The world is changing dramatically: as military conflicts and bitter trade wars rage, companies are abandoning a global mindset in an effort to strip production chains back to the bare minimum. At the same time, new inequalities are emerging, not only in the cost of living, but also in terms of the impacts of climate change and biodiversity loss, and in resilience to zoonoses and modern diseases.
The end of globalisation?
The situation is daunting: how can we address all these challenges at the same time? To make matters worse, this very question has polarised societies. How do we get out of this multi-crisis? The legislation just passed by the German Bundestag concerning renewable energy–based heating systems is a good example because it brings together many factors of the multi-crisis that are having a direct impact on individual lives. The profound changes in access to raw materials as a result of the Russian war of aggression and the technological shift towards decarbonisation – which German society has been putting off for years – will have a direct impact on the heating systems that people choose to use in their homes or rented flats. It is quite understandable that this multi-crisis is a source of conflict for individuals specifically and society at large; accordingly, politicians must take up the task of explaining such complex interrelationships. It is in the very nature of the multi-crisis that it cannot be made to disappear by simply choosing between two options. On the contrary, in the long term, policy-making is likely to become increasingly complex. This is clearly causing massive social stress – in this country and in all parts of the world. It is important to understand that we are not the only ones facing this multi-crisis.
Since the 1990s, the globalisation narrative has accustomed us to the idea that everything in the world is somehow connected to everything else. Its simple promises of a peaceful world order, an enormous increase in production, and, therefore, prosperity for all through better networking have proved to be an illusion. This narrative has become less and less convincing, not least since the coronavirus pandemic and Russia’s war against Ukraine. The question is increasingly being asked whether the multiple crises of the present make it necessary to turn away from global, transregional interdependencies, or whether this change is simply a consequence of such crises.
New Global Dynamics: Contradictory, overlapping, and decentralised
The question of the character of the multi-crisis and the fate of globalisation has occupied a committed team of researchers from Leipzig and Halle since 2016, who have joined forces in the Forum for the Study of the Global Condition. The team argues that we need to understand global processes in a completely new way. Behind the multi-crisis, the consortium contends from preliminary work, there are New Global Dynamics at play that do not work in a linear fashion and from one centre, but in contradictory, overlapping, and decentralised ways. They are shaping and transforming our planet, which will not revert to a world of closed – national and regional – units, nor will it take on a homogeneous order. At the same time, new social movements are emerging that are concerned about the fate of the planet and all its people, committed to bringing to the fore, amidst all the conflicts of these New Global Dynamics, the common interest in preventing global warming, eradicating hunger and disease, and ensuring equitable participation for all.
Professor Matthias Middell, the spokesperson of the consortium, explains: “The study of these New Global Dynamics is particularly challenging because, on the one hand, it requires interdisciplinary empirical studies in fields that have traditionally been kept separate, such as the natural and social sciences, and because, on the other hand, it requires us to observe, record and integrate new theories and methods in these different fields.” No research centre, no matter how large, can study the dynamics in their entirety. Rather, what is needed is a broad research network of centres of globalisation research – of the kind that is gradually being established.
One of the hubs of this network is in Central Germany, where the Universities of Halle and Leipzig have joined forces with three Max Planck Institutes, three Leibniz Institutes, and the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research.
Global dynamics of resource use
In recent years, the network has made a conscious effort to strengthen itself by recruiting young scholars who represent new approaches. Professor Daniela Russ is one of them. She has been Junior Professor of Global Dynamics of Resource Use and Distribution at the Global and European Studies Institute (GESI) at Leipzig University since October 2022. Her “research on resources in the social and cultural sciences” traces a broad arc through the history of scientific and technical knowledge – from energy to the social contexts in which the use of resources, as diverse as fossil fuels and renewable energies, is always embedded.
This history is also marked by a profound break: for a long time, industrialisation and the expansion of production were still understood within the framework of a natural economy – as the ingenious realisation of a productivity inherent in nature. Daniela Russ says: “Since the 1970s at the latest, it has been clear that the way in which society reproduces itself materially is endangering natural living conditions, not just individually, but systematically: the production of our living conditions is undermining our living conditions.” For a long time, modernity’s master narrative of prosperity through growth worked and seemed to fit with experience, but it was also heavily propagated. “That is no longer plausible today,” says Russ – partly because there has been hardly any growth for decades, at least in Europe, and partly because the connection is not so conclusive: “You can always become more productive, but that doesn’t make people happier or freer. The connection is not that simple: one presupposes the other, but it does not coincide with it.”
She is therefore particularly interested in the ruptures and continuities that can be observed in both the fossil and renewable energy economies, as well as in the material, historical, and social conditions that are necessary for their functioning.
Current debates about the transition to “green capitalism”, she says, have interesting parallels with the 19th and early 20th centuries, which she studied in her doctoral thesis. At the time, widespread electrification was accompanied by the hope of some engineers and social reformers that the availability of electricity from different sources, such as hydroelectric and thermal power stations, and the possibility of distributing it through networks would lead to a fairer and more ecologically rational society.
This is why Russ remains sceptical about the expectation that renewable energy sources will go hand in hand with a completely different way of doing business: “The volatility of renewable energies certainly poses a challenge to capitalist exploitation. But it does not follow automatically that these energy sources will produce a post-capitalist or decentralised society.” Although energy is often seen as a social force in its own right, we should beware of “energy determinism”. As Russ puts simply: “When people use energy and develop new technologies, it is always in the context of existing social relationships.”
Humans and nature: A new historiography
She explains that all of these technologies are, of course, based on natural conditions: the steam engine, for example, relies on the elasticity of steam, and photovoltaics on the photoelectric effect. So technologies are never entirely social; they make use of material properties that society itself does not produce. However, the fact that some sunlight hits the earth everywhere does not imply a particular social form of organisation of energy production.
