Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.


Modelling humanity’s predicament

Technological innovations have allowed exponential growth in the human population and economy, but can it continue? A new model combining population, culture, and innovation projects possible futures for humanity.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Access options

Rent or buy this article

Prices vary by article type



Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

Fig. 1: A new model reveals how growth in the human system (population and economy) is characterized by the positive feedbacks between cumulative cultural evolution, technological innovations, and the increased flow of ecosystem services.


  1. Burger, J. R., Weinberger, V. P. & Marquet, P. A. Sci. Rep. 7, 43869 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Weinberger, V. P., Quiñinao, C. & Marquet, P. A. Phil. Trans. B 372, 20160415 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Henrich, J. Am. Antiquity 69, 197–214 (2004).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Boyd, R. et al. in Cultural Evolution: Society, Technology, Language, and Religion (eds Richerson, P. J. et al.) 119–142 (MIT Press, 2013).

  5. Dean, L. G., Vale, G. L., Laland, K. N., Flynn, E. & Kendal, R. L. Biol. Rev. 89, 284–301 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Malthus, T. R. An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798).

  7. Crutzen, P. J. Nature 415, 23 (2002).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  8. Schramski, J. R., Gattie, D. K. & Brown, J. H. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 112, 9511–9517 (2015).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  9. Jevons, W. S. The Coal Question: An Inquiry Concerning the Progress of the Nation, and the Probable Exhaustion of our Coal Mines (Macmillan, London, 1865).

    Google Scholar 

  10. Hall, C. A. S. Energy Return on Investment: A Unifying Principle for Biology, Economics and Sustainability (SpringerNature, 2017).

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Joseph Robert Burger.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Burger, J.R. Modelling humanity’s predicament. Nat Sustain 1, 15–16 (2018).

Download citation

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing