebrates is only 10 million tons. In only a few thousand years, humans made the transition from being just another large mammal living in the confines of local ecosystems, to a species dominating the planet's biophysical systems. We were not the first species to make the transition to ultrasociality. Ultrasocial insects also dominate their ecosystems. Worldwide, ants and ter-

The treeless Easter Island landscape of Rano Raraku.

mites account for about 2 percent of Earth's insect species but 50 percent of the insect biomass. The specifics of the human transition to ultrasociality may differ from ants, but it was driven by the same impersonal forces of natural selection at the group level, and the results in terms of ecosystem dominance and the effect on individual autonomy are strikingly similar. For both humans and social insects, with the adoption of agriculture, the nature of the group changed from a collection of individuals cooperating to achieve mutually beneficial outcomes to something akin to a single organism centered on a narrow economic purpose, namely, the production of agricultural surplus. In ultrasocial species, the flourishing of the group is often at odds with the well-being of particular individuals in the group.

In terms of governance, a key insight is that ultrasocial societies are reinforced by what American social scientist Donald Campbell called “downward causation.” In the current global economy, the goal of economic growth is reinforced by layers of human institutions, including religions, political philosophies, hierarchical control of basic resources, and the influence of power and money. This is not to say that counter-currents do not exist; in fact, much of human history after large-scale agriculture can be seen as a struggle between those elites who resist interference with the system's “natural” drive for accumulation at all costs and those who want to make the system a servant of humanity, not its master.

Author Jared Diamond asks, what was the Easter Islander who cut down the last tree thinking of? He suggests, “Jobs, not trees!” or, “Technology will solve our problems, never fear, we'll find a substitute for wood.” In any case, the broader answer is that he or she was thinking in the mode of the dominant ideology of the ultrasocial system that was the Easter Island economy and culture. The tree-cutter's culture, like other groups selected after agriculture, flourished (for a while) because it outcompeted other groups in the race to produce surplus. Groups that were the most cohesive and most focused grew faster and were selected over others. Cultural group selection favored groups that had customs and beliefs that were conducive to growth. Ultrasociality is an evolutionary outcome, and evolution cannot see ahead. The failure of the world socioeconomic system to address climate change is a good example of downward causation at work. Nothing substantial has been done to stop greenhouse gas emissions because growth and accumulation fueled by cheap fossil energy are driving the system, and the growth imperative is supported vigorously by the cultural beliefs and political institutions that evolved to reinforce it. Money generated by fossil fuels flows through the political system to thwart any attempt to limit their use. No serious threats to the global economic system from climate change have yet appeared, so the system has not adjusted even though we may have locked ourselves into catastrophic change in the not-too-distant future.

 
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