This text will appear in an amended version as part of a larger publication and is to be published here in advance as a separate edition and with further references.

Sustainability in the Anthropocene

The term “Anthropocene” is used[1] in popular science to describe the geological epoch, starting with the Industrial Revolution, in which man himself had a decisive influence on the state, dynamics and future of the Earth. The term was coined in public by Crutzen in 2002, but[2] the Anthropocene is not an officially recognised geological age. Rather, the term visualises an epoch in which man has an ever-increasing influence on the ecosystem.[3] The starting point and cause of the new age is said to be the industrial revolution[4] with its rapidly increasing emissions of greenhouse gases, the constant depletion of non-renewable resources, the ever faster growing human population and the resulting rise in temperature (greenhouse effect). Since the (first) industrial revolution, the average temperature in the near-earth atmosphere has risen disproportionately. The main drivers for the massive increase in greenhouse gases and the resulting increase in the retention capacity (reflection) of infrared heat rays in the troposphere are the use of fossil fuels and the associated emission of pollutants, the ongoing deforestation and intensive agriculture and livestock farming.[5] Crutzen described this connection as follows: For the past three centuries, the effects of humans on the global environment have escalated. Because of these anthropogenic emissions of carbon diocide, global climat may depoart significantly from natural behaviour for many millennia to come. It seems appropriate to assign the term Anthropocene to the present […]. The Anthroposcene could be said to have started in the latter part of the eighteenth century, when analyses of air trapped in polar ice showed the beginnen of growing global concentrations of carbon dioxide and methan. This date also happens to coincide with Jams Watt’s design of the steam engine in 1784.[6]

Sustainability in management is thus a dictate of reason and by no means new. In his 1713 work Sylvicultura oeconomia,[7] Carlowitz[8] already stated with reference to the timber industry that forests must be used sensibly and that therefore only as much wood should be felled as can be reforested.[9] Ironically, even back then it was all about securing industrial energy supplies. If today it is the lignite that is mined in Germany for the purpose of generating electricity, in the past it was the wood that was necessarily used to expand the mines, mine the ore and operate the smelting furnaces. Carlowitz’s considerations are thus less the expression of an altruistic concern for nature than a means to an end of preventing an energy and raw material crisis in the ore industry of the time.[10] Four proposals were worked out to prevent the looming supply crisis: a) increasing efficiency by choosing fast-growing tree species, b) substituting wood with peat as an energy source, c) generally reducing wood consumption (sufficiency) by using it more sparingly, and last but not least d) the general sustainability in the use of forest reserves.[11] Sustainability is thus (only) one of the possible answers to the question of how to solve an imminent shortage of resources in order to preserve our livelihood.

Sustainability in finance now covers all forms of financial services and financial products where financial intermediaries implement sustainability criteria in their business or investment decisions. The aim is thus to achieve sustainable benefits for all stakeholders. Sustainability in the financial sector is thus the contribution of the financial markets to the transformation of social, environmental and economic factors for the benefit of the earth and mankind. The issue of sustainability was first addressed on a broad scale at the first UN World Environment Conference in Stockholm in 1972. Other important cornerstones were the UN Environment Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and the third UN Climate Conference in Kyoto in 1997. With regard to the climate problem, the Paris Convention of 2015 is particularly noteworthy. This is a binding agreement between the parties involved. They committed themselves to the common goal of keeping global warming significantly below 2° C compared to pre-industrial times and to generally reducing their emissions. Furthermore, the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are fundamental. The SDGs are political objectives of the United Nations (UN), which are intended to ensure sustainable development worldwide on an economic, social and ecological level.

Acting sustainably means taking responsibility for the future by changing behaviour in the present for the benefit and securing the basis of life for future generations. This not only applies to the financial system. Man does not only appear in the Holocene, as the protagonist Geiser mistakenly ponders in the eponymous story by Frisch[12] from 1972, but it is up to us to ensure that man does not disappear in the Holocene.[13]


[1] Cf. Kersten 2014, p. 15-20; Manemann 2014, p. 15-34; Willmroth 2017; Sloterdijk 2017; Töpfer 2013, p. 32-34; Jacquet 2017.

[2] See Crutzen 2002; Töpfer 2013, pp. 34-35.

[3] Cf. Piketty 2016, pp. 101-110.

[4] In addition to the (first) industrial revolution, which made mechanised production possible by means of water and steam power, the period around 1920 is today known as the second industrial revolution, in which the division of labour and mass production took hold, the third industrial revolution around 1970 through the development in electronics and information technology towards further (stored-program) automation in production, and currently the fourth industrial revolution, in which real objects and virtual processes are linked with one another (use of so-called cyberphysical systems such as IoT or DLT), see Feldges 2016; Skilton/Hovsepian 2017, pp. 3-28; Schwab 2016, pp. 16-27.

[5] See Titz 2019; Schmitt 2019; on the dangers and limits of growth see Meadows et al. 1972; Meadows et al. 1993; Diamond 2003, pp. 454-461; Randers 2013.

[6] Crutzen 2002. t. d. d. V: Over the last three centuries, the impact of humans on the global environment has increased. Due to these anthropogenic emissions of carbon dioxide, the global climate may deviate significantly from natural behaviour for many millennia. It seems [therefore] appropriate to use the term Anthropocene in the present […]. One could say that the Anthropocene began in the second half of the eighteenth century, when analyses of the air trapped in the polar ice showed the beginning of increasing global concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane. This date also coincides with the invention of Watt’s steam engine in 1784.

[7] Carlowitz 1713; Thomasius 2013.

[8] Cf. Berndix 2013.

[9] See Carlowitz 1713, pp. 88-89 and 105-106; Hauff 2014, pp. 2-5.

[10] See Schmidt 2002, pp. 304-342.

[11] See Huss/Gadow 2012, pp. 21-28 and 47-48; Töpfer 2013, pp. 31-32; Köpf 2013; Grober 1999.

[12] Cf. Frisch and Mayer 1998, p. 271, rather the origin of modern man (homo sapiens) is attributed to the Late Pleistocene (ice age).

[13] See also the problem areas in the 21st century in Rogall 2010, p. 58.

References to the topic

Carlowitz von, Hans Carl (1713): Sylvicultura Oeconomica. Hauswirthliche Nachricht und Naturmäßige Anweisung zur Wilden Baum-Zucht. Leipzig. Download in German language (original version) as digital version.

Crutzen, Paul J. (2002): Geology of mankind. In: Nature (415), p. 23. download in English language (original version) as PDF.

Frisch, Max; Mayer, Hans (1998): Max Frisch. Collected works in chronological order. 7 volumes. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag (7).

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