Environment and Society in the Ancient World

Dimitri Nakassis pointed me in the direction of the most recent issue of History Compass which features a series of article the environment and society in the Ancient World. These article are best read as short essays on the state of the field with distinctive takes on the scholarly conversation rather than groundbreaking works of original scholarship. Considering both the immense outpouring of recent work on the historical (and modern) environments and challenging body of technical tools and discussions necessary to understand this scholarship, this issue was a good idea and a nice place to start for anyone interested in the “environmental turn.”

The two essays that caught my eye were Catherine Kearns article titled “Mediterranean archaeology and environmental history in the spotlight of the Anthropocene.” The article offers a nice review of recent work on the Anthopocene, the long term history of Mediterranean environments, and, then, a case study  from Cyprus where Kearns has done important work using the survey data produced from the Vasilikos and Maroni valleys on Cyprus. She argues that environmental changes contributed to the reuse of certain features like check damns in the upper reaches of these river valleys between 800 and 300 BC. These dates coincide with a period during which carbon stable isotope analysis revealed an increase in water on the island. These sites also provided access to copper deposits which represented an important source of wealth for the island. At the same time, the increased availability of water during this same period, contributed to increased agricultural productivity on the island to support copper mining and the emergence of the (new?) Iron Age polities that would come to dominate Cypriot society until the Hellenistic period.

Michael Decker’s two-part article on the environment in Late Antiquity offers a useful contribution to understanding the role that climate change and the environment played in the Late Roman world. Late Antiquity, of course, is full of paradoxes. On the one hand, it would appear that the Late Antique world experienced persistent and perhaps even increased economic activity, trade, and prosperity from the 5th to the 8th century. On the other hand, this period also witnesses significant political instability and relatively rapid religious and social change over the Mediterranean basin. As Decker notes, the alarming character of the political collapse in Late Antiquity often supported colonialist readings of the pressures exerted on the empire’s margins. In this reading, for example, the rise of Islam, for example, represented a political and religious response to the increased aridity of the Near East, the economic decline of the Roman core related to the deforestation of North Africa, and the failure of the Roman state in the peripheral provinces of the West correlated to cooler and dryer temperatures. Decker demonstrates how many of these views, at least for the East, contributed to and fed upon Orientalist assumptions regarding the character of nomadic groups living around the periphery of the Roman Empire.

The second part of his article considers new data that is being brought to bear on climate change at the end of the ancient world. While Decker stops short of arguing how this data will go beyond correcting the environmentally deterministic views of the end of antiquity in the past and provide new ways of thinking about how longterm trends in climate change changed the ancient world. But, he makes clear that there is significant promise in the analysis of finer-grained data.

These articles are a useful introduction to the growing impact and future potential of climate science and environmental studies in the ancient world. As with so much of this work at present, it is more promising than compelling, but it clearly marks a significant path forward for future research. 

#IrmaSyllabus, #HarveySyllabus, #HurricaneSyllabus

As I watched Hurricanes Harvey and Irma surge through the Gulf of Mexico, I got to thinking about the environmental, historical, political, and academic context for these “megastorms.” We can easily add Sandy, Katrina, Rita, Irene, Andrew, Matthew and various other “natural” catastrophes to this list. This year, in particular, we can expand our view of disasters to include flooding in Southeast Asia which have killed over a thousand people and displaced a million and the fires in Montana that have caused millions of dollars in damage and covered the western U.S. in smoke.

Among the more intriguing developments in recent years has been to put together syllabi that allow the public to explore the complexity of recent events. These syllabi are often generated quickly and produced by collectives of scholars and public intellectuals and have accompanying hashtags. The best known of these being the #StandingRockSyllabus and the #CharlottesvilleSyllabus.

I rarely do this on the blog, but I am wondering what a #HurricaneSyllabus would look like?

My interests are historical rather than climatological or even strictly environmental, and, as a result, I’m interested in the historical circumstances that shaped the impact of these events and their local and global contexts. My instinct would be to divide the syllabus into five weeks:

Week 1: The environmental context for Harvey and Irma.
B. Fields, J. Thomas, and J. Wagner, “Living with Water in the Era of Climate Change: Lessons from the Lafitte Greenway in Post-Katrina New Orleans,Journal of Planning Education and Research 37.3 (2017), 309-321.

Kevin Fox Gotham and Joshua A. Lewis, “Green Tourism and the Ambiguities of Sustainability Discourse: The Case of New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward,” International Journal of Social Ecology and Sustainable 6.2 (2015).

R. J. Niven and D.K. Bardsley, “Planned retreat as a management response to coastal risk: a case study from the Fleurieu Peninsula, South Australia,” Regional Environmental Change 13.1 (2013), 193-209.

R.A. Pilke, The Rightful Place of Science: Disasters and Climate Change. Tempe 2014.

Week 2: The geographic context for storms: settlement, economics, race, and history.
Check out some of the material tweeted by Prof. Andrea Roberts at Texas A&M with the hashtag #HarveySyllabus.

Federick C. Cuny, Disasters and Development. New York 1983

Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World. London 2017.

Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Chose to Fail or Succeed. New York 2014. 

Daniel A. Farber, James Ming Chen, Robert R.M. Verchick and Lisa Grow Sun, Disaster Law and Policy. 3rd Ed. New York 2015.

Lafcadio Hearn, Chita: A Memory of Last Island. 1889

Week 3: The storm timeline: preparation and first responses.

Week 4: Rebuilding
D. Haeselin, Haunted by Waters: The Future of Memory and the Red River Flood of 1997. Grand Forks 2017.  

Anthony Loewenstein, Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing Out of Catastrophe. New York 2017. 

Week 5: History and Archaeology of the Storms
M. Bagwell, “After the Storm, Destruction and Reconstruction: The Potential for an Archaeology of Hurricane KatrinaArchaeologies 5 (2009), 280-292. 

M. Bloom, Codex (forthcoming, but preview available here).

S. Lee Dawdy, Patina: A Profane Archaeology. Chicago 2016. 

Hurricane Digital Memory Bank.  

Timothy H. Ives, Kevin A. McBride & Joseph N. Waller, “Surveying Coastal Archaeological Sites Damaged by Hurricane Sandy in Rhode Island, USAThe Journal of Island and Coastal Archaeology (2017), 1-23.

Obviously my syllabus has some massive gaps, but please help me flesh this out in the comments section below or with the Twitter hashtag #HurricaneSyllabus.