This essay is adapted from An Inconvenient Apocalypse: Environmental Collapse, Climate Crisis, and the Fate of Humanity.
Our multiple cascading ecological crises—including, but not limited to, climate disruption—are the product of human overshoot: too many people consuming too much, beyond the capacity of the ecosphere to handle in our time frame. That means job #1 is accepting limits.
Today we rarely question what we take to be normal ways of organizing human societies, such as nation-states with capitalist economies
But as we are move toward a sustainable level of population and consumption, we also need to think about the appropriate scale of human communities.
What level of social organization is most compatible with a sustainable future? What level of complexity in how we organize our political and economic lives is most likely to get us there? We assume that the coming decades will present new challenges that require people to move quickly to adapt to the fraying and eventual breakdown of existing social and biophysical systems. What ideology and size of governing units is most likely to be workable in a low-energy future? What kind of decision-making processes will be most functional?
Our evolutionary history as a species is relevant in this inquiry. We look to that deeper history not just to remind ourselves of the obvious—that there used to be far fewer people on the planet and fewer human-generated threats to self and other species—but to examine how those people lived. We can’t return to the past, but we can ponder what lessons we might take from it.
Let’s start with a short recap of human history. The first species in our genus, Homo habilis, is dated to about 2.5 million years ago, give or take a few hundred thousand years. Homo sapiens arrived on the scene sometime between 200,000 and 300,000 years ago. The vast majority of those early humans were mobile, living in small social groups characterized by egalitarian relations that did not result in institutionalized disparities in power, with the exception of those resource-rich ecosystems that allowed some people to amass surpluses and settle in a smaller area.
Agriculture first emerged about 10,000 years ago. Domestication arose in multiple places; it was not an overnight “revolution” but a gradual process, with variations in geography and climate determining what plants and animals were available for domestication. From annual grain agriculture (such as wheat and rice) emerged widespread permanent settlements, large-scale societies, and the domination/subordination dynamic that comes with social hierarchies, starting with patriarchy and men’s assertion of control over women’s reproductive power and sexuality. In the past 5,000 years, starting in the Bronze and Iron Ages, came what we call civilization: writing, metallurgy, complex societies, bureaucracy, armies, and empires. The past 500 years have seen the rise of nation-states, colonialism, industrial societies, total globalization, biotechnology, digital technology, and an intensification of human-generated ecological crises.
Our point? In evolutionary terms, the large-scale societies created after the introduction of agriculture should be understood as quite strange, in a nonjudgmental sense. The way virtually all people live today is dramatically different from the lifeways of our species through virtually all of our history. That’s not because those humans were different from us—genetically, they were pretty much the same—but because they had not pursued agriculture and large permanent settlements or they had not developed the technology to do so.
Agriculture didn’t create some new human capacity for dominance, and agriculture didn’t develop in the same way everywhere. Human capacities didn’t suddenly change with agriculture, and geography would define the parameters within which agriculture developed. Our argument is that some agricultural societies, especially those producing cereal grains, created the conditions for competition to control the surplus, which led to new ideas about ownership and hierarchy. Once the successful carbon-seeking of agriculture took hold, the hierarchies it made possible would change the world.
The result is that routine features of the contemporary world, which have existed for barely the blink of an eye in historical terms, would be foreign to every human who lived for about 99 percent of our evolutionary history as a genus and at least 95 percent of our evolutionary history as a species. Superficial cultural practices—what people eat, which musical scale people sing in, the names of the gods they worship—vary from place to place and change over time, of course. But in more profound ways, the past 10,000 years have been unlike all that came before. What we take to be normal in our everyday lives is anything but normal in evolutionary terms.
This is why Jackson has for nearly four decades been suggesting that the key to designing more sustainable systems is to recognize that we are “a species out of context.” Evolution by natural selection adapted us to a gathering-and-hunting lifestyle in small band-level societies. Prior to the invention of agriculture, humans were mostly foragers living in a social group of probably no more than 100 people, and often far fewer. Not only did our bodies evolve for that way of living, but so did our brains (our brains are part of our bodies, of course, but it’s important to emphasize this because so many people think of the human mind as somehow being distinct from the body).
There is such a thing as human nature, just as with all other organisms, and understanding human nature is relevant to designing social systems. Our genetic endowment makes some things possible and some things impossible. No human being can fly in the sense that a bird flies or live underwater in the sense that fish do. But our technological prowess has led people to forget the obvious. Airplanes create the illusion that we can fly and submarines, the illusion we can breathe underwater. Like any organism, we live within not only the biophysical limits of the ecosphere but also the limits of our genetic endowment. That is true not only about our physical capacities but also about our psychological capacities and the social arrangements that work with those capacities.
A caution: Acknowledging this does not mean that we embrace all the claims made in the field of evolutionary psychology, a recent fad in academic psychology, which has put forth a much-debated theory and produced considerable noise as well as some insight. But we recognize the obvious, that evolution is relevant to understanding human psychology. Evolution by natural selection shaped not only the way we walk (bipedalism) but also how we think, feel, and interact (human attitudes, beliefs, and norms of social behavior). The entire organism—our skeletal and muscular systems and our brains—is the product of evolution. The conditions under which we evolved as a species are relevant to understanding ourselves today, a truism that is too often ignored. An earlier flashpoint of this debate was the term “sociobiology,” introduced in E. O. Wilson’s 1975 book by that name and defined as the “systematic study of the biological basis of all social behavior.” Again, we are biological creatures, and it’s hard to dispute that there is a biological basis for everything we do (unless one believes in a spiritual plane, with or without a divine force). But just as with evolutionary psychology, it’s too easy for claims in sociobiology to run ahead of evidence and offer just-so stories about humans’ behavior today.
