Who in the world rules over the fate of man


Wolfgang Lucht

Wolfgang Lucht is an earth system scientist and sustainability researcher with an interest in systemic and strategic questions. He is co-head of the "Earth System Analysis" department at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and holds the professorship "Alexander von Humboldt Chair in Sustainability Science" at the Geographical Institute of the Humboldt University in Berlin. Since 2016 he has been a member of the German Government's Advisory Council on Environmental Issues. He is a member of the German Committee for Future Earth of the German Research Foundation, co-author and lead author of the reports of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and numerous scientific publications. Originally trained as a physicist and later worked in the USA for NASA in environmental observation from space, the focus of his work today is, among other things, the biosphere, land use, climate change and strategies for future viability in a national and international context.

Ethical and philosophical considerations on the Anthropocene

In the Anthropocene, humans assume a maker and a creator role. His responsibility, his thoughts and actions are required. Because at stake are the central ideas of modernity such as freedom and justice. But the ecological question must not lose sight of the “how” of the goals. Ecological politics will have to take up the struggles for freedom and justice of the modern age.

City in Europe (& copy picture-alliance / dpa)

The term “Anthropocene” is a geological term: the effects of humans on the processes of the earth have become so far-reaching that they show up as geological deposits of their own quality [1]. However, as an expression of our growing knowledge about the earth, its history and future developments, the term implies fundamental questions about the order of the world and about the position, task and responsibility of man. Such questions are as old as humanity, but in the Anthropocene they arise in a new way that encompasses the planet.

Not only the state of the global environment, the climate and the biosphere are threatened with a state that is unprecedented in recent geological history. Human societies are also experiencing an unprecedented acceleration of developments: a population that has increased several times over, far-reaching technological capabilities and global networking [2]. Humanity finds itself at a point at which conditions all over the world, in nature, culture and civilization, are ready to negotiate with ourselves.

In this situation, humanity can use its greatest strength and at least attempt to deal with the challenge in a reflective way. She can bring her full analytical, ethical and moral power to bear, which is anchored in many ways in the practices and traditions of different cultures.


The following questions are explained:

  • What is the relationship between preserving and creating?
  • What principles should people follow in this?
  • What is necessary, what is desirable?
  • What is justice in the Anthropocene and how is it promoted and secured?
  • What is the relationship between humans and non-human beings?
  • What responsibility do we have individually and collectively and what follows from it?
  • And last but not least: What do we do with our freedom, individually and together?
  • How great is this freedom anyway?

The essence of the Anthropocene

Scientific research on the nature of the Anthropocene is the necessary basis for such social self-reflection. Without the results of science over the past 250 years, humanity would today neither know what type of planet we live on, what properties it has, nor about the complexity of the developments we are facing. A few brief highlights on iconographic examples from recent research show the fundamental quality of the changes against the background of which the ethical and philosophical discussion about the Anthropocene is taking place.

Ice and Ice Age

There are already signs that larger ice regions on the edge of the polar ice masses have become unstable as a result of the onset of warming or that they could become so in the next few decades [3]. Once started, melting and dissolution processes would often be irreversible. If all fossil fuels known today were burned and the resulting carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere, the Antarctic continent would become almost completely free of ice [4]. Threshold values ​​of less than 2 degrees global warming are being discussed for the complete melting of Greenland [5]. Overall, the loss of these ice sheets would cause sea levels to rise by over 60 meters, which would have catastrophic effects on the course of the world's coasts. The face of the earth itself would be changed forever, not just on the polar caps.

Fortunately, ice is melting slowly: it would take several millennia to melt completely. But only until about the middle of this century is there a last window of time to prevent this process by completely phasing out fossil fuels. This also applies to new research results that go into even more fundamental depths: a progressive increase in the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would interrupt even the strongest and largest cycle in the current phase of Earth's history, the Ice Age cycle.

