skip to content

Because facts are not enough

MESH Research Centre: Why we are destroying the ecosystem - from a humanities perspective

Humanity poses a threat to the Earth’s ecosystem. But we seem to be struggling to change our environmentally damaging behaviour. The MESH research centre investigates from a Humanities perspective why we are destroying our own existence – with open eyes.

Robert Hahn

Crawford Lake is a placid lake in the Canadian province Ontario. It is very popular among anglers and hikers. No one would ever have thought that the small lake would one day make headlines. Since July 2023, things have changed: If the researchers of the Anthropocene Working Group of the International Commission on Stratigraphy are to be believed, the sediments at the bottom of the lake are the marker of the Anthropocene – the world’s geological era of human impact on Earth. The sediments contain radioactive traces of atomic bombs – just one example of how humans have left their mark on the environment. This era is said to have begun in 1950. Today, the effects of human activity on nature can no longer be ignored: Like a geological force, humanity causes profound changes in its environment.

Since humankind has spread across all continents, it has entered into an intensive reciprocal relationship with the existing ecosystems – not always to the benefit of the local animal and plant species. Environmental pollution and human-made land erosion were a problem even before industrialization. As a result, many species became extinct or were displaced.

Now our climate is getting warmer. That is a fact. Climate change, which is affecting us with mild winters and hot summers, has consequences not only for humans, but also for many animals and plants: More and more species that are already threatened by other human activities are now suffering even more. That is a fact, too. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists more than 44,000 species on its Red List of Threatened Species.

But even in Germany with its environmental awareness, politicians are failing to meet the targets they have set themselves for greenhouse gas emissions and thus the 2-degree target; animal species such as wild bees continue to die out here, too. Why are modern societies unable to reduce their emissions? Are facts no longer convincing enough?

Looking at the bigger picture

Scientists determined the facts of climate change and species extinction decades ago. They have presented them to the public, explained them and then explained them again. But the reduction of harmful greenhouse gases and the protection of species seem to be faltering. Why is that? “It takes more than facts alone,” said Kate Rigby, Humboldt Professor and director of the Multidisciplinary Environmental Studies in the Humanities (MESH). The research centre addresses the social, cultural and ethical dimensions of global environmental change and the associated ecological, climatic and health crises. The Australian philosopher and literary scholar explained: “The way people interact with the non-human world is shaped by their knowledge systems, their technologies, their economic structures, their political processes, but also by culture. By that I mean very basic assumptions about the nature of reality.”

Kate Rigby and Roman Bartosch explore how we can share the planet with other creatures - and why humans are the only hope and the biggest obstacle to climate protection.

MESH aims to understand how these assumptions shape the way we deal with the crises of climate change and species extinction – and how they can influence effective action to at least mitigate the consequences of these crises. MESH incorporates a variety of projects, bringing together questions and methods of individual disciplines in a larger context, e.g. from a geographical, historical, archaeological or ethnological perspective. Kate Rigby is one of the pioneers of the relatively young field of Environmental Humanities. “The humanities are the ideal discipline to tackle some of the problems that the natural sciences have not yet addressed.” Rigby heads the research centre together with the anglicist Professor Dr Roman Bartosch and the ethnologist Professor Dr Franz Krause.

Connecting cultural and ecological evolution

The Environmental Humanities assume that the behaviour of human societies does not always follow a logical-rational calculation. Rather, collective thinking and action is embedded in structures such as historical conditions, traditions and individual behaviours. But these aspects are not taken into account by the natural sciences in their research. In these disciplines, human beings are considered a ‘black box’; i.e. their behaviour is unpredictable. According to Rigby, humans are the reason why modern, highly industrialized capitalist societies cannot stop their environmentally harmful actions.

However, the researchers at MESH do not see themselves in competition or even in opposition to the natural sciences, but rather as collaborators. One example is the HESCOR (Human and Earth System Coupled Research) project that focuses on the complex relationship between human cultural evolution and the Earth’s complex ecosystems. The interdisciplinary team of experts from archaeology, geophysics, mathematics, geography, literature, cultural studies and linguistics investigates the interplay between climatic and human systems and how climate has influenced human evolution. The climatic events during the ‘Out of Africa’ migration of Homo sapiens about 300,000 years ago are analysed in interaction with the evolution of human cultures. This is tied, for example, to the question of which climatic conditions are driving migration today.

