Classroom Materials

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. They make some factors move in a direction that we consider "good" - ​​they are progressing towards our common goals. They make other factors move in a direction we deem "bad" - ​​they present challenges in achieving our common goals.

Image source: UN Department of Public Information (Guidelines)

Which sustainable development goals are most important to humans in the world? Which goals are most important to you?

In a global online survey of the United Nations people can submit their opinions.

Classroom ideas:

  • Students in the class submit their anonymous responses, and the whole class analyses the results (counting up the number of votes for each goal).

  • Afterwards, the results of the class are compared with the global results, or with the results of your own country or other subgroups. What similarities and differences are there? Why could the results of this survey be different between different groups of humans?

  • What do the results of this survey tell us about the challenges and opportunities for addressing global sustainability issues (e.g. climate change)?

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:

Global trends and relationships of the recent past, present, and future

Classroom idea: Jigsaw ( )

  • Students form core groups of 5-6. The task of the group is to create an informative poster on the causal relationships between human social behavior and cognition, technologies, population size and social organization, social institutions, resource consumption, and environmental impacts.

  • Each student in a group becomes an expert in a subset of all the causal relationships (possibly the groups may be encouraged to organize themselves and decide who should become an expert on which topic). Each expert initially deals independently with his topic (a group of interrelationships as listed below).

  • The experts form expert groups. The task of the group of experts is to understand their part of the causal relationships between factors in order to explain it to the classmates in their core group. With Internet access, students can also search the Internet for more information on the topics and their interactions. Through discussion, all members of an expert group compare and synthesize their understanding of certain concepts and the whole topic.

  • The experts return to their home group and present the findings about their special topic. All others listen attentively to the expert and can ask questions. Connections between the different factors and topics are identified. Finally, the group brings together all the findings of the experts in a causal map and creates an informative poster.

Following this group work, or as part of it, students can discuss the following questions:

  • How could these causal relationships influence the future evolution of our species?

  • What can and should we do, as individuals and as a community, to steer these causal relationships in a direction that we all want? Which factors can we influence, and if so how?

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 teach and 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?

Social networking and Urbanization

Our evolved social behavior allows us to connect with many people. Social networking and our ability for social learning (including imitation) 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 to 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?

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

What role will technologies and cultural knowledge play in how we eat and live in the future? How can we assure that all people have access to high quality food, medicine and sanitation?

How will the population of our species develop in the future?


Conflict and War

Our increasing group and population sizes meant a dramatic departure from our lives in small egalitarian hunter-gatherer-groups, and new ways of social organization, regulated by evolving social norms and institutions.

Some of these norms and institutions allowed peaceful coexistence and cooperative societies, but many others also lead to increasing social inequality and political instability, with negative effects on human well-being.

How can we assure that equality of power and wealth, well-being, and peaceful coexistence - things that we humans evolved to care about - are maintained within and between groups of humans today and in the future?

What roles can and should technologies and science, education, social norms, rules and regulations, and individual behaviors play in regulating how we live together?

  • Teaching materials: Understanding causal relationships between social behaviors, group size, norms and institutions, social (in-)equality, and human well-being (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 resources 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 total consumption of resources.

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, including climate, biodiversity and the resilience of ecosystems. 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 behaviors and our technologies on the environment so that they do not endanger our own livelihoods, the environment we depend on, and the livelihoods of humans in the future? What role can and should innovative technologies and science, social norms and institutions, media, education, and individual behaviors 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 our behaviors to serve the long-term well-being of all humans and sustainable development of our species?

Some possible instances of mismatch today are:

  • Unhealthy diet

  • Lack of physical activity

  • Addiction and substance abuse

  • Social isolation

  • Communication on social media

  • Stress and burnout

  • Depression and anxiety

  • Disconnection between humans and nature

  • Spread of misinformation

  • Nationalism, xenophobia

  • Resource consumption, materialism

  • Socioeconomic inequality

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

  • Teaching material: Thinking about the future - Scenarios (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 manage the 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, to understand those of others better, and to engage in more constructive discourse.

Prosocial ( ) is a group facilitation process, an online community, and a research method for improving cooperation within and between groups.

Understanding the science of cooperation and human flexibility can provide valuable perspectives for how we can strengthen our cooperation and well-being within the many groups we are a part of.