Are We Too Tribal for Global Sustainability?

By: Casey Bata

When I was first getting to know my fiancé, I remember being very nervous to ask what I thought was an extremely important question. A question that, if answered “incorrectly,” could lead to the quick demise of our new relationship. I mustered up the courage and tried to sound casual.

“So… who is your football team?”

Crazy, right? I was nervous about who his football team would be… as if it would be a deal breaker. His response caught me off guard.

“Oh, I don’t really have a team. I like watching a good game every now and then, but I’m not that into it.”

I was unprepared for that response and blurted out, “What, are you crazy? How can you not have a team!?”

He responded, “Okay, to be honest, I think it’s kind of dumb that just because I live in one place and you live in another, we are ‘rivals.’ It’s all just very tribalistic and silly that people get so worked up about it and associate it with their identity so strongly. I mean, it’s just a game, right?”

I was stunned and especially annoyed by his honesty. I tried to let it go, but the more I thought about it, what he said really bothered me. What he said was true— I lived and breathed my team, and I was surrounded by friends and family who validated that belief. We all agreed that our team was the best. My team was part of my identity, but I wasn’t really sure why.

We Are a Tribal Species

Psychologically and historically,  people are tribal. There’s us, and there’s them. We congregate with people who have similar status and values. According to Knight (2014), “this tendency has tremendous survival value; without strong cohesion, human groups ranging from hunter-gatherer societies, business organizations, and even modern nation-states would not be able to adequately meet the constant challenges they face.” But it does raise a key question as the human population grows and technology advances: If human beings are tribal in nature, is it possible to create a truly sustainable world?

Tribalism and sustainability shouldn’t necessarily negate each other, right? Is there a reason we strive for sustainability on a global scale, with or without tribalism? Why over-complicate things by attempting to get all the many “tribes” to agree on something?

The reason sustainably has to be addressed on a global scale is because “assessing sustainability at a regional or local level could result in differences for the ecological footprint (and biocapacity) but not… for irreversible damage to the entire natural environment” (Holden et al., 2014).  Ergo, for sustainability to be completely effective in preserving the Earth as a whole, sustainability has to be achieved on a global scale. And for global sustainability to be achieved, nations must commit to global integration and cooperation, which will require an overhaul in political, economic, and social policies and values. Leaders, businesses, and politicians must put the interests of the Earth ahead of their “tribe” whatever it may be… and that may not be in our nature to do.

In an American political climate that feels more and more like the nation’s isolationism in the 1930’s, is it realistic to believe we could rise above that for the so-called “greater good” and work together with other countries towards a common goal of sustainability?

It seems impossible on so many levels, so I was surprised to find that I still think the answer is, “Yes.”

Constructed and Reconstructed Identities

Our identities are created from “ideology cognized through the individual engagement with discourse, made manifest in a personal narrative constructed and reconstructed across the life course and scripted in and through social interaction and social practice” (Hammack, 2008).  Identity is fascinating because, like sustainability, it is something that can be constructed but also reconstructed. So while it sometimes seems like humans are incompatible with change — we are who we are and that’s that — humans are also highly adaptable and have the ability to reconstruct who we are and what we value.

Because we do value our long-term survival, I believe our valuation of sustainability is going to continue to become one of the greatest parts of who we are as a species and that change in valuation will be essential to our long-term survival as our population grows. As Johan Rockström discusses in his lecture, Abundance Within Planetary Boundaries, “there are nine planetary boundary processes: climate change, ocean acidification, ozone depletion, the nitrogen and phosphorous cycle, global freshwater use, change in land use, biodiversity loss, atmospheric aerosol loading, and chemical pollution. And if we can manage these nine boundaries in a sustainable way, we have a very high likelihood of a prosperous future.” Constructing global sustainability facilitates a positive message where we can still grow our population within certain limits and thrive on Earth. Or, as Dr. Rockström explains, “prosperity based on innovation” (2015).

A Sustainable Response to Shortages

The human population is going to continue to grow. If that growth is exponential and unsustainable, the nine boundaries that comprise the overall health of the Earth will become irreversibly degraded. However, there is a positive message from scientists — that there is a way for that growth to be sustainable for our planet. If we can invent and maintain sustainable technologies, we can continue to prosper on Earth. As we consider the negative repercussions of not changing our behaviors toward more sustainable lifestyles, we are more willing to reconstruct our identities for our long-term survival. That reconstruction of our identity is made easier by the shift in cultural norms as well as the innovation and availability of sustainable technologies, which is furthered by nations partnering for energy sustainability.

Historically, humans have been more reactive to environmental issues rather than proactive. During the oil embargo in the 1970’s many nations were forced to consider a world without fossil fuels and whether or not it was achievable or sustainable. The nation of Denmark took the challenge in stride. Their citizens embraced and took ownership of sustainable technologies like wind and solar power and entire communities banded together to form co-ops within communities to set up wind farms. “It was driven from the bottom-up, with enthusiasts influencing the political process in such a way that Government then engaged in providing the enabling conditions to boost the development of the sector, through economic incentives and favorable ownership restrictions. This created a combined top-down and bottom-up success story” (Mendonça, Lacey & Hvelplund, 2009).

Denmark aims to run on 100% renewable energy by 2050 and is in the process of creating an interconnected electrical grid that can allow clean energy to be imported in the case of a shortage or exported if there is excess energy. The network includes Sweden, Norway, and Germany, and it could be extended to the Netherlands and the UK; proof that global sustainability partnership is possible (PBS Newshour, 2015).

From Tribal to Global Citizens

So… back to the fundamental question: Are humans too tribalistic for global sustainability to be possible? The answer is no. Humans naturally gravitate toward “tribes” based on various similarities, but when the cause is important enough, we can work together to be able to move forward. One notable example is the enactment of the Montreal Protocol to combat ozone depletion. The shift in mindset that allowed countries to combine forces to work to address a cause bigger than a single individual or a single tribe or a single country changed who we are and made us all global citizens.

The next question is: Why should we be sustainable and why should we change our ways now?

As Dr. Rockström explains, “because the Earth demands it… you can pick any parameter that matters for human well-being and it is a sharp upward trend from the great acceleration in the 1950’s, whether it’s overfishing, ozone depletion, biodiversity loss, or climate change, and the list goes on and on” (Rockström, 2015).

Rockström points to climate change as an example of a sustainability issue that is “now affecting every country on every continent. It is disrupting national economies and affecting lives, costing people, communities, and countries dearly today and even more tomorrow” (UN 2016).  So we can’t wait. The Earth won’t wait. We have to take action now. Sustainability shouldn’t be a tough sell. Wanting to manage our resources in a way that preserves them for the future doesn’t have to be a provocative or politicized idea.

I’m hopeful that no matter our differences as people and nations, now and in the future, we can all cheer for our collective home team, Earth.


Casey Bata’s passion has always been for conservation. She received her B.S. in environmental science with a concentration in conservation from George Mason University in 2014. As an undergraduate she studied at The Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation. She is now enrolled in Virginia Tech’s Masters of Natural Resources (MNR) degree. Casey grew up in Yorktown, Virginia and now resides in Williamsburg, Virginia with her fiancé Ryan, their border collie, three cats, and various farm animals. Casey hopes to pursue a career in wildlife management with a focus in human-wildlife conflict and endangered species preservation upon graduation.

The Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability thanks the following photographers for sharing their work through the Creative Commons License: Henry Alva, Nathan Rupert, Kasey-Samuel Adams, Irene Mei, Peg Hunter, and gotmikhail?.