Present and Future

To understand the present and future of humanity, we need to understand the cause-and-effect relationships between human behavior, culture, technologies, and environmental conditions.

Evolution does not stop: Causal relationships between our behavior, our well-being, our social and natural environment, and our cultural institutions and technologies have shaped us as a species, shape our present, and will continue to shape our future. These relationships are complex, extending over larger dimensions of space and time than our minds can intuitively handle. Because of this, our behaviors and the worlds we create often have outcomes we did not foresee or intend.

On the positive side, today, thanks to the work of many scientific disciplines, we know a lot about these causal relationships. We can understand the impact our behaviors and technologies have on our well-being and our environment in ways that might help make the world a better place.

What progress is there? Where are the biggest challenges, the biggest opportunities, the biggest strengths and weaknesses? In which of these factors do we, as individuals and as communities, have the opportunity to consciously intervene to steer the world in a direction that we all want?

Causal relationships in social-ecological systems

The development of our global social-ecological system is characterized by feedback loops that arise from the interplay between environmental conditions, our technologies and institutions, the behavior of individuals, and the relationships between individuals. Many of the changes in the world today are the result of positive feedback. Some of them are moving in a direction that we consider "good" - ​​they are progressing towards our common goals. Others are moving in a direction we deem "bad" - ​​they present challenges in achieving our common goals represents.

Image source: UN Department of Public Information (Guidelines)

How do our social and natural environments, our behavior, our technologies and institutions, our perception affect each other? Causal diagrams allow teachers and students to reflect on concrete relationships between these factors in particular contexts, and to discuss ways in which we can consciously influence the evolution of these factors, individually and as a community.

More on the causal mapping teaching tool:

Traits and global trends of the recent past, present, and future

Our evolved abilities for communication, social learning and teaching have enabled cultural evolution: certain technologies and cultural knowledge are accumulating, are being passed on to subsequent generations, and further increase the innovation capacity of our species. Technologies changed the way we communicate and the things and ways we learn. Education and communication increase the diffusion of technologies and knowledge, and in turn lead to new technological and cultural innovations.

What role will education, communication and innovation play in the future of humankind? How can we ensure that all people have access to good education? How can we ensure that our communication and innovation capacity will have positive effects on the sustainable development of our species?

Teaching materials: Understanding causal relationships between communication, education and technologies (in preparation)

Our evolved social behavior allows us to connect with many people. Social networking enables the diffusion of technologies and cultural knowledge. This increases the innovative ability of our species. In turn, technologies allowed for increasing social networking, which today extends beyond the global level.

What role will social networking play in the future of humanity? How can we ensure that social networking has primarily positive effects on our well-being and our adaptability as a species?

Teaching materials: Understanding causal relationships between social networking and technologies (in preparation)

Our technologies and cultural knowledge have allowed an increasingly efficient food production, medical care and hygiene. This led to an increase in life expectancy and growth of our global population.

Teaching materials: Understanding causal relationships between technologies, living standards and population growth (in preparation)

Our technologies and growing population increase our consumption of resources. The carrying capacity and renewal rate of a resource limits its availability. If our consumption reaches the limits of sustainability, i.e. is higher than the renewal rate, then we need to change something to ensure sustainable resource use and thus availability of the resource in the future.

Innovative technologies can increase the carrying capacity and renewal rate of various resources, make resource use more efficient, or enable a shift to other resources (e.g. to resources that have a higher carrying capacity and/or renewal rate).

Also, collectively established rules and regulations, social norms and changes in our behaviors play important roles in reducing our consumption of resources.

Teaching materials: Understanding causal relationships between behaviors, technologies, population size, norms and institutions, and the (un)sustainable use of resources (in preparation)

Our behavior, our technologies, and our global population size have had more and more severe effects on our environment throughout our history. They change the environmental conditions under which we live. These environmental conditions in turn affect the ability of our species to adapt to future changes and live sustainably.

How can we change the impact of our behavior and our technologies on the environment so that they do not endanger our own livelihoods? What role can innovative technologies, social norms and institutions, media and education play?

Teaching materials: Understanding causal relationships between technologies, behaviors, population size, norms and institutions, and impacts on our environments (in preparation)

Are our evolutionary human characteristics still well-functioning adaptations, or can they lead to disadvantages for human well-being and the sustainable development of our species under today's environmental conditions?

How can we change our abiotic, biotic and social environmental conditions and behavior to serve our long-term well-being and sustainable development?

Teaching materials: Understanding causal relationships between our evolved behaviors, modern environments, and impacts on our well-being (in preparation)

Behavioral researchers, evolutionary biologists and psychologists are concerned with the question of how we humans - as individuals and as communities - have the ability to shape our own behavior and environment flexibly and consciously.

Through what conditions and knowledge can we promote these skills and use them for the goals of human well-being and sustainable development?

Through a variety of educational activities and materials, we explore the principles and behaviors that enable various communities around the world to make sustainable use of shared resources and achieve other common goals.

OpenMind is an educational project of New York University. Its goal is to help people achieve a capacity for change of perspective and a more open attitude towards new or challenging views. Understanding the causes of our perceptions, intuitions, beliefs, and behaviors helps us to be more flexible with them, and to engage in more constructive discourse.