Other questions are how the future and human survival are described in literature and art – in different places around the world. How do local societies react to crises? And how do different societies define the ‘environment’ in general? Rigby is certain that the diversity of methodological approaches in the humanities and cultural sciences promotes collaboration with the natural sciences.

Ethical treatment – not just for humans

“We cannot brush aside historical questions of power, which play a role in environmental discussions,” said Professor Roman Bartosch. Today’s crises are the legacy of a series of developments that began in Europe with the spread of European imperialism and merchant capitalism in the sixteenth century, followed by the industrialization driven by fossil fuels in the late eighteenth century. “It is precisely this period that has led to the emergence of a society that has changed the Earth’s systems so profoundly that this will be visible in geological records for thousands of years to come,” said Rigby.

Remnants of flooding on the Rhine, with the Mülheim bridge in the background. There have always been fluctuating river levels, but weather extremes will increase in the future. Do we need disaster relief that also considers the protection of animals and entire ecosystems?

But not everywhere on this planet have human societies developed in accordance with the capitalist logic. Depending on their location, cultures give different answers to the question of the meaning and purpose of life. Rigby: “These cultural dimensions must also be taken into account when we look at the driving forces of destructive systems and their historical origins, and really understand the current global environmental changes.”

The question of how humans and non-human beings live together is also relevant. “This includes, for example, ideas regarding the ethical treatment of other living beings,” said Roman Bartosch. In this context, it is necessary to reconsider the concept of catastrophe precautions, which is usually understood more as a kind of scientific, technological process for preparing an infrastructure or society. However, the survival of animals and entire ecosystems is also at stake in the event of disasters.

Anthropologically driven projects are therefore a further pillar of MESH, such as ‘Rewilding the Anthropocene’, headed by the social and cultural anthropologist Professor Dr Michael Bollig, which investigates the change in human livelihoods, institutions, social concepts and attitudes under various socio-ecological conditions. One sub-project deals with the effects of recent population declines in so-called megaherbivores, i.e. large herbivorous animals such as elephants. Another investigates carriers of epidemic diseases related to reforestation, and a third investigates the socio-economic effects of the rapid commercialization of various flora and fauna. Together, the results will contribute to a better understanding of the complexity of large-scale renaturation efforts.

An international research hub

MESH lays the foundations for this type of research. On the one hand, by expanding international research relations with a visiting scholar programme, and on the other hand by promoting the next generation of scholars and scientists: A doctoral programme in Environmental Humanities (environmental sciences) is currently being developed, a Master’s programme and courses for extracurricular studies are being planned.

Where man invites nature in: the flora.

Last but not least, MESH also forms the network connecting many projects and initiatives that are currently being developed at the University of Cologne as well as internationally. A new initiative, for example, is the collaboration project ‘Sharing a Planet in Peril’ with the Global South Studies Center (GSSC). The project will investigate how the unfair effects of global pollution are experienced in different places, discourses and media around the world. The researchers particularly focus on those parts of the Global South where the GSSC has already established strong partnerships: in southern and eastern Africa, south and southeast Asia as well as Latin America. The initiative was invited to submit a full proposal for a Cluster of Excellence to the German Research Foundation as part of the Excellence Initiative at the beginning of 2024.

Under the joint leadership of MESH and the GSSC, and with the support of the European University for Wellbeing (EUniWell) and the International Office, the University of Cologne has also become a topic centre of BRIDGES, an international coalition for sustainability sciences that is affiliated with the UNESCO programme ‘Management of Social Transformations’. The centre will focus on Earth’s well-being, which combines human health and well-being with biodiversity conservation, sustainable cities, climate change mitigation and adaptation.

MESH creates a new forum for the University of Cologne and attracts scholars and scientists from all over the world. Kate Rigby appreciates this environment: “We can benefit from a lot of research resources that the university and its network provide. This helps us to develop ideas and exchange them with other researchers.”