Connecting the Past, 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 the outcomes they produce we deem to be “good” – they are helpful for achieving our common goals. Other outcomes they produce 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: 

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.

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

Classroom idea: Jigsaw

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

Relationships between communication, education, and technologies

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?

Relationships between social networking and spread of innovations

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?

Relationships between food, medicine, life expectancy, and population growth

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?

Relationships between institutions and social organization

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.

Relationship between technologies, population size, and resource consumption

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.

Relationships between resource consumption and the natural environment

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?