Heidelberg Center for the Environment (HCE)
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Research Profile

Whereas any specific discipline employs its own particular perspective to conduct research on various aspects of humans’ diverse environments, the HCE focuses its attention on broader aspects, in particular, on the dynamics of the physical and socio-cultural environment and on their mutual interaction. Fundamental questions are posed, for example concerning possible universal connections between microscopic and macroscopic characteristics in the diverse, mutually influential phenomena of the environment. Above all, the HCE aims to arrive at an extensive understanding of environmental developments across time and space; this understanding consolidates the basis for future-oriented action.

Temporal reference fields

Instead of being organised according to specific disciplines or institutes, the HCE’s area of research can be roughly divided into the fields of the past, present and future, whereas we are aware of the close connection of these fields in terms of content, cause and effect and chronology. The intervals and duration of each particular time scale vary according to the research question and methodological approach.

The Past

From a natural sciences perspective, the Earth’s system has an inherently complex nature and throughout its development has experienced a wide range of different conditions that are very distinct from its current state. A quantitative understanding of these past dynamics forms, on the one hand, a basis on which current processes and possible developments arising from them can be discussed and taught, while, on the other hand, enabling a review of models of the physical system, thereby creating conditions in which forecasts for future developments can be made.

From a cultural, classical and social sciences perspective, the past is a field of observable human action. Historical studies provide insights into a wide range of options for human action that go beyond our own cultural conditioning and can thus enhance the opportunities for action within the scope of far-reaching environmental changes, some of which may have long-term effects. At the same time, the past constitutes a backdrop against which the present can be measured, revealing what moves society. It therefore makes an important contribution to the cognitive self-reflection of contemporary society.

It is in this temporal field of the past that HCE finds its challenge, on the one hand, to improve the data and information on changes in the physical and socio-cultural environment of humans. On the other hand, it must systematically study which roles the mutual influences had on these changes.

The central sources for this challenge come in the form of a variety of data archives on environmental topics that need to be read, completed and interpreted, and their classification according to time and space. In the realm of the natural sciences, this is accomplished by various means of reconstructing past developments, in particular methods for reading geoarchives and dating environmentally relevant events. The cultural studies, in particular the classical studies and the social sciences, examine a wide range of direct and indirect legacies of human action, for example written or material remains, but also all evidence of humans’ interference and interaction with their environments. The methods used for evaluating such information are question-based and comprise the entire canon of techniques used in the cultural sciences, archaeology, history, literary sciences, philology, sociology and economics.

Almost all of these methods require a special infrastructure and expertise, which can already be found in Heidelberg in terms of questions concerning both physical and socio-cultural environments and which draw on a long academic tradition here.

The Present

In recent decades, knowledge of the diverse processes of our environment over many scales has drastically increased. This is accompanied by a rapidly increasing flow of information from a variety of sources ranging from observation satellites and economic databases to the social networks of the internet. Placed within the scope of varying concepts of the present, depending on the research question and analytical approach at hand, the challenge lies in the fact that while there is a constant flow of information, the information is insufficient both in terms of degree of detail and in accuracy to afford us a satisfying understanding of the complex network of individual processes. At the same time, the models for analysis and interpretation are inevitably reduced to a manageable degree of abstraction and are strongly influenced by current paradigms. The adequate degree of abstraction and the necessary plurality of the paradigms thus constitute the central epistemological and ethical challenges.

From a natural sciences perspective, the method of choice for this temporal field is monitoring by both remote sensing and fixed stations to record a wide range of environmental parameters from climate factors to biodiversity, and the subsequent analysis and interpretation of these data. Such observation systems exist on many different scales, from globally operating satellites to local MAVs (micro aerial vehicles) and from long-term stations to isolated measurements during expeditions.

From a social sciences and cultural studies perspective, the entire spectrum of various discipline-specific methods is used in this temporal field, both in a comparative and a historical approach. These methods include, in particular, comparative quantitative and qualitative methods of research in economics and social sciences as well as experiments in social sciences, and network and process analyses on synchronous and diachronic levels.

The task of law scholars for the present (and future) lies in researching and developing legal methods and instruments for a sustainable balance between ecological, economic and social factors. The focal point of this balance is the maxim of an efficient, responsible use of finite resources that is also oriented towards the interests of the younger and future generations (intragenerational and intergenerational fairness). Achieving this general objective requires, on the one hand, the establishment of this theoretical basis for sustainability as a central political idea and as a central legal principle (for example, legal status, generational fairness, human rights, institutions, processes, methods, comparative law), and, on the other hand, the analysis of and solution to field-specific, legal problems in the implementation of measures for the preservation and efficient use of natural resources (for example, climate protection, renewable energies, biodiversity, water protection, government debt, social security systems, education, demographic change).

