A Cultural Evolution Model for Restoring Planetary Health
Humans have degraded landscapes all
over the planet to the point that the Earth is
now in overshoot-and-collapse.
It is necessary to regenerate ecosystem
functions at regional scales to restore
planetary health and safeguard humanity’s
The fundamental driver of ecological change has been social
niche construction for human societies—altering the ﬂows of
energy and resources away from non-human life to grow the
biomass of our species.
A social niche is an inherited
environment comprised of structural
supports that inﬂuence life for the next
Example: Humans born into cities
“inherit” the built environment and
institutions of that place.
This graph powerfully demonstrates the logic.
Human population goes up as we bring more
energy and resources to our own species—
through land management, manufacturing,
fossil fuel use, and so forth.
The processes of cultural evolution created the planetary
crisis. Therefore the design of social systems must involve
applying cultural evolution research to guide the future
developments of humanity.
Build a viable model for guiding the cultural evolution of
bioregions. Implement and generalize the model so that it can
be shared across an emerging global network of regional
1. Incorporate local measurements of social wellbeing
with ecological measures for ecological health.
2. Integrate at the regional scale using tools like the
“donut economics” framework.
3. Track regional metrics in aggregate toward global
goals using the “planetary boundaries” and related
Local metrics for social
wellbeing and ecological health
Global goals for planetary health
We are initiating with six bioregional projects—with the
addition of nine more locations in 2019—and one advanced
local project for demonstrating circular economics.
The initial projects are in the following places:
1. Buffalo-Niagara, New York
2. Hudson Valley, New York
3. Denver/Boulder Metropolitan Area
4. Mexico City, Mexico
5. Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica
6. National Project in Costa Rica
7. Rancho Margot, Costa Rica
Brieﬂy, the North American projects are multi-stakeholder
collaborations for regional economic development. The
Costa Rican projects are diverse in scale and stages of
Rancho Margot is included as a site where regenerative
economics have been partially demonstrated—with
speciﬁc goals for growing its community and economic
capacities. It is a ﬂagship for regenerative education
among the global network of projects.
The current status is that there are “hub conveners” in each
location with a web platform for knowledge-sharing across
locations. We have funding for two staff personnel through the
end of this year.
Key Cultural Evolution Processes
Our work will focus on the spread of information
across social systems (cultural transmission); scale-
linking of projects from local to regional impacts
(multi-level selection); structural patterns for
emergence of local economies (cultural scaffolding);
and frameworks for collaboration among diverse
stakeholders (cooperation and prosociality).
Additionally, we will employ the principles for
managing common-pooled assets identiﬁed by
Elinor Ostrom and the principles for regenerative
economics outlined by John Fullerton.
Ideas and practices spread across communities.
How (and by whom) depends on the speciﬁc
cultural contexts involved.
Human societies are
organized at several levels
different dynamics in play
at each level.
Currently there are weak
(or absent) selection
The generative interactions between actors, artifacts,
practices, and infrastructure that enable culture to build on
For example, think about all of the supports needed to raise
Cooperation and Trust
Interactions among members of the community
enable cooperation to emerge.
With the right
processes it is
possible to design for
groups of people.
Governing the Commons
The efﬁcacy of groups
depends upon 8 criteria
identiﬁed by political
scientist, Elinor Ostrom.
These criteria can be used
as diagnostic tools for
within a group—as well as
among several groups.
A great deal is now known
about how to treat
economies like living
systems (which they are)
using the tools of
complexity, ecology, and
Timeline and Outcomes
2019 :: Establish work plan and coordinate learning across
2020 :: Incorporate holistic metrics for projects, regions, and
the global network as new projects join the effort.
2021 :: Roll out a bioregional ﬁnancing platform for
coordinated investments among projects in each region.
2022 :: Begin tracking evolution of planetary outcomes while
expanding the network to include more regions.
About the Author
Joe Brewer runs the Center for Applied
Cultural Evolution with a mission to apply
insights from this integrative ﬁeld of study
to the challenges now confronting humanity
and life on Earth.
He is the capacity cultivator for the
Regenerative Communities Network—a
project incubated by the Capital Institute to
launch a global network of site-based
projects that embody regenerative