Due to the astronomical conditions, we have been living in an unusually long and stable interglacial warm period for 12,000 years, which favored the rise of the advanced civilizations, while in the current phase of the earth's history a persistent ice age state is usually the normal state. Instead of ending in about 50,000 years, the latest research results now show [6] that the onset of the next ice age in an anthropogenically warmed-up earth would be postponed by no less than 100,000 years - for a period that is twice as long like the entire previous history of modern man (homo sapiens) in Europe. This is a tremendous intervention by mankind in the planetary processes on the greatest conceivable stage: the suppression of one of the great oscillations in the history of the earth.

If any event can be symbolic of the name Anthropocene, it is this story of the ice. It represents the power of humans to reshape the planet and put its history on a changed path. It is inconceivable that such a perspective, once recognized, should not, in a winding path, trigger a revolution in people's self-image, which in the long term could also be a harbinger of social and political upheavals as a result of these findings. It is against this background that questions of responsibility and freedom arise with great urgency in the Anthropocene.

An imminent threat

After a tsunami over Midway Atoll, surviving Laysanalbatros chicks sit amid plastic waste. (& copy picture-alliance, WILDLIFE)

The greatest immediate dangers of climate change do not even include changes in mean temperature and precipitation and rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, but the risk that circulation currents in the atmosphere and ocean will change. These are complex, self-organizing patterns of the earth system with a fundamental influence on the transport of energy between regions of the world. For complexity scientists, it is not surprising that such patterns take on various states and can even react sensitively to smaller shifts in some value ranges [7]. The effects on regional warming and droughts, floods or storms are much more serious than changes in the mean values ​​for animals and plants as well as for human societies.

For example, there are first indications that the North Atlantic circulation of the ocean has slowed down in recent years [8] This transports tropical heat to our mid-latitudes, which is why it is milder in Europe than in the corresponding geographical latitudes of Canada or Siberia. The observation that a critical region of the North Atlantic is the only place on earth that has not warmed up but cooled down slightly in recent years is all the more worrying: obviously the supply of heat from the ocean currents is stagnating, which is decreasing in strength . In the longer term, this has an impact on the weather conditions in the entire western northern hemisphere.

Current patterns change not only in the ocean, but also in the atmosphere. Extreme weather conditions that are unusually stable can be observed more and more frequently in the past two decades. These are caused by a resonance phenomenon between waves that naturally form in the atmosphere, but now more frequently than before for a few weeks remain frozen instead of returning to their normal position [9]. Then more hot air flows from the south to the north or, depending on the region and the case, cold air, conversely, from the north to the south, creating periods of extreme weather in the affected areas. A connection between this phenomenon and the decreasing temperature difference between the tropics and the northern polar region, as brought about by climate change, is considered to be conceivable.

Underground water supplies in the El Ejido desert enable the world's largest cultivation area to be cultivated under plastic sheeting. (& copy dpa report)

Of course, it is not just the climate that threatens to be neglected in the Anthropocene. The earth's biosphere, with its ecological networks and diversity, is also undergoing a massive human-induced transformation [10], as landscapes around the world are being transformed through human use and natural processes are being changed [11]. What is at stake here is the functionality of the evolutionary biological and ecological systems of the earth, as well as that of the human social organizations that are dependent on them. The landscapes of the earth are also the substrate on which societies have developed their cultures. Changes in landscapes in the Anthropocene lead to changes in the culture and self-image of the groups concerned. This applies not only to inhabitants of overgrazed semi-desert zones of the earth or the Inuit of the melting Arctic, but in all climatic zones.

The power of scientific knowledge of the world

Scientific discoveries have often had a revolutionary effect on people's self-image, although their concrete meaning for everyday life was often completely irrelevant. When Nicolaus Copernicus concluded that the bodies of heaven by no means all revolve around the earth or Charles Darwin argued that animals and humans alike evolved from processes in the deep history of the earth, this neither brought bread on the table, nor did it cure diseases, nor did it end wars nor did it develop prosperity.

Nevertheless, these insights marked breakthroughs in the modern mentality and had enormously far-reaching consequences, since existing social and cultural orders were broken by the newly emerging self-image. Knowledge released man into a cosmological powerlessness, which gave him freedom and responsibility as well as great world-shaping power. The new conceptions of the world developed their revolutionary explosive power precisely because our self-image is the most original drive of all politics, morals and ethics and thus the origin of public order.

