Biocultural diversity has many faces – here a diversity of local fruits is laid out to share with guests in the Pamir Mountains of Tajikistan. Unfortunately, many traditional varieties and the associated knowledge and practices are in decline – maintaining them can help to contribute to a sustainable future. Photo credit: Jamila Haider.

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Understanding and guiding the complex interactions of humans with their environment are central to sustainability studies. An increasingly popular way of framing such research is as “biocultural thinking”. Biocultural thinking is different to other approaches because it emphasizes that humans and their culture are not separate from nature, but the two are tightly interwoven. This appreciation of how humans shape and depend on nature, and in turn how nature supports and shapes human well-being and culture, can provide the momentum that is required for achieving long-term sustainability.

In order to summarize the existing research on biocultural approaches to sustainability and to identify research gaps, we reviewed the scientific literature of the last 30 years. Our results show that biocultural thinking is increasingly popular in sustainability science. Central to the literature is the idea of biocultural diversity, which includes not only biological diversity but also the cultural diversity that is related to it. Biocultural diversity is often considered to be the result of a long history of human–environment interaction specific to a given place. However, biocultural diversity is at risk of being lost in many places and there is an urgent need for its conservation. Pursuing the conservation of biocultural diversity, in turn, is one of many ways of how biocultural thinking can serve as a guide for future decision-making, actions and societal transformations. Issues around social justice and power are also identified in the literature, but have received surprisingly little attention so far. A stronger focus on these issues could add to a broader application of biocultural thinking in the future.

Overall, biocultural thinking offers a powerful space to discuss and solve sustainability problems, particularly because it is inclusive towards different ways of knowing and valuing the world. It can help to appreciate the interdependency and diversity of humans and their environment, but also to inspire and support changes towards a more sustainable world.