Toward a stewardship of the Global Commons:

engaging “my neighbor” in the issue of sustainability


By members of the Critical Issues Committee, Geological Society of America

Part XI


George W. Fisher, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore MD

Most of the essays in this series have highlighted the Earth science dimensions of sustainability. The previous essay (Part X), however, noted that our ability to live sustainably will depend upon the aggregate effects of individual choices about how to live, and so suggested the need to expand the scope of our discussion (Zen 2000). The importance of choice means that the shape of a sustainable society will be determined not just by our scientific understanding of how Earth works, but also by our values - our sense, individually and communally, of what is right and what is wrong.

One way to approach the question of values is to characterize the shift to a sustainable way of living as a necessary step in our cultural, moral, or spiritual evolution (Fisher 2000a, 111). For humans, cultural evolution has replaced biological evolution as the primary way of responding to environmental challenges because it is so much faster than biological evolution and because we are often tempted to believe that we can manage cultural evolution (Stebbins 1982, Ayala 1998, and Sirageldin 2000). Although the two kinds of evolution depend upon different mechanisms, there are illuminating parallels between them. Both require mechanisms for preserving current ways of living and transmitting them to the next generation. In biological evolution, these functions are provided by the system of genetic instructions; in cultural evolution, by the system of cultural mores. Both kinds of evolution require ways of inducing variation in the way we live. Biological variation is produced by mutation, and cultural variation by social innovation, often by groups on the margins of society. And, to be successful, both kinds of evolution require ways of retaining changes that are beneficial and rejecting those that are harmful. Biological retention results from a more effective phenotype, cultural retention from more effective social systems. Successful phenotypes and social institutions both diffuse through the population as the result of personal decisions, spreading slowly at first, and eventually dominating the population (see Demonstration 1).

Seen in this way, human values lie at the very heart of cultural or moral evolution. They constitute the fundamental fabric of social and religious institutions that tend to preserve current ways of living. Religious institutions, especially, can stabilize value systems for thousands of years. The ten commandments are one example. But value systems can and do change. Attitudes toward slavery, human sexuality, and the use of military force have changed dramatically in this country within the last two centuries. Values change by a complex process that depends upon individual decisions about what is right and what is wrong. But individual decisions are not made in a vacuum. They are influenced by the value systems prevalent in the community within which deciding individuals live. And yet communal value systems really have no existence apart from the evolving personal and institutional consensus of the men and women who constitute the community.

Individual decisions are related to community values in a way reminiscent of the link between individual species and the global ecological system. No advanced species can exist alone. All depend upon the ecological system to supply needed nutrients and energy and to dispose of waste products. And yet the global ecological system has no existence apart from the species that constitute the system. Like the ecological system, the cultural system is hierarchical, operating simultaneously at the level of the family, the local community, the national community, and the global human community. As in ecological systems, local influences tend to be felt most intensely. But the effects of communities at higher social levels are important also, especially over longer time periods. As global communications become more rapid, global cultural systems seem likely to become more influential.

This image of ourselves as embedded in a complex, interactive, hierarchical system with both ecological and cultural dimensions provides both a rich ground for scientific debate (Sober and Wilson 1998) and a wealth of insight into the probable complexity of value systems and cultural institutions. For example, it suggests the vital importance of cultural diversity as a source of social innovation. And it suggests that we need to be suspicious of values proposed as absolute. What seems good from the perspective of one cultural group (or species) may seem harmful from the perspective of another. It also suggests that good is to be found in a judicious balance between the welfare of individual groups (or species) and the welfare of the global cultural (or ecological) system, rather than the dominance of one over another. This sense of balance suggests that Nature is more attuned to complex, "both/and" solutions that the "either/or" positions that so often emerge from philosophical discourse. It suggests, for example, that the debate between those arguing for an anthropocentric view of environmental ethics and those favoring an extreme eco-centric view may be resolved by adopting strategies that benefit humans and the ecological system rather than those that benefit either at the expense of the other.

For the Earth science community, this image provides a familiar starting point for discussion with social scientists, ethicists, and theologians about the issue of sustainability, and suggests how a deep understanding of Earth science may contribute to understanding the cultural questions implicit in sustainability as well as the ecological questions. For all of us, this image suggests that the sense of humility, awe, and wonder that emerge from both the scientific and religious views of nature (Fisher 2000a, b, and DeWitt in Hope and Young 1995) provides an appropriate place to ground our reflections on sustainable living.


Experiment with the Innovation Diffusion Model of Alan AtKisson (1991 ) to sense how cultural innovation can diffuse through a model group.


Have your class read a set of essays that advocate anthropocentric and eco-centric perspectives on environmental ethics such as those in Chapters 7 and 9 of Botzler and Armstrong (1998), then invite the class to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of both positions in light of their understanding of how the global ecological system works.


Ask your class to read passages from the work of Matthew Fox, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Saint Francis, other eloquent nature writers (see Botzler and Armstrong 1998 for examples), or from the Bible (try Psalm 104). Then invite them to reflect on their own experiences of nature and the feelings that those experiences elicited in them.

References Cited

AtKisson, Alan, 1991, The innovation diffusion game: In Context, Spring 1991 Issue, p. 58 ff.

Ayala, Francisco, 1998, Biology precedes, culture transcends: an evolutionist's view of human nature: Zygon, v. 33, p.507-523.

Botzler, R. G. and Armstrong, S. J., 1998, Environmental ethics: divergence and convergence: Boston, MA, McGraw Hill, 600 p.

Fisher, G. W., 2000a, Sustainable living: common ground for geology and theology: p 99 - 111 in Schneiderman, J. S., ed., The earth around us: New York, W. H. Freeman.

Fisher, G. W. 2000b, Finding common ground: Johns Hopkins Magazine, February 2000 issue, p 30 - 35, also available online at

Hope, M. and Young, J., 1995, In awe and wonder: a conversation with Christian environmentalist scientist Calvin DeWitt: Sojourners Magazine, September - October 1995 Issue, also available online at

Siragelden, Ismail, 2000, Sustainable human development in the 21st century: an evolutionary perspective: Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems, UNESCO-EOLSS, Paris, 54 p.

Sober, E. and Wilson, D. S., 1998, Unto others: the evolution and psychology of unselfish behavior: Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 394 p.

Stebbins, G. Ledyard, 1982, Darwin to DNA: molecules to humanity; San Francisco, W. H. Freeman and Company, 491 p.

Zen, E-an, 2000, What do we mean by a sustainable world? GSA Today, November 2000.

Return to Introduction
Guidelines to Sustainability Literacy
Part I: Stewardship of the Commons
Part II: Understanding Deep Time
Part III: Doubling Time
Part IV: Sustainability and Resources
Part V: The Connectedness of Everything
Part VI: Ecological Footprint and Carrying Capacity
Part VII: Spaceship Earth: There's No Place Left to Go
Part VIII: Part of the Global Ecosystem
Part IX: We Live in a World of Change
Part X: What Do We Mean by Sustainable World?
Part XI: Cultural Context of Sustainability
Part XII: We Have The Option of Choice

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