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Sense-making and acting for descent futures: human and cultural pathways

Joshua Floyd (Centre for Australian Foresight, Melbourne, Australia)


ISSN: 1463-6689

Article publication date: 10 November 2014




This paper aims to make the case for continued opportunity for high levels of human well-being under descent conditions characterised by declining economic throughput and socio-political complexity.


Relationships between assumptions about human well-being formed within a modern industrial context, the guiding narratives attending these, and the broader cultural influence of ideas from the evolutionary sciences are examined. Alternative ways of making sense of these relationships are explored. The experiences of societies guided by cultural narratives based on different premises to those most influential in industrial societies are reviewed for their implications for human well-being under descent conditions.


Human experiences of well-being are principally a function of the sources of meaning and associated narratives by which members of a culture make sense of their situation, as these determine the nature of the material and energetic conditions required to live well. Under descent conditions, the narrative of progress that has supported viable societies during the 300-year period of industrial expansion is unlikely to continue serving humanity well. Collective participation in the renewal of guiding cultural narratives is a primary target for efforts to provide continued opportunities for high quality of life to all members of humanity.

Practical implications

The findings point towards specific characteristics of cultural sense-making narratives that may support viable human societies under descent conditions.

Social implications

By moving beyond the default assumption that descent automatically implies decline in human well-being, a barrier may be lowered to more open and mature society-wide engagement in conversations about the present human predicament and effective ways of responding to it.


New connections are identified between perspectives based on biological evolutionary theory and the continued influence of the idea of progress in establishing default assumptions about prospects for human well-being under descent conditions. Experiences of non-industrial societies are taken as the basis for identifying opportunities for human well-being under far more modest material and energetic conditions than those available to the portion of humanity that presently enjoys benefits of industrial development that outweigh the attendant costs.



© Joshua Floyd, 2014. Some rights reserved. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International License. For more information, please visit


Floyd, J. (2014), "Sense-making and acting for descent futures: human and cultural pathways", Foresight, Vol. 16 No. 6, pp. 586-607.



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