Resources and Cultural Complexity: Implications for Sustainability

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Critical Reviews in Plant Sciences

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In the cosmology of Western industrial societies, “progress” results from human creativity enacted in facilitating circumstances. In human history, creativity leading to progress was supposedly enabled by the development of agriculture, which provided surplus energy and freed people from needing to spend full time in subsistence pursuits. Applying this belief to the matter of sustainability today leads to the supposition that we can voluntarily reduce resource use by choosing a simpler way of life with lower consumption. Recent research suggests that these beliefs are deeply inaccurate. Humans develop complex behaviors and institutions to solve problems. Complexity and problem solving carry costs and require resources. Rather than emerging from surplus energy, cultural complexity often precedes the availability of energy and compels increases in its production. This suggests that, with major problems converging in coming decades, voluntary reductions in resource consumption may not be feasible. Future sustainability will require continued high levels of energy consumption.

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