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29th Macaulay Lecture - 14th November 2005

Where on Earth Are We Going?

Professor John Schellnhuber, CBE
Tyndall Centre Research Director & Potsdam Institute

Born in 1950 in Ortenburg, Germany, John trained in physics and mathematics while on a scholarship at the University of Regensburg. After his theoretical physics doctorate in 1980, his research took him to a number of countries, including various stints at the University of California. In 1991 John became Founding Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), and since 1993 he has been Director of PIK and Professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of Potsdam. In October 2002 he was appointed as Professor in the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia, where he also holds the office of Tyndall Centre Research Director.

He has published more than 170 articles and 30 books on regional and global environmental analysis, coastal zone research, solid state physics and complex non-linear systems.

John is a holder of the Royal Society Wolfson Research Merit Award, and was recently awarded a CBE by the Queen for his contributions to climate change science and policy advice. In addition to this, he was elected to the US National Academy of Sciences as foreign associate in May 2005.


The history of our planet is essentially a tale of two entities, the geophysical earth, and the life it supports, as well as their interactions. Through a cascade of entwined transitions, major geological changes and information-processing, life has co-evolved over billions of years to finally generate the habitat for Homo sapiens. We are, however, radically and abruptly transforming the Earth to the extent that we now live in an era that is unlike any that has gone before. In this so called "Anthropocene", modes of planetary operation and natural global cycles have become strongly influenced - if not dominated - by the demands of our ever increasing industrialization. Yet this may be only the beginning: geoengineering and terraforming schemes have been proposed for re-designing nature at humanity's will, possibly perverting long-term co-evolution. The lecture will try to tell a short story of the Earth through its past, present and future, emphasizing the danger associated with a rapidly decreasing wisdom-to-power ratio.

Full Lecture as PowerPoint or PDF


Updated: 27 Nov 2019, Content by: JL