2. Societies are organized around cohesive sets of worldviews, institutions, and technologies
We can call these sets of worldviews, institutions, and technologies “WITs.”
In simplest terms, worldviews are mental networks of concepts, beliefs, and values—often emotionally charged—that allow people to interpret things around them and plan their actions; worldviews also give people’s lives meaning and therefore some sense of security, so they can be extremely resistant to change. Institutions are, broadly, a community’s rules, ranging from laws governing markets and parliamentary democracy to unwritten social norms in a culture about what behavior is appropriate or ethical at specific times and places. Finally, technologies are problem-solving tools that people create by using energy and information to exploit properties of their physical environment.
Within each WIT, the three components are tightly interdependent: they influence each other, depend on each other, and usually hang together in a cohesive way. For example, a prominent part of our Western worldview is a commitment to personal freedom and independence. This commitment supports and is supported by our institution of (partially) free economic markets. The commitment to freedom also reinforces—and is reinforced by—the technology of private cars, which allow for extraordinary personal mobility, by historical standards. The tight links among these three WIT components mean, among other things, that policymakers will find it hard to reduce use of private cars or, more profoundly, change the way markets operate without addressing people’s beliefs and emotions about their personal freedom.
Recent research has shown that WITs are the primary “unit of selection” in the evolution of societies and their cultures. In other words, by carrying some of a society’s information and structure through time, a given WIT plays a role analogous to a gene in a biological system. Whether the WIT survives over time depends on its “fitness”—that is, on whether it can thrive and reproduce itself in its larger environment.
By this reading, humanity’s global crisis arises from a worsening mismatch—or a lack of fit—between many of the WITs that currently dominate our societies, on one hand, and the fundamental properties of the global socio-ecological system in which our societies are embedded, on the other. In everyday terms, humanity’s beliefs and values today are too narcissistic, its political systems too hidebound and short-sighted, its economies too rapacious, and its technologies too dirty for a small, crowded planet with widening social inequalities and fraying natural systems. It looks increasingly likely that our societies’ prevailing worldviews, institutions, and technologies will eventually lose the unforgiving evolutionary contest to other WITs that are better adapted to humanity’s evermore extreme circumstances.
Drawing on a broad range of past and current research in multiple disciplines, and by creating detailed models and maps (graphical, statistical, and computational) of WITs, the Cascade Institute’s researchers identify intervention points within societies, among clusters of societies, and at the global level. These models highlight how the components of WITs—singly or in combination—could exhibit nonlinear behavior. An example is the possibility that shifts in beliefs and emotions could stimulate norm cascades and mass political mobilization in response to the climate crisis (the global School Strike movement being one example). These changes could then alter the balance of risks associated with carbon assets in financial markets, rapidly accelerating the transition towards carbon-free energy systems.