How much more significant must today's knowledge about the Anthropocene be, which directly affect us and our future life: knowledge such as the decoding of the atom, the genetics of life - and the earth as a complex, changing planet with a long time , eventful history. Now that, for the first time, not only the fate of regions is in the hands of our decisions, but the state of the planet as a whole, the old questions of freedom, responsibility and justice are being posed with great emphasis and urgency that spans cultures.


Justice is a central operational concept of every negotiation about the future that follows democratic ideas, all the more so for self-negotiations of the societies of the earth in view of the planetary transformation that has been set in motion. This affects different people in different ways, has been caused by different people in different ways, and is only to be limited or cushioned in different ways among people. Who pays for the damage, who pays for the countermeasures, who has to live with which changes?

Spatial and temporal justice

Traffic jam on the motorway (& copy picture-alliance / dpa)
In the ongoing negotiations for a world climate treaty to limit climate change, aspects of justice also play a central political role. It is about issues of spatial distributive justice as well as justice across generations. If the extent of climate change is to be limited to a specified value, this results in a maximum amount of carbon dioxide that can be released into the atmosphere until the limit is reached. On the time scale of decades, it hardly matters in which region of the world and when the emissions occur; it is only a matter of their total amount over time [12]. The degree of warming of the earth's climate depends almost linearly on this.

This raises the crucial question:
  • Who is still allowed to emit how much for how long?
  • Who gets what share of the remaining volume of the limited carbon dioxide landfill called “atmosphere”?
  • Are countries that have been burning fossil fuels for a long time and have thus achieved prosperity, are only allowed to emit very little because they have long since used up their share, whereas others still have some catching up to do?
After attempts at previous climate conferences, such as the one in Copenhagen in 2009, failed to divide the limited emissions budget among countries within the framework of agreed targets in the form of quotas, the current agreements are based on the principle of voluntary self-commitment. The goal of limiting climate change to less than 2 degrees is still clearly missed at the moment. However, the development of procedures for monitoring the development, reporting the contributions and renegotiating during the contract period was agreed. In this way, on the one hand, the principle of voluntariness avoided the justice debate: while the size of the necessary ambition, i.e. the collective self-restraint, was defined, the distribution of the reductions across countries and regions was excluded.

On the other hand, the question of fairness with regard to the remaining, not inconsiderable gap between ambition and self-declaration arises again. Whose responsibility is it to close them? And what happens if the goals are missed? A failure of the endeavor to limit climate change is therefore a real possibility due to the fact that the issue of justice is excluded. In addition to questions of feasibility, the question of justice is and will remain the central point of a scientifically founded debate about the Anthropocene.

The desire to preserve a Holocene-like state means that the earth's relatively stable state is primarily determined by concerns about the extent of the conceivable developments in the coming decades, both with regard to the defense against climate change and its effects. The avoidance of a comprehensive environmental change is probably a basic requirement for the solution of other pressing human problems such as the maintenance of geopolitical peace or the further reduction of poverty and inhumane living conditions.

The Paris Agreement places his hope on the principle of social self-reinforcement. The aim is to set in motion a snowball of transformation that will trigger an avalanche that, if successful, will self-reinforce the collapse of the fossil energy sector and a transition to completely renewable energy systems. If the attractiveness and economic opportunity of renewable energy systems becomes clear, according to the calculation, and broad social movements due to the advantages associated with these technologies support these technologies with demands, the fossil combustion technology of the 19th and 20th centuries would suddenly become obsolete and the unresolved question of justice would become obsolete no longer ask.

