Earth System

A new way of conceiving human-nature relations

The earth system has fundamentally changed our perspective on human-nature relations in the Anthropocene. Older concepts such as “nature” or the “environment” may still have their own particular charm. But they create a dualism between the Anthropos and the earth. The Earth system integrates the atmosphere, hydrosphere, lithosphere, biosphere, and cryosphere. Earth system science studies — and models — positive and negative feedbacks between these subsystems. Earth system science is also underlying climate modelling. More than anything else, anthropogenic climate change has created the need to add human activities to the mix. Hence, the study of recent climate change became the driving force to include economic activities that are often at the core of human-climate interactions, particularly land use and the burning of fossil fuels. In the past, integrated assessment has been the dominant approach to make that link between the physical climate and human activities. More recently, modelling attempts are trying to go further and include the socio-cultural sphere and grasp its dynamics.

Earth systems thinking began in the late 19th century. Eduard Suess (1831-1914) coined the term “biosphere”, which Vladimir Vernadsky (1863-1945) famously developed further in a study that is now often considered a precursor of Anthropocene thinking. In the 1950s and 1960s, general systems theory and the Cold War threat of nuclear destruction became crucial for the advancement of Earth system science. In the 1980s, modelers reached hypothesized nuclear winter, in other words: global cooling that would follow soon after a nuclear firestorm. One of them was Paul Crutzen who, together with Eugene Stoermer, later suggested the term “Anthropocene” for a new geological era.

Franz Mauelshagen


Experts: Michael Wagreich, Thilo Hofmann, Christian Köberl, Kira Lappé, Patrick Sakdapolrak