Work by sociologist Gerhard Lenski is a key building block in Ellis’ article. Ellis has Lenski in mind when he notes that “Evolutionary theorists and social scientists have made substantial progress toward explaining the exceptional growth of human societies and their unprecedented capacity for environmental transformations” (p. 288).
It bears noting, however, that Lenski starts out with a different question than does Ellis. Lenski asks, how do human societies come to have social inequality in the first place, how do they maintain it, and how does it change? (Note that human social organization as depends on the size of the society.) But in order to shed light on Ellis’ article I will put more emphasis on social development than inequality.
In Lenski’s model (1966, see also Nolan and Lenski 2010) technology and the natural environment are two major factors that play a key role in societal development. Of those two, Lenski views technology as having the most critical importance. More specifically, it is the type of societal production, or subsistence technology (as opposed to leading edge technology) which Lenski sees as the chief factor constraining society’s ability to extract and use natural resources—or as Ellis might put it, to engage in niche construction.
Lenski classifies societies by the subsistence technology available to the most advanced portion of that society. While he identifies ten different types of societies (as well as hybrids among some of these ten types), the most important, in the order they evolve are 1) hunting and gathering societies, 2) horticultural societies, 3) agrarian societies, and 4) industrial societies.
The smallest and least differentiated of the societal types are hunting and gathering societies. Utilizing historical evidence, Lenski concludes that the median size of hunting and gathering societies has been about 40 people, the members of which are typically comprised of extended families or clans. As a rule, these societies are nomadic, and their use of technology is limited to fulfilling basic necessities. There is little division of labor, and only rudimentary trading of goods.
The horticultural society evolves with the advent of simple tools to till the soil, which give people the capacity to plant and harvest crops. In so doing, members of a horticultural society can develop more permanent shelter and protection from the environment. As it begins to develop techniques of land usage, a horticultural society is able to generate more food than a hunting and gathering society can. It can therefore sustain a larger population, up to about 5,000. The labor-intensive work in a horticultural society is often more time-consuming than hunting and gathering. However, the fruits of such labor are more dependable, allowing for a surplus of food. This allows horticultural societies to ride out times of lower productivity better than hunter/gatherers.
Next, the agrarian stage arises with the advent of more sophisticated tools for the tilling of soil, such as the plow, along with the domestication of animals. Agrarian societies thus deploy technology to use the natural environment more effectively than ever before, yielding surpluses of food and luxury goods. These advances allow the size of the society to increase massively, to populations in the hundreds of thousands.
This population increase can lead to greater societal complexity. In agrarian societies we see occupations other than agriculture, such as metalworking, building, or weaving. We also witness the rise of classes of priests, politicians, warriors, and nobles. Also during this phase, we witness the possibility of social conflicts over control of surplus goods. In fact, as a society accumulates a surplus, it sets the stage for other societies to have a potential interest in invading it and plundering its resources as well. As such, the society must defend itself from potential invaders. This scenario necessitates the rise of a warrior class. Lenski shows the potential for such stratification is greater in this technological stage than in any other.
The next phase in the evolution of societies, Lenski notes, is the industrial phase. Here society develops and becomes heavily dependent on complex machinery and “inanimate” energy sources, such as coal, natural gas, oil, and nuclear fission. The use of heavy machinery as the basis of subsistence technology increases productive capacity exponentially, allowing industrial societies to sustain vastly larger populations than agrarian societies, up to the hundreds of millions or billions we see today. And this increasing population size, in turn, paves the way for even more complexity in the division of labor, which can be observed as an increase in occupational differentiation.
With the utilization of technologically advanced machinery comes the ability to extract and recombine natural resources more rapidly than ever before. While this is associated with tremendous productivity and escalating social exchanges, it is in the industrial phase that we see the greatest potential for environmental degradation (Schnaiberg 1980). Indeed, the ecological marxist James O’Connor (1998) has pointed out that this overproduction in advanced capitalism will put tremendous strains on the natural resources of the planet, leading to what he characterizes as the “second contradiction of capitalism.”
And this happens at a global scale. As societies get larger and more complex they become increasingly more integrated into a complex “world system.” Ellis cites Chase-Dunn and Lerro (2013), who characterize the last 12,000 years in terms of spiraling globalization. We find ourselves in this stage of advanced globalization now, where we can say that human niche construction encompasses the entire planet. This puts the expansionary logic of the world system on a collision course with the adaptive cycles of ecological systems (Burns and Rudel 2015). Put succinctly, runaway human niche construction (Boyd and Richerson 1985), driven by the greed of people in power, aggregates over time to a plundered planet.
How can societies begin to unwind some of these deep contradictions? Ellis ends his article with a call for “a new paradigm of ‘societies sustaining an anthropogenic biosphere’” (p. 321). In my view, however, the best hope appears to be the rise of a cultural consciousness, with the natural environment as a central organizing principle (Schnaiberg 1980; Burns 2009).