The globalisation of the energy industry clearly demonstrates the diversity of uses. It is possible to reconstruct very well how machines and technologies spread around the world and, despite their uniformity of operation, are always understood differently, converted differently, and have a different impact on societies. But one aspect is always paramount: all these processes of interdependence do not take place in a “natural” way. There is no natural superiority of a technology; it is always people who create and drive them. Wherever these technologies arrive, there is someone who adopts, changes, or spreads them under new auspices.
This role has often been played by experts who see themselves as neutral specialists, but whose work has profound social and economic consequences. For example, the territorial and industrial expansion of the Russian Empire and the early Soviet Union was also influenced by the idea that humans could completely control the biosphere. The oceans, the sun’s rays, the chemical composition of the atmosphere – the study of all these factors, it was believed, would sooner or later enable people to make uninhabitable parts of the Earth habitable, to shape the world according to their own standards.
A way of thinking that is still widespread, and particularly damaging, today – which is extremely important for understanding the development of the New Global Dynamics perspective – is the prevailing assumption at the heart of the current discourse that nature is nothing more than a passive substrate at the mercy of our actions. From such a restricted way of thinking, the research initiative aims to develop a new historiography that takes such diagnoses of the present as the starting point of its analysis. Humans and nature do not behave unilaterally and asymmetrically towards each other, as is often implied: in addition to human exploitation of natural resources, human thought and action are also subject to natural conditions.
Coal phase-out and resource conflicts: A question of scale
While Daniela Russ combines a look into the engine room of the economy with the global historical approach that has long been pursued in Leipzig, Professor Jonathan Everts, Professor of Human Geography at the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg and Executive Director of the Halle Centre for Interdisciplinary Regional Studies (ZIRS), takes a different approach: “Some seemingly global phenomena are barely noticeable in some regions, while in others they pose an existential threat. Conversely, there are challenges that are very important to us locally but don’t show up at all on a global scale.” It is this competition between global and local interests that fascinates Jonathan Everts and which he sees at work in many current social conflicts.
The scale of these resource conflicts is constantly changing. Over the past two centuries, many villages have had to make way for lignite excavators. Local well-being has been sacrificed for the sake of regional energy security and prosperity. But in the face of climate change, this dimension is now becoming redundant. Everts interprets the efforts to phase out coal as follows: “For the sake of the common good, regional economic interests must take a back seat.” At the same time, local and global protest initiatives – such as the recent one in Lützerath, Germany – inspire each other and try to push back regional interests. And this can be remarkably successful, as the agreed nationwide phase-out of coal shows: an abundant raw material will no longer be used in Germany in the future. The reason? Climate protection. We are nearing the end of an epochal chapter in the history of energy and industry.
Lignite has shaped economies, landscapes, and livelihoods, all of which are now in the midst of profound change. Today, huge investments are being made to prepare the major lignite mining areas, including the Central German region around Leipzig and Halle, for a post-fossil future – just like many other regions around the world. This is just one example, right on our doorstep, of how solving the energy crisis requires not only technological innovation, but also a more complex understanding of the socio-environmental dynamics of energy production and distribution.
The next generation of research infrastructure
Science has not been a silent witness to these changes, but rather, especially in Leipzig and Halle, a participant and co-creator of this transformation. This explains why internationally recognised research on globalisation and transformation, coupled with strong area studies, has emerged as a profile focus at both sites. It has resulted in a number of successful collaborative projects on which the consortium can now build. But the strategic goal is more than just continuing successful research. Instead, it is about creating a new kind of education that will equip the coming generation to deal with the multi-crisis and prevent scholars from remaining in the containers of individual disciplines.
To this end, in 2021 the German Science and Humanities Council (Wissenschaftsrat) approved the construction of a new research building at a cost of 34 million euros, on the basis of the research programme and in view of the excellent academic achievements and future prospects of globalisation research. Scheduled for completion in 2026, the Global Hub is currently under construction at the centrally located Wilhelm-Leuschner-Platz in Leipzig. By 2028, the Future Center for German Unity and European Transformation will be established in Halle, funded by the German government to the tune of 200 million euros, and will integrate a research department with around 20 academic staff to study transformation processes and experiences. Jonathan Everts and his ZIRS team played a leading role in the successful application.
The next step in the integration of the two sites is a proposed School for New Global Dynamics, which will emphasise international master’s and doctoral programmes and attract talent from around the world. If all goes to plan, it will begin its work in the next two years and hopefully produce its first graduates by the end of the decade – graduates who are no longer clueless in the face of the multi-crisis, but who have learned enough about New Global Dynamics to face it head on.
- Daniela Russ Junior Professor of Global Dynamics of Resource Use and Distribution at the Global and European Studies Institute at Leipzig University since 2022. Daniela Russ’s academic background is in sociology and political science. She made a brief foray into physics while studying for her master’s degree. After graduating, her academic career took her to Bonn and Bielefeld, to fellowships at the German Historical Institute in Moscow and Columbia University in New York, and finally to the University of Toronto. She was awarded her doctorate with a thesis on “Working Nature: Steam, Power, and the Failure of the Energy Economy”.
- Jonathan Everts has been Professor of Human Geography at the Institute of Geosciences and Geography at the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg since 2018. He is also Executive Director of the Centre for Interdisciplinary Regional Studies (ZIRS) and Director of the Institute for Structural Change and Sustainability (HALIS). His academic career has taken him to the Universities of Freiburg, Bonn, and Bayreuth, and to the University of Sheffield as an ESRC Postdoctoral Fellow. Since his doctorate, he has been working on theories of social practices and applying them in various research areas, such as geographies of consumption, migration studies, and human-environmental relations.