The Future

In view of the drastic increases in the interaction of physical and socio-cultural environments in many different areas, often with unforeseeable consequences, both the responsibility for and the concern about the future development of the environment continue to grow. This goes together with the desire for reliable forecasts that enable us to specifically adapt to or even influence the environment. The challenge in this respect lies in the fact that our understanding of the system is uncertain at best, yet we must use it as the basis upon which to forecast how the complex and delayed reactive “Earth System” will develop. At the same time, our knowledge of humans as cultural beings is significantly limited and mostly focuses on the image of the modern, Christian Western European. Alternative concepts and options of human interaction with the environment remain largely unexplored.

The methods in these fields cover the development and analysis of models of medium complexity, the development of scenarios as a basis for risk analyses and expert opinions as well as the aggregation and visualization of findings as a contribution to social debates on economic, ethical and political decisions. These methods aim at forecasting a probable development based on incomplete knowledge, which is, for example, also the approach laid down in the IPCC reports. Furthermore, the objective is also to conceive and evaluate on an ethical and ideological level alternative paths for development and options for action within the relation between physical and socio-cultural environments, as well as socio-political impact analyses.


Interdisciplinary Topic: “Change – Perception – ReAction”

The groups participating in the HCE will continue to conduct research in their specific fields, while at the same time contributing to the development of the important research theme “Change – Perception – ReAction”.

One only has to look at the last few decades to see that our environment is changing in global dimensions. This is especially the case from an ecological, technological, economic, social and political perspective. A historical long-term perspective can help to highlight this change and thus make a significant contribution to an in-depth understanding of the structures and mechanisms that give rise to this change. Of major importance in this respect are (i) the global influence humans have on their physical environment and the continually strong reaction of this environment, despite technological developments, (ii) the social perception of environmental risks and potentials and the cultural possibilities of dealing with these parameters, (iii) the question of the inherent dynamics of the physical system and its probably critical dependence on external stimuli and (iv) the question of the type of dynamics of economic, political, social and ideological/ethical systems.

The following sections list several aspects of change due to internal dynamics, the perception of this change by individuals and societies, and the reAction of the physical and socio-cultural environment, as they will be examined at the HCE. Only by consistently close coordination of the research conducted in natural sciences, social sciences and cultural studies at the HCE will it be possible to develop an extensive understanding of the interaction and interfaces between the physical and socio-cultural environment.

For example, the global population has drastically increased in recent times; however the population dynamics have manifested themselves very differently depending on the various socio-cultural conditions, without giving us a complete understanding of how these mechanisms work. Following technological and medical advances, humans’ ability to feed themselves improved and mortality rates drastically decreased, while birth rates continue to develop at high rates. Within the next 50 years, the
global population is expected to stabilise, followed by a slight decrease. Contrary to the population figures, the “ecological footprint” of the global population – supposing we maintain roughly the same concepts of a “good” quality of life – is not expected to decrease; rather, it should continue to grow at very high rates due to increasing consumption. The global economy is also expected to change drastically in the decades to come within the paradigm of the market economy. This is due, on the one hand, to the growing importance of emerging nations, in particular China and India, both of which have cultures that are strongly different than Western countries, but are very much oriented towards the West in terms of their economic behaviour, and, on the other hand, to the influence of technological advances, in particular the transition from heavy industry to the micro-industry and biotechnologies. Comparative cultural studies can not only help us to focus on specific conditions and problems of current economic systems, but also to conceptualise alternative strategies for development.

