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This article aims to show how evolutionary theory, social‐metabolism and sociological systems theory can be utilized to develop a concept of society–nature coevolution. The article begins with a conception of industrialization as a socio‐metabolic transition, that is, a major transformation in the energetic and consequently material basis of society. This transition to industrial metabolism was essential for the emergence and maintenance of industrial societies and is at the same time the main cause of global environmental change. The article proceeds by asking what the notion of society–nature coevolution can potentially contribute to understanding environmental sustainability problems. An elaborated concept of coevolution hinges on (1) a more precise and sociologically more meaningful concept of cultural evolution and (2) understanding how cultural evolution is linked to the environment. Next I briefly outline major lines of thought and controversies surrounding the idea of cultural evolution. The direction proposed here commences with an abstract version of Darwinian evolution, which is then re‐specified for social systems, understood as communication systems, as developed by Luhmann. The re‐specification implies three important changes in the theoretical outline of cultural evolution: first, shifting from the human population to the communication system as the unit of cultural evolution and to single communications as the unit of cultural variation; second, shifting from transmission or inheritance to reproduction as necessary condition for evolution; and third, shifting from purely internal (communicative) forces of selection towards including also environmental selection. Adopting elements from the work of H├Ągerstrand and Boserup, the primary environmental selective force in cultural evolution is conceptualized as the historically variable constraints in human time–space occupation. In the conclusions I tie the argument back to its beginning, by arguing that the most radical changes in human time–space occupation have been enabled by major socio‐metabolic transitions in the energy system.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, PO Box 60 12 03, D-14412 Potsdam, Germany,

Publication date: 2011-12-01

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