Integrated Earth System Research

for the Anthropocene

What is the Anthropocene?

The "Anthropocene", today's evolving era in which humanity has become a major factor in the development of the Earth system, presents societies and leaders on all continents with challenges of civilization-historical significance. The future state of the earth and its ecosystems will depend on the social decisions of the coming decades. At the same time, an ecologically stabilized Earth system is also a prerequisite for progress on key fields of action for sustainable development and thus for issues such as improved global prosperity, equity, participation and geopolitical stability.

What impact does it have?

The Anthropocene also presents science with special challenges. Which nonlinear dynamics determine the interactions in the Earth system, especially with regard to the ecological integrity of the Earth and its landscapes? What criteria separate a future hot season or devastating Anthropocene from the Holocene-like Anthropocene of a stabilized Earth? What does it mean to stabilize the earth in the Anthropocene beyond a limitation of global warming? What are the important environmental foundations for sustainable development, which can be used by politics? And how is the observance of ecological load limits in relation to historically created and the currently developing megatrends of society, for example with regard to harmful substance inputs into the environment, intensified competition for land use, or the role of value systems and knowledge for the formation of social preferences and thus future development paths? What effects does a developing Anthropocene have on societies and their structures, for example with regard to environmental migration or the landscapes, patterns of use and settlement that they inhabit?


What does it mean to people?

In the Anthropocene, societies are more than ever dependent on evidence-based, theoretically and methodologically sound research on existing and future development paths. A deeper understanding of the complexities in the dynamics of a changing Earth system is needed, as is the in-depth exploration of networked processes in human societies that impact the Earth system and social well-being. The term "Anthropocene" already refers to the "anthropos", the human being. Today, this is an increasingly networked, digitizing, technologically potent and numerous anthropos. In previous research, however, humans were treated as an interactive, dynamic component of the Earth system primarily as an externalized factor in the form of scenarios and story lines. In reality, societies represent networked, reflexively communicating ecosystems structured over many levels, whose complex collective dynamics have seldom been explicitly considered. Understanding these dynamics as an integral part and driving force in the Earth system and integrating them into Earth system analysis is thus seen as one of the basic tasks in understanding and coping with the problems of the Anthropocene.


© J. Henry Fair

The Earth system consists of positive and negative feedback loops.


Even small changes,
which are caused by humans,
have far-reaching consequences about all composite systems and global commons.

What is done:

From a scientific point of view, two central progress reports have been published recently, summarizing relevant ground system knowledge at the international level and mandated by the United Nations as the result of work spanning several years. In October 2018, the IPCC presented its special report on the 1.5-degree objective of the Paris Climate Agreement. In May 2019, the World Biodiversity Council IPBES presented a summary of a pre-release status report on global ecosystems, biodiversity and ecosystem services.
A joint analysis of both reports in the context of an integrated earth system analysis and the deepening of the implications for selected fields of action gives orientation to the work of the Leibniz Network Integrated Earth System Research (iESF).



In the political sphere, Germany's National Sustainable Development Strategy which is oriented towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), states: "To follow the guiding principle of sustainable development means for the government [...] to equally meet the needs of today's and future generations [...], whereby the planetary boundaries of our earth, together with the orientation towards a life in dignity for all [...] provide the absolute external restriction." This puts an exploration of these "planetary load limits" at the center of political strategy. Here, the climate dimension is just one of a number of other dimensions that together describe the state of the Earth system and its load limits. In particular, the question of the integrity of the biosphere is a second main pillar of the analysis of the Earth system in addition to the climate, and the questionable pollutant inputs into the environment a third.

Our goals:

Whether the term "Anthropocene" is understood geologically, geochemically, or as a general term for the era of global change, the challenges of the Anthropocene for further development of democratic societies within visible ecological limits are immense. It is now necessary in science, on the one hand, to develop necessary analysis tools, and on the other to provide in-depth analysis in specific problem areas. Climate system analysis has to be further developed into a more comprehensive Earth system analysis and science-oriented Earth system research has to be expanded by means of social-ecological research into development paths and solutions. Research is already in progress in all these areas.  The foundations have been laid many times, but the overall picture remains fragmented.




Against this background, the iESF focuses on three topics, which are of central importance for an exploration of the Anthropocene:

Understanding the complex Earth System als unique habitat of humanity.

The Earth system and its complex dynamics are scientifically to be explored from the perspective of that the earth being the only habitat of humanity. The evolving new states of the Earth system in the Anthropocene are unprecedented

in the history of humanity and civilization.


Understanding the integrity of the biosphere foundation of sustainable development.

Securing the ecological functioning of the earth is the basis of future social development opportunities. This safeguard requires governance in ecological limits and thus on the basis of a concept of ecological sustainability and pro-active adaptation.


Incresingly involving the dynamics of a networked and digitized humanity

in analyses of the Anthropocene.

Macroscale processes of the collective anthropos are explicitly to be included in the analyses of the Anthropocene.