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European Observatory of the New Human Condition

The Andrew W. Mellon funded European Observatory of the New Human Condition project aims to explore human agency in relation to global climate and environmental change. We aim to understand why humans in the face of non-imminent, but incipient dangers choose to act as we do, and how we may be able to change our behaviors and direction. Observatory research questions are aimed at the individual, institutional, and social levels: how do individuals respond to calls for change in behavior; how can social innovation help redress institutionally ingrained patterns; and how do societies develop resilient responses to threats of crisis and collapse?

A collaborative venture of the Australian, European, and North American Observatories of the CHCI Humanities for the Environment (HfE) Mellon Grant Project




What we will do

The Observatory seeks new insights into the human condition as it relates to global climate change, to explore its root problems and possible solutions. The Observatory will bring together academics, senior executives and other stakeholders for dialogue, conceptualization and action on global climate change issues. The research undertaken in our forums and workshops will take us towards a broader understanding of

  • Perceptions of resources, technology, and risk in an age of scarcity and abundance.
  • Conceptualizations of time and differential discounting of future outcomes.
  • Strategies for arriving at “rational” decisions.
  • Pro-social behaviour in common-property resource dilemmas.


The term "the human condition" was coined by the political philosopher Hannah Arendt in 1958, and was deeply influenced by her experience of the Second World War and the Nuclear Age. Her concern was with how humans deal with imminent danger. Our current age is concerned with long-term environmental degradation and resource imbalances. The challenges of our "new human condition" concern developing a long-term awareness of, and responsibility to our vulnerable earth, for future generations.

In this age of global change, societies are faced with the Prisoner's Dilemma: We would all benefit from collaborating towards the common good, but in an open system of a free market, weak global politics, cultural distrust, and imperfect communication, any defector is likely to get away with cheating. The only solution to overcome the Prisoner’s Dilemma is mutual trust, yet polities are rarely able to make this choice. The "new human condition" is therefore bounded by ‘wicked problems’ – problems, which by their nature defy complete solution. When we address one or more sides of an issue other aspects will be aggravated, new aspects that we did not foresee turn up, and we may have results that nobody wants.

In the long run, societies have proven, and in the future are likely to prove resilient and to adapt to change. The question, therefore, is not if but when and how successfully we may respond to global challenges, and indeed if we may learn from the past challenges of resource scarcity and long-term environmental degradation.

There are two examples which we may look to. Firstly, the Stern Review of the Economics of Climate Change noted that humanity has the technical ability to mitigate climate change. However, seven years later, the world seems more divided and less intent to deal with issues of the global environment.

But not all is bad, for secondly, positive improvements in the health of major commercial fish species is the fruit borne of better management and consumer preference for sustainably sourced food.

Both examples show that global change is at heart about human perception and behavior. The examples indicate as well, that solutions will come only by a concerted effort at the individual, institutional and societal levels of the human condition.


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Last updated 8 March 2016 (Email).