Through the exponential expansion of human activities, humanity has become the driving force of global environmental change. The consequent global sustainability crisis has been described as a result of a uniquely human form of flexibility and niche construction. Whereas seminal contributions have translated biological and ecological niche construction principles into the social sciences, we still lack concrete conceptual frameworks and narratives to grasp complex social-ecological phenomena from a niche construction perspective, while also being sensitive to spatiotemporal differentiation, global interdependencies and biophysical implications.
In their new article, Dorninger, Menéndez, and Caniglia focus on the biophysical realm of human niche construction by combining niche construction theory with social-ecological systems science to better understand the causal interrelationships between sociocultural and environmental co-evolutionary processes that have led to the current planetary crisis. Applying such an extended niche construction perspective, the authors draw attention to specific, formerly under- or unrecognized phenomena of cross-scale human-nature interactions and put them into a long-term evolutionary context, e.g., functional interdependencies in niche construction, inequality in resource access, and the simultaneousness of niche construction processes at different places.
The new conceptualization shall help to address relevant questions regarding the evolutionary implications of global heterogeneity between social-ecological niches, their interdependencies, and the distribution of natural resources—as well as humanity’s highly problematic ‘deep evolutionary dependence on external energy’ and the ‘self-endangering evolutionary trap’ from counteractive niche construction. The authors conclude that, instead of further taming nature, there is need to explore the potential of how to tame socio-metabolic growth and impact in niche construction processes.
Dorninger, Christian, Lumila Paula Menéndez, and Guido Caniglia (2024). "Social-ecological niche construction for sustainability: understanding destructive processes and exploring regenerative potentials." Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 379(1893), 20220431. https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2022.0431