  • Modern society not only brings growing prosperity, but also has enormous potential to endanger and destruct itself. The list of problems is a long one and contains elements such as: Increasing volumes of traffic cause damage to health, the ecology and the economy; growing traffic density can facilitate the spread of foreign species but also infectious diseases (“SARS”) at almost uncontrollable rates; at a global level agrochemicals are increasing the levels of contaminants in water, soil, air, plants, animals and humans; ocean acidification is reaching critical levels; fish stocks are rapidly declining; CO2 emissions are warming the atmosphere; irrigated agriculture indeed produces 40% of the world’s food, but also massively interferes with the most important natural cycles.
  • Such interference must be placed within the scope of the fragile dynamics of the Earth’s system that is affected by a number of inherent fluctuations in the time frame relevant for our cultures. These fluctuations range from extreme one-off occurrences such as tornados, heat and cold waves, and quasi-periodical rapid changes of current conditions (ENSO, NAO,…) to long-term phenomena such as ice ages, all of which require cultural reactions. Such phenomena can already be induced or modified through comparatively small disruptions such as current interferences in the carbon and water cycles. Additional aspects connected with this dynamic and the use of natural resources are their economic availability, their equal distribution, sustainable use as well as possible substitution and recycling through technological developments. This concerns known macro-resources such as water, food, energy and soil, but also increasingly micro-resources such as gold, platinum and rare-earth minerals for the entire spectrum of high technology products and processes that are essential for modern societies.
  • The interactions between humans and their environments, but also ideas how physical and socio-cultural environments mutually influence each other are a question of socio-cultural perception: For instance, the concept of “environment”, which enables us to ask such meaningful questions in the first place, requires a dualistic perception scheme (individual vs. environment) that emerged in the specific cultural traditions of the Western world and is in no way universally valid. Post-modern shifts in the construction of identity and in the perception of ourselves and others have changed how humans perceive themselves and thus how they perceive their environment. Conversely, defining environmental problems and implementing solutions is always done within an institutional context, which encompasses people with varying interests and ideas: Due to this cultural and institutional selectivity, the mass media, social movements, governments and civil society always react to only a small number of potential ecological dangers. This means that many possible risks are not recognised at all. This selective perception and ignorance of obvious environmental risks is not just a phenomenon of larger groups, but can also be seen at the level of individuals and small groups. However, political, economic or technical measures can work against the (relatively few) perceived environmental dangers in unexpected ways by unforeseeable increases in reaction from the various parts of society. The alternating escalation of cause and effect in the relationship between socio-cultural and physical environment is not yet sufficiently understood. Political systems also continue to be subject to enormous pressure to adapt to changes regarding their duties and structure. An important subject is the change of political, economic, social and cultural divides in relation to how environmental problems are perceived and their influence on the institutional structure of society, the cross-border coordination of political decisions while taking civil society into consideration and the ability of political systems to regulate conflicts within and between states without the use of violence.

Aligned with these areas of interaction between physical and socio-cultural environments we find the spatial scale. Given that all aspects of life take place in physical and socio-cultural contexts, specific structures take effect depending on their size (small scale – medium scale – large scale), various processes become visible, different reactions are possible and other persons and bodies affected get involved. The boundary between these spatial units and the resulting epistemologies is the consequence of a cognitive and social structuring process, which provides the context in which environmental problems can be perceived:

  • Human action takes place – at least it has for the better part of history and still does today in daily interaction of most humans – in small groups and within small spaces. This space is characterised by the physical, social and cultural reach of each individual person. On this scale, the construction of spatial boundaries is essentially the result of processes of physical and cultural interaction between people and their environments. The development of options for adaptation or influence concerning the environment must therefore be based on instruments for spatially high-resolution forecasts and reconstructions, which are still hardly existent.
  • Spaces of the medium scale encompass a wide range of different areas of expansion for human action, from a regional to continental level. Along with the spatial expansion, the distance between individual persons also grows and requires opportunities for interaction with others who are not physically present. Technical possibilities play an important role in this context. Transport equipment, large-scale technologies, communication systems etc. not only increase humans’ mobility, but the perception of environmental problems (and their solutions) increasingly detaches itself from any concrete time and place, thereby becoming more and more abstract. The challenge not only lies in this perception and the scientific, technical and political management of environmental conflicts, but also in the moderated negotiation of various options for reaction.
  • The global level simply constitutes the worldwide expansion of fields of human action. In this context, the world is seen as a unit that can be divided into zones according to various criteria, in which physical, cultural, social and political factors play an essential role. Depending on where the boundary is placed between these zones, perspectives of new relations and interactions between humans’ socio-cultural and physical environment can emerge. Most instruments for diagnosing and forecasting physical change to the environment concentrate on this global level. Politically, these models would have to be implemented by the international communities and general worldwide public. This misfit between a physical environmental system perceived at a global level and a large and only slightly moderated number of socio-culturally diverse players currently presents a particular challenge that is not limited to politics.

In addition to the problems at each individual scale level, the relation between these various scales presents a conceptual challenge, as the boundaries to be constructed between and within the scale level (for example climate zones, natural spaces, political spaces) are neither identical nor self-evident. Furthermore, the relation between the various scale levels in terms of perceiving our environment and how we behave in our environment presents an epistemological challenge. For example, global environmental models, from which knowledge is gained that serves to create global responsibility, are placed in opposition to the mostly local action of individuals or political actions at a regional level (for example, nation-states or a union of nation-states), without being able to sufficiently combine these levels of models and action from a cultural studies or social sciences perspective. Connections between global changes and specific cultural change, e.g. in political or economic systems, are also questionable, at least methodologically, and cannot be established at a theoretical level.

It is beyond question that the physical environment is influenced by humans in many ways and on various scales. At the same time, environmental change in turn requires processes of adaptation as the physical environment interacts with all the areas of humans' socio-cultural environment. These interactions and their consequences are examined in the research conducted by the HCE and form the point of departure for the socio-cultural analysis of societal change as it does for research in the natural sciences on the changes of the physical environment.

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Latest Revision: 2012-10-01
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