Should the process of the climate treaty not proceed successfully, however, there would be a considerable problem of justice between present and future generations, which is only not acute in terms of current politics because future generations, like the flora and fauna, cannot speak for themselves. There are many possible reasons for a conceivable failure of all climate protection efforts:

  • the voluntary nature of the commitments,
  • the lack of assertiveness of the responsible institutions,
  • the inertia and short-term profit-oriented nature of the investment market,
  • the long-term impact of built infrastructure
  • and the inflexibility of many political, social and cultural processes.
In the worst case, unchecked climate change would lead the world into an overheated Anthropocene with global difficulties by the end of the century, because the limits of resilience would be exceeded not only in some regions, but also widely. Even in the event that an exit from greenhouse gas emissions were successful, but a little too late in time, the burden of dealing with the consequences of exceeding the climate targets or even correcting the undesirable developments retrospectively with gigantic and problematic technology for climate manipulation would be on future generations imposed.

Such discourses about global distribution, burden and resource equity are also a great opportunity: In view of the load limits of the planet, a whole range of substances and materials will presumably have to be subjected to global management by collective humanity in the long run. The comparatively simple case of carbon can be used as a pioneering discussion to explore the ethical, legal and organizational principles that make this possible. In this way, avoiding negative global environmental developments can support the development of a global civil society with its own institutions. It is obvious that these cannot do without an agreement on questions of justice and the integration of different views between world cultures.


A Huanaco calls out to his family in a fire-stricken area in Chile. 15,000 hectares were destroyed by fire. (& copy picture-alliance / dpa)

Responsibility towards fellow human beings and fellow creatures arises against the background of the past and in view of the future from basic ethical, moral or spiritual convictions. Across different cultures, in the Anthropocene, due to the comprehensive nature of the challenge and the growing global network, there is a need to look for similarities and thus points of contact in these questions as well, instead of emphasizing historical and geographical differences in views.

Dignity of man, dignity of nature

The belief that humans and non-human nature have their own dignity is widespread in various cultures. The thesis could therefore be used that human dignity is inconceivable without a dignity of nature. The dignity of nature (itself, of course, a product of human interpretation of the world) expresses itself independently of certain philosophical or cultural systems in a variety of ways in the eyes of people: as a pattern of landscapes, as the life of animals, as the intrinsic logic of natural processes - even in human-shaped or reshaped landscapes. While magical conceptions of nature see the dignity of nature in its spiritual self-existence and sees mythical understanding of the world reflected in it divine orders, rationalistic forms of viewing the world also produce numerous ideas about the essential essence of original nature. It is possible to build on this again and again even in a reshaped world of the Anthropocene.

If human dignity is inconceivable without a dignity of nature, whether in access to its resources or at a respectful distance, there are consequences for the rank of nature in the political order: it must be part of these orders, as well as with respect to fellow human beings social commonality is part of these orders [13].

This already approaches the classic dimensions of sustainability from economic, social and ecological responsibility, but understands the natural dimension as a fundamental prerequisite for social and economic development and takes the discussion about the relationship between environmental protection and development in the course of a sustainable agenda from this point of view Development anew. For environmental policy in the Anthropocene, this means moving from a policy of environmental protection and environmental care to a transformative environmental policy, i.e. a policy in which environmental protection and environmental design are part of a broader agenda of social transformation towards sustainability [14].

Science in the Anthropocene

Where historical experience is no longer a reliable guide to future developments, because both the environment and society are entering uncharted territory without historical analogies, forward-looking scientific analysis is an indispensable tool for the ethical and political discussion about responsible ways of development. Future political orders in the world are therefore no longer conceivable without a special role for science.

Co-design and co-production of knowledge in an exchange between science and society are central terms [15]. There has been talk of the possibility of a new social contract between science and society: if science is committed to addressing issues of social relevance with priority, society declares itself ready to incorporate the knowledge gained more strongly in decision-making [16]. Science should not only become more relevant and application-oriented, but also change society through knowledge by making science part of the social dialogue about the future. Here outlines of new theoretical justifications for the delegation of socially important functions to constitutionally founded groups outside the realm of politics and the direct exercise of power are laid out. In the Anthropocene one will not be able to avoid this question.

