Nikolaus lecture


The Health of the Earth System in the Age of Humankind (Anthropocene)  – A Multiscale and Multimodal Project

Reinhold Leinfelder, Freie Universität Berlin

To open up our space and time discussions in regenerative processes, Prof. Dr. Leinfelder will do us the great honor of looking one scale higher, investigating the Health of the Earth System in the Anthropocene. Join us for our annual Nikolaus lecture on Friday, December 6th, at 16:00!

Although humans had an increasing environmental impact ever since they went out of Africa, their place of origin, it was only the great acceleration of socioeconomic development since the mid-20th century that has added the gigantic human footprint onto the Earth System spheres. As a consequence, differences between nature and culture have largely vanished: Three quarters of the ice-free continents are no pristine nature any longer. Humans level out entire mountain tops, cut down new valleys, create new lakes, determine where rivers flow, decide where sediments are being deposited, heat the climate, and even lift up the sea level. We are homogenising the previous wealth of plants and animals, produce annual heaps of plastics that equal the total biomass of all living humans, and have created the incredible amount of 30 trillion tons of technosphere materials since the 1950s. Humanity has hence turned into a major global geological factor, so that a new geological epoch might soon be officially added to the Earth history time scale – the Anthropocene.

A health metaphor may help explaining this situation: The Earth system is undergoing severe health stress, and the array of diagnostic criteria clearly shows that this is not a temporary exception, but a continuing systemic challenge. There is no way that the Earth system will turn back to its previous state – it will remain different to what it used to be during earlier times of modern human development, i.e. the globally stable times when humans have settled down and have developed their highly differentiated societies. Nevertheless, there is an urgent need for regenerative therapies, in a multiscale and multimodal manner, to avoid systemic tipping points and system failure. This encompasses a better understanding of the reactivity of the “patient Earth”, appropriate communication methods of the diagnosis, and new narrative ways of explaining how humans are fully dependent on the functionality of their Earth system, and hence should act as an integral part of it. There also is the need to address the multilevel set of the groups in charge (politics, economy, science, education, civil society, individuals) and to convince them to rapidly apply an array of regenerative therapies, such as combining reactive, sufficiency, bioadaptive and high-tech pathways.

The concept of the Anthropocene hence represents a multilevel approach, with two scientific base levels, i.e., the Earth system analysis, and the geological analysis. However, it triggers a superimposed consequential metalevel of new integrated views, responsibilities and ethical aspects, interconnectedness, societal transformation, and different knowledge-based careful design pathways for the future Earth. It is certainly not necessary to see the Anthropocene as another one of the grand humiliations to the human world view (such as the Copernican, Darwinian and Freudian humiliations), as some see it. On the contrary, Anthropocene studies and metalevel reflections are expected to help develop a much better view of our influence on and interaction with our Earth system, and change this influence from harmful to one of mutual symbiotic, and permanent benefit. Having the world in our hands, and better understanding this complex world should then allow us to welcome the Anthropocene.

Reinhold Leinfelder is Full Professor at the Freie Universität Berlin, heading the Working Group on Geobiology and Anthropocene Research. His research and lectures include earth history, the evolution and ecology of reefs, the anthropocene, future studies, and new methods of knowledge communication. He studied geology and palaeontology at LMU Munich, received his PhD and habilitation degree at University of Mainz, and held professorships at universities in Stuttgart, Munich and Berlin, as well as directorships for different museums and natural history collections, including the Natural History Museum Berlin. From 2008-2013 he was member of the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU). Since 2012 he is member of the international ‘Anthropocene Working Group’ of the International Commission on Stratigraphy. From 2014 to 2016 he was founding director of the ‘Haus der Zukunft / Futurium’, Berlin. He co-initiated the ‘Welcome to the Anthropocene’ Exhibition at Deutsches Museum Munich, ‘The Anthropocene Project’ at the House of Cultures Berlin and ‘The Anthropocene Kitchen’-Project within the Excellence Cluster ‘Image, Knowledge, Gestaltung’ of the Humboldt and the Freie Universität Berlin. He also produces knowledge comics on climate change and the anthropocene.

For more information and a complete curriculum vitae see