26 Apr 2018

26 Apr 2018

Review status: a revised version of this preprint was accepted for the journal ESD.

Taxonomies for structuring models for World-Earth system analysis of the Anthropocene: subsystems, their interactions and social-ecological feedback loops

Jonathan F. Donges1,2, Wolfgang Lucht1,3,4, Jobst Heitzig1, Wolfram Barfuss1,5, Sarah E. Cornell2, Steven J. Lade2,6,7, and Maja Schlüter2 Jonathan F. Donges et al.
  • 1Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Telegrafenberg A31, 14473 Potsdam, Germany
  • 2Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University, Kräftriket 2B, 114 19 Stockholm, Sweden
  • 3Department of Geography, Humboldt University, Unter den Linden 6, 10099 Berlin, Germany
  • 4Integrative Research Institute on Transformations of Human-Environment Systems, Humboldt University, Unter den Linden 6, 10099 Berlin, Germany
  • 5Department of Physics, Humboldt University, Newtonstr. 15, 12489 Berlin, Germany
  • 6Fenner School of Environment and Society, The Australian National University, Building 141, Linnaeus way, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, 2601, Australia
  • 7Bolin Centre for Climate Research, Stockholm University, Stockholm, Sweden

Abstract. In the Anthropocene, social processes have become critical to understanding planetary-scale Earth system dynamics. The conceptual foundations of Earth system modelling have externalised social processes in ways that now hinder progress in understanding Earth resilience and informing governance of global environmental change. New approaches to global modelling are needed to address these challenges, but the current modelling landscape is highly diverse and heterogeneous, ranging from purely biophysical Earth System Models, to hybrid macro-economic Integrated Assessments Models, to a plethora of models of socio-cultural dynamics. World-Earth models, currently not yet available, will need to integrate all these elements, so future World-Earth modellers require a structured approach to identify, classify, select, and combine model components. Here, we develop taxonomies for ordering the multitude of societal and biophysical subsystems and their interactions. We suggest three taxa for modelled subsystems: (i) biophysical, where dynamics is usually represented by natural laws of physics, chemistry or ecology (i.e., the usual components of Earth system models), (ii) socio-cultural, dominated by processes of human behaviour, decision making and collective social dynamics (e.g., politics, institutions, social networks), and (iii) socio-metabolic, dealing with the material interactions of social and biophysical subsystems (e.g., human bodies, natural resource and agriculture). We show how higher-order taxonomies for interactions between two or more subsystems can be derived, highlighting the kinds of social-ecological feedback loops where new modelling efforts need to be directed. As an example, we apply the taxonomy to a stylised World-Earth system model of socially transmitted discount rates in a greenhouse gas emissions game to illustrate the effects of social-ecological feedback loops that are usually not considered in current modelling efforts. The proposed taxonomy can contribute to guiding the design and operational development of more comprehensive World-Earth models for understanding Earth resilience and charting sustainability transitions within planetary boundaries and other future trajectories in the Anthropocene.

Jonathan F. Donges et al.

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Jonathan F. Donges et al.

Jonathan F. Donges et al.


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