Uncertain cultural consequences of global ecologicalovershoot: How to explore future perspective change and dynamics

Lukas Figge of the Maastricht University, International Centre for Integrated Assessment and Sustainable Development, Netherlands, researched how culture and behavior (social values and norms) can be included in a quantitative climate change model.

Lukas Figge

Lukas Figge


According to ecological footprint data, we have lived in a state of ecological overshoot since the 1970s. Methodologically, the key determinant of overshoot is when the carbon footprint cannot be taken up by natural systems and therefore accumulates in the atmosphere, driving climate change and other indirectly related issues, such as resource degradation, biodiversity loss, and soil erosion. Mainstream global environmental assessments and ecological footprint scenarios that use modeling and quantitative scenarios consistently fail to incorporate complex dynamics and feedbacks into integrated human-Earth (or cultural-ecological) systems. This poses the following research questions: How can culture and behavior (social values and norms) be included in a quantitative climate change model? Cultural Theory has been applied in various modeling approaches, but which specific feedbacks and causal relations in cultural-ecological systems do they include? What are the strengths and weakness of different approaches? And last, what is a promising way forward in this field?


The methodology is a comparative and analytic literature review of existing Cultural Theory-based modeling and gaming approaches. General issues of interest are: spatial and temporal coverage and resolution, the thematic focus, and whether processes are top-down or bottom-up. For Cultural Theory it is interesting to look at the conceptualization and operationalization of human agents, cultural biases, negotiation, and learning and (climate change) feedbacks.


The research showed that, broadly speaking, there have been two approaches. First, there are global models of environmental and climate change that primarily look at how different dominant cultural perspectives produce different scenarios and pathways of climate change. Those models have high levels of aggregation and are only capable of addressing top-down processes. On the other hand, agent-based approaches look at bottom-up processes and therefore allow the analysis of emergent social properties, by including negotiation and learning in response to climate change impacts. The key preliminary result of this research is a conceptual model that integrates both approaches and includes bidirectional relationships and dynamics in a cultural-ecological system.


All approaches to date exclude the fatalist perspective, which, however, may account for a significant proportion of the general population. In that case, crucial cultural dynamics is perhaps being overlooked. Current approaches operationalize human agents as global or national policymakers. The way forward is to treat human agents as individuals who make consumption and life-style decisions in a socio-cultural (other agents) and ecological environment which imposes a boundary condition. Different combinations and aggregations of lifestyle choices under different assumptions about the boundary condition produce different climate change scenarios, which themselves impact the perceived quality of life, thereby causing cultural changes and dynamics. New approaches should aim for full causal looping.


Matthias Jonas and Oskar Franklin, Advanced Systems Analysis, IIASA


Lukas Figge of the Maastricht University, International Centre for Integrated Assessment and Sustainable Development, Netherlands, is a German citizen. He was funded by IIASA’s German National Member Organization and worked in the Advanced Systems Analysis (ASA) Program during the YSSP.

Please note these Proceedings have received limited or no review from supervisors and IIASA program directors, and the views and results expressed therein do not necessarily represent IIASA, its National Member Organizations, or other organizations supporting the work.

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Last edited: 29 September 2015

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