Special Issue Applying a New Theory of Sustainability

January 04, 2018

SRE affiliated faculty member Jeremy Brooks recently co-led a special issue in the journal Sustainability Science, entitled "Applying Cultural Evolution to Sustainability Challenges". Papers in the special issue use an evolutionary framework and apply a new theory of sustainability.  Built on the science of cooperation, this theory seeks to how sustainable behaviors and institutions emerge and persist.


The special issue highlights case studies from around the world, including research on agricultural systems spanning rice irrigation in Bali, viticulture in California, and blueberry farming and lobster fishing in Maine. Other articles tackle forestry practices in Tanzania, the agricultural labor market in Dominica, and global climate change everywhere. Despite the diversity of contexts, researchers are finding common patterns and factors that influence the emergence of sustainable behaviors and institutions.


A multi-year, collaborative effort

The project is part of a five-year collaboration between Dr. Brooks, Dr. Tim Waring at the University of Maine, and several other collaborators whose research is featured in the special issue. This collaborative effort included a catalyst workshop at the University of Maine and a working group hosted by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESNYC) where participants refined this emerging theory to explain how and when human societies manage environmental resources sustainably.


When do sustainable behaviors emerge?

The authors suggest that sustainable resource use can emerge when the conditions for cooperation are encouraged. Waring, Brooks, and colleagues proposes that the conditions for the emergence sustainability involve:

  • The presence of groups at the scale of the resource they manage
  • A population of such groups
  • Learning between groups
  • High stakes for group failure
  • Rules to support cooperation

More information about this evolutionary theory of sustainability can be found in a recent paper in Ecology and Society and throughout the special issue, found here:

Sustainability Science Special Issue


Jeremy Brooks