Sustainability & Behavior

Sustainable development is fundamentally about how humans can work together and learn together to solve problems regarding the things we collectively care about sustaining. That is, sustainability is about human cooperation and innovation, topics that have become central to the sciences studying human behavior and culture (e.g. Waring, 2010; Muthukrishna & Henrich, 2016). The dynamic sustainability problems of this century demand human cooperation and innovation on novel scales of social organization, as well as in more flexible and polycentric forms. This requires novel approaches to exploiting and further cultivating our evolved capacities for adaptive psychological and sociocultural flexibility (e.g. Henrich, 2016; Messner, Guarín, & Haun, 2013; Waring et al., 2015; Wilson, 2015; Wilson et al., 2014; Wilson, Ostrom, & Cox, 2013).

Thus, in the Global ESD educational design concept, the human behavioral dimensions of sustainability issues serve as the focal point of instruction. Using a wide variety of methods, educators can outline salient behavioral dynamics within the wicked problems of sustainability issues, and work backward to help students complexify and contextualize their noticing and interpreting of these dynamics through the elaboration of related behavioral dimensions in everyday life, human science research and computer-based simulations.

Evolving the Future: A Multilevel Plan for Sustainable Living

David Sloan Wilson describes his multilevel plan for sustainable development that integrates perspectives in complexity science and the evolutionary behavioral ecology of human cooperation to frame practical insights into networking and organizing diverse efforts in sustainability and education.


  • Henrich, J. (2016). The Secret of Our Success. How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter. Princeton, Oxford: Princeton University Press.
  • Messner, D., Guarín, A., & Haun, D. (2013). The Behavioural Dimensions of International Cooperation. Duisburg,Germany. Retrieved from
  • Muthukrishna, M., & Henrich, J. (2016). Innovation in the Collective Brain. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 371(1690), 20150192.
  • Waring, T. M. (2010). New evolutionary foundations: Theoretical requirements for a science of sustainability. Ecological Economics, 69(4), 718–730.
  • Waring, T. M., Kline, M. A., Brooks, J. S., Goff, S. H., Gowdy, J., Janssen, M. A., … Jacquet, J. (2015). A multilevel evolutionary framework for sustainability analysis. Ecology and Society, 20(2), art34.
  • Wilson, D. S. (2015). Does Altruism exist? Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others. New Haven, CT, USA: Yale University Press.
  • Wilson, D. S., Ostrom, E., & Cox, M. E. (2013). Generalizing the core design principles for the efficacy of groups. Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, 90, S21–S32.
  • Wilson, D. S., Hayes, S. C., Biglan, A., & Embry, D. D. (2014). Evolving the Future: Toward a Science of Intentional Change. The Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 37(4), 395–460.