A purely knowledge-producing science thus becomes a transformative science, which is itself an elementary component of necessary transformation processes in society. On the other hand, it has been objected critically that the implied politicization of science, which has its downside in governing by expert commissions, entails a depoliticization of the actual politics on these subject areas [17]). Scientists would thus perform tasks for which they were not mandated, while conversely, expert knowledge undermined the political declaration of intent. However, these are probably mock battles, as a look at the similar case of engineering shows [18]. Should society forego the problem-oriented expertise of scientific institutions in favor of pure basic research? As in all areas of public debate, there are processes of mutual influence that serve the cause positively as long as they are transparent.

Science can be independent and excellent, yet relevant and problem-oriented. Nor does the entire scientific system have to be assigned to transformative science. However, such a positioning of science also needs new political science justifications, which in turn refer to philosophical and ethical basic positions on the position of man in the order of the world.

Above all, however, knowledge obliges those who carry knowledge to take responsibility, especially given the urgency of world changes in the Anthropocene. The situation can be compared with that of atomic physicists and geneticists: knowledge is no longer neutral in these fields, but has to be taken responsibility for and lived again and again in the respective social context. This responsibility raises ethical and political questions that must be resolved discursively as well as individually and must be given their systemic legitimation under the conditions of the respective state constitution.

Preserve and create

Preserving and shaping are two poles that are repeatedly controversial in the debate about sustainability in the Anthropocene. Are the terms “Anthropocene” and “Sustainability” to be seen as contradicting one another, because the first emphasizes designed change, the second emphasizes preserving continuity [19]? Is the designed Anthropocene a sign of doomed human hubris or a new epoch of civilization? In view of the prevailing dynamics, is sustainability that preserves and respects nature even possible? There are currently very controversial positions on these questions. What some call optimism about the future, others call a threat to the foundations of life in society. It is undecided in which way future viability and thus sustainability lie. Only those findings of science that testify to the irreversibility of important planetary developments are certain. At the same time, it is certain that the adaptability and changeability of human societies, especially complex civilizations, is limited.

Various approaches are exemplified in the positions of the Catholic and Protestant churches. Also inconsistent in itself and not reducible to simple standpoints, the Catholic interpretation of the world tends to focus on correcting human errors, including when dealing with the environment, and to see this as the prerequisite for progress in human conditions. A renewed harmony between humanity and nature is considered possible on the basis of a strengthened social ecology [20]. Protestant worldview, on the other hand, is less certain whether dissonances and contradictions in the development of time can be resolved. Action is guided by promises of a conceivable peace, but in concrete reality it is left to the decisions and discourses of man [21]. Thus, in both cases, the topos of responsibility reappears, from which people are not released and which is expressed in a combination of repentance and confidence.


The Italian pianist Ludovico Einaudi plays a piece he composed himself while huge chunks of ice break into the sea. The environmental organization Greenpeace wants to use the campaign to draw attention to greater protection of the Arctic. (& copy picture-alliance / AP)

The Anthropocene emerged as a coevolutionary phenomenon from the history of the earth, mankind and civilization. From the substrate of biology, a mental world that is distributed but networked among many individuals and groups has emerged, which expresses itself in social, material and technological macro structures [22]. Their dynamics with their planetary macro trends are what made the Anthropocene a geological and social phenomenon. But what influence do we humans, individually and collectively, have on this development? To what extent can we, as reflexive beings anticipating a future, influence the course of further developments through decisions? Have we long been prisoners of the internal logic of the technological and institutional systems we have created, or are we still controlling them?

On the one hand, one often encounters the view that what matters most is what people want: where there is insight, knowledge and the will to act, there is possible what is feasible and therefore the future is a matter of choice. In democratic elections, collective decision-making is regularly queried and implemented in politics. However, experiences of real powerlessness are just as widespread in the complex systems of modernity. Be it the mechanics of the financial market, the necessities of the material supply of social institutions or the constraints of bureaucratic administrative states, it often seems unclear how and to what extent these, once created, can be controlled. What is the relationship between such social macro systems and individuals?

