I study human culture and cooperation in relationship to the environment. In particular, I study how social norms, institutions and societies evolve, and how they are influenced by ecological and social forces. This evolutionary approach to social change can be used to better build durable, sustainable and just institutions and societies. I use experimental economics and agent-based modeling to explore these connections, and work with a lot of wonderful people.
Cooperation is a key component of fair and sustainable resource management, and vital for just and robust societies. We therefore need to understand the forces that guide human cooperation. My research has explored the dynamics of human cooperation in traditional irrigation systems in southern India, in university-citizen relationships, and in the laboratory.
Evolution of Sustainability
Human culture evolves, and co-evolves with the environment and the resources that people depend on. Our institutions develop in part in response to our resources but our resources depend upon how our institutions manage them. So we have a “chicken and the egg” problem in our quest to understand how sustainable societies arise. I lead a national network for the application of the evolutionary science of culture and cooperation to the study of social-ecological system sustainability. This network is supported by two National Science Foundation working group grants. A theoretical working group at the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis (NIMBioS) is working to build new models of the co-evolution of human institutions with environmental factors, and ask central questions about the emergence and persistence of sustainable social systems. An empirical working group at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) is working to apply related insights to the fields forestry and fisheries to benefit Maine and the world. Read a summary of our evolutionary framework here.
Local Food Organizations
I also lead a five year research project on the evolution of local food organizations, funded by a National Science Foundation CAREER grant. This project first seeks to understand the some of the challenges facing local food organizations by studying the patterns of cooperation, preferences, and organizational structure in local food organizations over time. This data will be used to find non-intuitive factors and dynamics that influence the success of local food businesses and groups. The goal is to deliver best-practice advice and policy input on strategies for growing a local food industry that strengthens regional economies, supports agricultural practices that benefit the environment, and grows a culture of engagement in food production, distribution and consumption.