Past Answers to Current Concerns

Full Title

Past answers to current concerns: Historical cases of navigating socio-environmental stress


How did environmental and climatic changes, whether sudden high-impact events or more subtle gradual changes, impact human responses in the past? How did societal perceptions of such changes affect behavioral patterns and explanatory rationalities in premodernity? Can a better historical understanding of these relationships inform our response to contemporary problems of similar nature and magnitude, such as adapting to climate change? Our Pursuit uses two rich historical case studies from the premodern Mediterranean and North Atlantic worlds to interrogate the linkages between different types of S-E interaction over decadal and centennial scales. We consider the possibility of socio-environmental asymmetries in which different degrees of socio-political complexity and population density precondition the potentials for inherent resilience under climate stress. Thus, whereas aridity may not necessarily indicate negative societal change, for example, and beneficial climate conditions may be favorable in the relative short term, they may at the same time support ultimately unsustainable economic pathways in the long term. While the environment could be a major factor in S-E systems, it is never sufficient to explain change by itself, and climate impacts cannot be determined by climate conditions alone. By synthesizing historical, archaeological, and natural science-derived data our Pursuit illuminates these interactions and disentangles a range of causal relationships that generated the historical outcomes we can see in our data, identifying in the process factors that contribute to resilience and those which introduce vulnerabilities. By analyzing these societies as complex adaptive systems, we hope to contribute to contemporary thinking about societal-environmental interactions in policy and planning. Our research group brings together a diverse and interdisciplinary team of scholars (historians, archaeologists, ecologists, palaeoscientists and risk analysts, among others) from North America, Western and Eastern Europe, and the Middle East to establish a common methodologically innovative framework that may be applied to both the study of the past, as well as to broader scholarly and public science discourse.

Project Type
Team Synthesis Project
Principal Investigators
John Haldon, Princeton University
Timothy Newfield, Georgetown University
Adam Izdebski, Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History
Jette Arneborg, National Museum of Denmark
Tom McGovern, Hunter College (CUNY)
Inga Labuhn, Universityof Bremen
Georgina Endfield, University of Liverpool
Luke Kemp, University of Cambridge
Chryssa Bourbou, Hellenic Ministry of Culture
Benjamin Trump, U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC)
Kathleen Morrison, University of Pennsylvania

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