Building a Bridge to Sustainability

It’s important to know that self-care is an essential element to creating a sustainable living environment, but the link between them is not often discussed.  

From an evolutionary perspective, evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson believes that in order to create a well-rounded perspective on sustainability, it’s also important to recognize the link small groups have between self-care and earth-care. 

Wilson, a distinguished professor of biological sciences and anthropology at Binghamton University, delivered his talk titled, “Self-Care, Group-Care, Earth-Care” at SUNY New Paltz on Monday, April 24. 

He presented his thesis that smaller groups are a fundamental unit of social organization needed for both self-care and earth-care. 


Self-care is the idea that a human is making individual efforts on their own to help the earth and taking the time to make sure it will be sustainable. For example, recycling, saving power and not using more resources than what are available are examples as to how humans engage in self-care. 

Thanks to the theory of cultural group selection, we live in mega societies of millions that are remarkably cooperative even though there’s still conflict on different scales. 

Even though self-care is an important step in creating sustainable environments around the world, the talk noted the importance of having self-care instilled in groups of people around the world so it can be spread among other cultures. 

“[Wilson] made me realize that there is so much more to being sustainable than people think,” said third-year psychology major Katie Herman. “One person wanting to make a change is not enough. We need groups of people to come together who share the same goal of wanting to make a change.” 


In his talk, Wilson cited a study from political economist Elinor Ostrom. Ostrom studied groups that manage common-pool resources such as forests, fields, fisheries and irrigation systems. 

The end result of the study was that these groups are capable of managing their affairs if they possess certain core design principles such as strong group identity and purpose, consensus decision making, fast and fair conflict resolution, local autonomy and polycentric governance.

“If you think of how it is to be in an environment where you don’t have community, you realize how distressing and destabilizing it can be and how it reflects on your individual personality,” Wilson said. “If you can move into an environment that provides a strong sense of community and support, why should that not be reflected in something like personal and emotional stability?” 


Earth-care deals with how groups are in larger scales and to “encourage sustainable societies to grow to have the size and recognition necessary to have an influence on global community by example, education and research,” according to Wilson. 

Being able to manage actions such as vehicle use, burning fossil fuels, agricultural practices, building materials, waste disposal and conflict resolution are what contribute to earth care.

In order to manage earth-care in any given society, Wilson discussed that societies need to have self-care and distribute that into groups. If there can be multiple groups spreading the idea of self-care and group-care, the easier it is to achieve the goal of sustainability. 

The sustainable goal, according to Wilson’s presentation, is a “good life utilizing 10 percent of the resources of the average American.” 

“If you look at relationships of human groups, you can find a whole range of ecological qualities,” Wilson said. “We have the full range of flexibility. All around us we have examples of destructive interactions among groups. Human nature has to be equally flexible to have mutual relationships among groups as well as it would with interactions within groups.”

Wilson is co-editor of “Darwin’s Roadmap to the Curriculum: Evolutionary Studies in Higher Education” along with psychology professor and chair Glenn Geher. The book is expected to be released in January 2018, with the goal of incorporating evolutionary principles across multiple academic areas. 

Wilson has also has written books such as “Darwin’s Cathedral,” “Does Altruism Exist?” and “Evolution for Everyone” based on his studies and career work as an evolutionary biologist.