Researchers are increasingly pushing for a new paradigm in Earth System science that is founded equally on a deep understanding of the physical and biological Earth System and of the economic, social and cultural forces that are now an intrinsic part of it. Photo: J. Lokrantz/Azote

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Earth system science for a new geological era

Why it is high time for a more people-centred paradigm in Earth System science to better study the challenges of the Anthropocene

Story highlights

• Earth system science has for long been dominated by physical science concepts and methodologies

• This must change now when we are in the Anthropocene, if Earth system science wants to be relevant to reaching the Paris targets and the Sustainable Development Goals

• A planet increasingly dominated by people can’t be studied as if people and their complex behaviours don’t exist

If you ask researchers at the Stockholm Resilience Centre about the centre’s fundamental message, they will tell you that humans have to stop considering nature and the environment as something separate from society. This is because people and nature are truly intertwined in what we refer to as social-ecological systems. However, most of our resilience research has focused on changes at the local and regional scale.

Earth system science, on the other hand, focuses on planetary scale dynamics. It has been dominated by physical science concepts and methodologies. These have progressively been linked with some global biological processes, but social dynamics are still left out of the picture.

In a recent article published in The Anthropocene Review, centre researchers Jonathan Donges, Sarah Cornell and Johan Rockström argue that this needs to change. The article is written in close partnership with colleagues from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Germany and University of Southampton, UK.

Bolting together old concepts and methodologies cannot be an adequate approach to describing this new geological era

Jonathan Donges, lead author

Bringing people into planet studies

The Anthropocene, or the “Age of Humans”, is the new name of the current era of our planet’s history. It refers to the massive impact humans now have on the planet’s climate and ecosystems. It differs from previous eras in many different ways, for example, that social and economic networks are now spanning the whole globe with planetary scale social-ecological feedbacks. In this new situation, the authors argue, it is high time to really bring socioeconomic dynamics explicitly into theory, analysis and models of Earth system science.

"We need a new paradigm in Earth System science that is founded equally on a deep understanding of the physical and biological Earth System – and of the economic, social and cultural forces that are now an intrinsic part of it," they write.

The article, which is entitled Closing the loop: Reconnecting human dynamics to Earth System science, argues that both the planet’s biophysical and social complexity needs to be analysed. Oversimplifying the social complexity in our analysis means that scientific knowledge will fail to support the world’s societies in delivering on the ambitious Paris climate agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). We then risk pushing Earth’s climate and biosphere out of the relatively stable state of the last 11,000 years – a period called the Holocene by geologists.

Simple systems, complex outcomes

To illustrate the need to deal with the complexity of both planet and people, the article presents a case of a “deliberately elementary representation of decarbonization in the energy sector”. This model demonstrates how subsidies and other socioeconomic factors influence the energy market.

"This is a hugely simplified case, but it reveals non-trivial effects not usually taken into account in integrated Earth System modelling," they write.

The case shows that even including a minimum of socioeconomic dynamics can produce complex behaviour and multiple outcomes when modelling the different roads to decarbonization.

Earth system science and the SDGs

The Paris climate targets and the SDGs clearly show humanity’s ambition to remain within a safe operating space and increase the wellbeing of all people. Earth System science should play a critical part in this endeavour, the authors write. This will require increased efforts to connect the science of human behaviour and impacts with biophysical processes and to seek to understand the very rich dynamics that result.

"We have existing tools and approaches to study such phenomena. Such analysis offers significant potential to augment existing models and methodologies and so help humanity chart a course towards a desirable Holocene-like Anthropocene," the authors conclude.


The article is an outcome of interdisciplinary deliberations in the LOOPS series of research workshops. The case analysis centres around a conceptual model of decarbonization transformation, using a dynamical system model of an energy market with competing dirty and clean technologies. It looks into business-as-usual without management and compares this with pathways with management interventions.

In the model, a market share of the clean technology larger than 50% is normatively considered as desirable. The model specifies a safe operating space where trajectories can remain in the desirable condition without management and a region from which the safe operating space can only be reached through desirable states when applying subsidies.

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Published: 2017-09-24


Donges, J., Winkelmann, R., Cornell, S. E., Lucht, W., Dyke, J. G., Rockström, J., Heitzig, J., Schellnhuber, H-J. 2017. Closing the loop: reconnecting human dynamics to Earth system science. Anthropocene Review 4 (2): 151-157

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Jonathan Donges is a post-doctoral researcher who focusses on dynamics and resilience of planetary social-ecological systems. He also co-leads the flagship project COPAN at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research

Sarah Cornell works on global sustainability issues, coordinating SRC’s research and international collaborations on the planetary boundaries framework

Johan Rockström is the director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre and a professor of environmental science at Stockholm University. Johan Rockström is an internationally recognized scientist for his work on global sustainability issues.


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