A network for researching the Anthropocene

Jürgen Renn, Director at the Institute of Geoanthropology, discusses the Institute’s concept, the phenomenon of the "Great Acceleration," and the Jena location

June 20, 2024

The scientific focus of the Max Planck Institute of Geoanthropology is on understanding the interactions between the geosphere and human-made systems. Located in Jena, it consolidates research areas across all three of the Max Planck Society’s scientific Sections. Through interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research projects, the institutes tackles critical topics such as planetary urbanization, the global food system, and global flows of materials, energy, and information. The concept for the scientific reorientation of the former MPI for the Science of Human History was spearheaded by Jürgen Renn, who now co-directs the Institute with Ricarda Winkelmann.

Interview: Constanze Steinhauser

Mr. Renn, what is your concept for the Max Planck Institute of Geoanthropology?

The Institute will work with a high degree of interdisciplinarity and contribute to establishing geoanthropology as a new transdisciplinary field. Geoanthropology seeks to understand the impacts of human interventions and the human-created technosphere on the natural Earth system. The Earth system has now evolved into a coupled human-Earth system, the dynamics of which are still largely unknown. Geoanthropology draws on insights from Earth system science, life sciences, social sciences, and behavioural sciences, integrating them with a historical perspective that encompasses both Earth and human history.

You mention the “technosphere” - could you explain what is meant by that?

The species Homo sapiens, which for a long time was just a tiny part of the biosphere, has suddenly become a determining factor in the Earth's material and energy cycles. The late Nobel laureate and Max Planck Director Paul Crutzen coined the term “Anthropocene”, or the age of humans, around the turn of the millennium. Since the beginning of human history, humans have caused significant environmental changes through the use of technological means, such as controlled fire, hunting tools, and later agriculture and livestock farming. These techniques have imposed a whole new dynamic on Earth's history, gradually leading to the formation of a new sphere of the Earth system that we call the technosphere. The characteristic timescales of changes in the technosphere are particularly short and also influence the other Earth spheres.

This sounds fascinating, but also rather worrying...

It is. Since at least the mid-20th century, we have observed dramatic changes in many key parameters of the Earth system, and these changes are happening at an accelerating pace. This includes greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere, ocean acidification, loss of biodiversity, and even parameters of the global society. All these different parameters exhibit nearly exponential growth, indicating that we are dealing with a coupled global system. The term "Great Acceleration" has become established to describe this phenomenon. Understanding this coupling is the primary goal of the new institute. Unlimited growth can only lead to collapse in the long run, so we need to find intervention points that can bend the growth curves of the "Great Acceleration" downwards.

Is that one of your research goals?

Yes. However, the societal control of such highly complex processes is another important question. The institute's contributions will mainly consist of insights into relationships that can help us adjust certain feedback loops. The institute's unique perspective focuses on systemic dynamics because only by considering these can we avoid the pitfalls of one-sided measures.

What do you mean by that?

For instance, take the discussion surrounding biodiesel. Promoting supposedly sustainable, renewable fuels from biomass has led to a completely different form of land use, from regions like the Uckermark to Brazil, resulting in immediate impacts on food production, the spread of monocultures, and the subsequent loss of biodiversity. These are all interactions occurring within a coupled system. The institute’s task is to never lose sight of such complex interrelationships.

How does the MPI of Geoanthropology differ from other Institutes?

It distinguishes itself as the first Institute to belong to all three Sections of the Max Planck Society. The MPI will not only have a transdisciplinary approach, but also engage in projects spnanning departmental boundaries, such as understanding the "Great Acceleration" mentioned earlier. Within the Max Planck Society and beyond, it will serve as a kind of hub in a network where ideas, data, and scientists from around the world come together to understand this global problem. In this form, it is unique so far.

Why was Jena chosen as the location?

Jena was selected because our concept fits perfectly with the two existing Max Planck Institutes in Jena, which have a strong ecological focus, as well as with Friedrich Schiller University. Moreover, there are promising opportunities for collaboration with the newly founded Senckenberg Institute for Plant Diversity. Additional cooperation possibilities exist with other institutions such as the Carl Zeiss Foundation, which, along with the state of Thuringia, has actively supported the realignment.  

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