The Waring and Tremblay essay argues that cultural group selection offers a framework suitable for studying changes in socio-ecological systems as well as an evolutionary approach to sustainability science. Waring and Tremblay apply the framework to explain changes in harvesting in Fiji, national environmental policies in Bhutan, and littering in the U.S. They show that cultural group selection can explain past events while allowing for generalized lessons for the future.

The essay constitutes one of the very few attempts that try to operationalize the cultural group selection framework by applying it to analyze empirical cases. The authors do a great job in disentangling forces operating at multiple levels in an attempt to identify the level at which interventions have the highest chance of breaking unsustainable patterns of behaviors.

I want to make a few remarks that occurred to me during reading the essay: (1) cultural group selection does not offer the theory of sustainability; (2) evolutionary theories offer different frameworks that are useful for studying sustainability problem; (3) cultural group selection is one such framework that is particularly suitable for studying changes in institutions and environmental policies.

There is no encompassing framework for sustainability science, and, I would argue, there is no need for one. Cultural group selection is one of many evolutionary frameworks that can provide insights to sustainability. It is now recognized that transitions to an environmentally sustainable economy is urgently needed. Key sectors where sustainability transitions are called for include transportation, energy, agriculture, water, fishery, and tourism. The need for such transitions derives from the persistence of structural problems in these sectors related to resource scarcity, oil dependency, and environmental problems—notably climate change. Some of these problems are clearly related to overcoming social dilemmas and inducing others to cooperate (e.g., restraining resource use), where individual behaviour is a source of externalities detrimental to the group.

However, many of the core sustainability problems today relate to oil dependency; solving these entails, or even requires, escaping lock-in of dominant technologies, introducing major technical innovations, and changing prevailing social practices and structures. Sustainability transitions require fundamental system changes at the different (interlinked) levels. Helpful in conceptualizing these processes is the approach called Multi Level Perspective (MLP), which defines a socio-technical regime as consisting of three levels: niches, regimes and landscapes, nested into each other in a hierarchy (Geels, 2002). Niches constitute protected space, where radical novelties (e.g., technological innovations, new social practices) emerge and have the opportunity to learn, develop, and gain a critical mass of adopters (Schot and Geels, 2007). At the regime level, societal groups, professionals, shared cognitive routines in an engineering community, and established industry practices create stable configurations along which technological trajectories unfold (Schot and Geels, 2007). Finally, landscape encompasses those features of the system that cannot be changed directly at the will of the actors, for instance, the material infrastructure, political culture, and social values. In this context, transitions can take different pathways of change, and many empirical studies have been conducted to identify recurring patterns and generalize lesson using the MLP. It has been shown that many of past transitions have occurred as a result of simultaneous processes taking place at multiple, intertwined levels (Geels, 2002). Therefore, in empirical studies it has not always been possible to identify a single or dominant level of selection.

In Safarzynska et al. (2012), we argue that evolutionary theories provide analytical frameworks that can offer insights to sustainability policies, and which can make existing theories of sustainability transitions more precise and complete. For instance, a co-evolutionary approach has been recognized as a key framework for studying changes in complex socio-ecological systems, institutions and behaviors, production and consumption patterns, and sustainability transitions (Kallis and Noogard, 2011). Along these lines, formal models of demand-supply coevolution have shown how consumer preferences change in the process of technological change and may lock-in the economy to environmentally unsustainable technologies. In this context, much attention has been devoted in evolutionary models to examine the mechanisms through which increasing returns may lock-in the system depending on the type of technological competition, phase of diffusion processes, strength of the network effect, etc. It has been suggested that un-locking policies are likely to be most effective in the early stages of system development. Empirical studies of the New Keynesian framework—another evolutionary framework that has been applied to study sustainability policies—have identified potential paths of changes in socio-technical systems that preserve diversity of options so as to avoid an early suboptimal lock-in. Finally, cultural group selection offers a useful framework to study changes in environmental policies in particular suitable to study power struggles over environmental policies (van den Bergh and Gowdy, 2009; Safarzynska and van den Bergh, 2010).

Waring and Tremblay’s examples illustrate the usefulness of framing problems of environmental policies in terms of a multi-level selection. They are among first ones to derive concrete lessons from empirical studies using cultural group selection. Yet, the framework has not been applied to study wider changes in values and beliefs so far. To achieve sustainability, we need to understand how technologies, values and beliefs change together as an integrated system. The biggest challenge ahead lies in integrating insights from various evolutionary frameworks to have a more holistic view on changes needed to achieve sustainability.


Geels, F.W., 2002. Technological transitions as evolutionary reconfiguration processes: A multi-level perspective and a case-study, Research Policy 31, 1257-1274.

Kallis, G., Norgaard, R., (2009). Special Section: Coevolutionary ecological economics: theory and application. Ecological Economics 69, 675-930.

Safarzynska, K., van den Bergh, J. 2010. Evolving power and environmental policy: Explaining institutional change with group selection. Ecological Economics 69: 743-752.

Safarzynska, K., Frenken, K., van den Bergh, J., 2012. Evolutionary theorizing on and modelling of sustainability transitions. Research Policy 41: 1011-1024.

Schot, J.W., Geels, F.W., 2007. Niches in evolutionary theories of technical change: A critical survey of the literature. Journal of Evolutionary Economics 17, 605-622.

van den Bergh, J.C.J.M., Gowdy, J.M., 2009. A group selection perspective on economic behaviour, institutions and organizations. Journal of Economic Behaviour and Organization 72, 1-20.

Published On: November 24, 2015

Karolina Safarzynska

Karolina Safarzynska

In November 2013, I joined the Faculty of Economic Sciences at the University of Warsaw as an Assistant Professor. I hold a Ph.D. from the VU University, Amsterdam. In the past, I worked for various NGOs and international organizations on socio-economic issues.

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