Research on human social networks suggests that there is a limit on the “natural” size of a human social group, about 150 members. This has been called “Dunbar’s number” (after anthropologist Robin Dunbar), the number of individuals with whom any one of us can maintain stable relationships, which is determined by the size of our brains. We have the cognitive capacity to handle about 150 people in our social groups, and anything larger tends to overload our neural circuits. Moving down from the number 150, Dunbar found that we tend to have groups of about 50 close friends, a tighter circle of about 15 very close friends, and an inner circle of 5 people who provide our most trusted support. We choose our friends, and the norms for friendship vary from culture to culture. However, those patterns are not the product of individual choice or cultural context but rather of human nature. That’s the kind of animals we are, based on the size of our brains, which is a product of evolution by natural selection. There are only so many people we can keep track of at one time.
For most of our evolutionary history, humans lived in social groups that matched pretty closely to our cognitive capacity. The kin-based band-level societies of gathering-and-hunting people stayed within Dunbar’s number. A band might have connections to other bands, based on shared language and culture. But the development of states and empires is a feature of agricultural societies. Those larger social systems were developed by a species out of context.
Here’s an example to illustrate. Before retiring, Jensen regularly taught large university lecture classes of 150 to 300 students, settings in which many students felt uncomfortable as they were forced into close proximity to people they had never met and with whom they may not have had any shared culture. Jensen would ask students to ponder the fact that there were more people in the lecture hall than members of a foraging society might have ever known. “If you feel awkward and don’t know exactly what to say to the stranger next to you,” Jensen would say, “is that surprising? If you feel uncomfortable, that’s normal.”
The total undergraduate and graduate enrollment at that university was around 50,000. Most people can’t easily find their way in a population of 50,000, or even 300, not because they are odd but because they aren’t odd. There are smaller groups on every campus—social clubs, academic organizations, sports teams, performing arts groups—but not every student finds a place in those settings. To help the students who struggle with the scale of the university, administrators created First-Year Interest Groups of about 20 students who took some of their classes together and met weekly with a peer mentor and a university staff member. Although the university didn’t use Jackson’s phrase, these first-year groups were created as a way to deal with the species-out-of-context problem. The program recognizes that dropping a first-year student into a huge university creates distress for many and that some of those students will believe that it’s their fault that they don’t fit in rather than understand that the university’s structure is the problem.
Another example of this pattern is the megachurch, congregations with thousands of members, which in addition to large spectacle worship services offer myriad specialty groups. In these small groups, members of the congregation build strong connections to a manageable number of people, a cell model of organizing. Megachurch pastors learned something that should not be surprising given our evolutionary history: “The small group was an extraordinary vehicle of commitment.” Such models can also be found in political groups, especially in resistance movements worried about being infiltrated by agents of law enforcement or the military. In anarchist organizing on the Left, such small units typically are referred to as affinity groups.
Not everyone needs the support of small groups to negotiate larger groups of strangers in big institutions. That’s not surprising, given that human beings are able to adapt to a wide range of social situations. We are capable of establishing deep, lifelong connections to a small group of family and friends, as well as of finding our place in a city of thousands or even millions of people. But in designing social systems, we should consider what works best over time for the greatest number of people. It makes sense to think about the context in which we evolved as a species. Today we rarely question what we take to be normal ways of organizing human societies, such as nation-states with capitalist economies. But “normal” today is radically different from how we lived for almost all of our evolutionary history: in smaller and much more egalitarian social groups.
If the goal is less hierarchy and more egalitarian relationships, we have to consider the optimal size of social organizations. If we want less hierarchy and meaningful democracy, we should move toward smaller groups.
How do we get to that smaller size? Simply declaring that from this point forward everyone in large complex societies shall live in core communities composed of no more than 150 people isn’t a viable strategy. First, the majority of people in complex industrial societies have little or no experience with the political dynamics at that level of organization, and the many failed communes are testimony to the fact that the transition is not easy. Second, the existing distribution of wealth and power, concentrated in the corporation and the state, won’t disappear simply because some people realize that those institutions are corrosive and unsustainable economic and political formations. The larger society remains, with control of resources and the keys to the armory. Who controls the means of production and who has the most guns matters.
There is no off-the-shelf plan for reaching the most workable level of social organization, just as there is no simple answer to the vexing question of how to reach a sustainable level of the human population. We can start by forming such groups and communities wherever and whenever we have the opportunity, recognizing that such experiments won’t turn the tide immediately but create possibilities for the future. No matter how difficult the transition may be, in the not too distant future we will have to live in far smaller and more flexible social organizations than today’s nation-states and cities.
Teaser photo credit: By Painter of the burial chamber of Sennedjem – The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei (DVD-ROM), distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. ISBN: 3936122202., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=154346