Such questions also arise for the technical systems that mankind has created. Their economic controllability is often claimed, but where does this find its limits? The thesis has been put forward on various occasions that technological macro systems are inherent in physical and chemical laws, which considerably limit the influence of humans on their development for reasons of natural law. On the one hand, it is argued that the inevitable maintenance of thermodynamic gradients in technical systems makes their macroscale properties only modifiable to a limited extent [23]. On the other hand, there was a decoupling of scale between the individual and the collective level: the individual can indeed be part of the cause of technical and social macro systems, but it is not obvious that he can subsequently significantly influence or control their own logic. For this, the term technosphere was coined [24], which follows its own laws and thus stands out not only from the geosphere and biosphere, but increasingly also from the anthroposphere.

In the future, an analysis of the interconnectedness of mankind and its systems with one another and the dynamic complexity that such systems can exhibit [25] is required. Only then will a picture emerge of the freedoms mankind still has in view of the macrostructures that have arisen and where this finds its limits in the intrinsic logics of the new systems.

But there is another aspect of the debate about freedoms in the Anthropocene that leads back to the mental and cultural roots of the human phenomenon. Like all primates, humans are endowed with a high level of social intelligence and are constantly involved in the process of constructing their own identity. In addition, he is technologically gifted and able to combine environmental and material knowledge with social knowledge. Hence ideas of the self in humans find expression not only in social relationships but also in material culture [26]. Mental and material questions are closely linked and that is why they are so explosive today, in the age of global effects. The material and mental consequences of dealing with the Anthropocene are therefore at the center of both the risks and the opportunities of the Anthropocene. But their source is man's self-images of himself.

This is the reason why, in the Anthropocene, analytical systems science has to come into resonance with the cultural interpretation of the world so that together they have a changing effect. For this one could choose the term “new cosmologies”: systems of interpretation for the world which do not contradict the scientific knowledge of the time. These systems of interpretation grow on the substrate of the existing cultures. What they all have in common, however, is that they essentially reflect the question: What do we humans do with our freedom? What place do we have in the order of the world?

Whether and how mankind can deal with the Anthropocene is therefore not only a question of the material techniques of mankind and their environmental impact, but also a question of this cultural self-negotiation, the understanding between world views and world interpretations on the basis of scientific knowledge, and a reformulation of the cultural responses to knowledge in the light of the challenges. Therein lies an opportunity - history does not stand still.

Orders of the Anthropocene

In summary, it can be said that in the new order of the Anthropocene the socio-cultural would have to be closely linked politically with the ecological-natural spatial dynamics of the earth system's own dynamics if a sustainable Anthropocene is the goal [27]. To get there, a transformative environmental and social policy is required, which on the one hand keeps an eye on the existing, continuously developing interrelationships between the environment and society with the possibilities of scientific analysis, but on the other hand recognizes that the decisive transformative force comes from the ethical and philosophical self-negotiations of people about themselves and their future emerges.

From a scientific point of view, the system-analytical contribution to rethinking the Anthropocene led to the concept of planetary load limits [28]: It is about normative system limits, which describe a Holocene-like state of the earth system, beyond which the risk of uncontrollable consequences of the changes is irresponsibly high. From a cultural point of view, the minimum standards of human entitlement to a humanitarian and responsible living situation [29], to a “good life”, are currently expressed in the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals.

Narrative about ourselves and the world are fundamental, which also allow us to redefine and think through the place of humanity in the order of the world in the Anthropocene. Since the mental existence of people is integrated into the physical world through their material expression, every adaptation, transformation or revolution towards a humanitarian tolerable instead of a miserable Anthropocene will depend on these processes of self-determination. This is the only way to break the inherent logic of technical or institutional processes. The Anthropocene arises from the possibilities of humans and ultimately affects them again. Above all, it can be influenced by its self-definition skills. Here the possibilities are infinitely greater than is often assumed in view of the daily compulsions to act.

The source of the Anthropocene is therefore not a geological one, but a philosophical-ethical one.Who are we? Who do we want to be? What do we do with our freedom? These questions, which in times of new scientific knowledge about the nature of the planet, man and the mechanisms of our time can only be answered cosmologically, are at the center of the challenges of a diverse Anthropocene that collectively challenges the civilizations of the earth. One thing is certain: the future will not be a reflection of the past, but it is hardly conceivable without the preservation of essential basic functions of the planet.