Sunday, 10 February 2008

What can we learn from history?

Eco-economist Robert Costanza, of the Gund Institute, U of Vermont
discusses questions posed by Jared Diamond's Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed:

Our world is in crisis. We are facing not one, but a highly interconnected set of problems that threaten the quality and sustainability of our socioecological system. In many ways, this is a unique period in human and earth history, a ‘‘no-analog’’ period. But in other ways this has happened before. Many times. Just not at the global scale of today’s crisis. The history of
human-dominated socio-ecological systems is one of successive crises that were either successfully addressed, leading to sustainability, or not, leading to collapse....

Three key changes enable us to learn very new and different things from the study of history:
1. There is an enormous influx of new paleoenvironmental data being generated from sophisticated analyses of ice cores, tree rings, sediments and other records. This data can now be integrated with the massive and growing body of human historical records to create a more comprehensive picture of how humans have interacted with the rest of nature over multiple time and space scales;
2. our ability to visualize all of this information and share it over the internet has increased by orders of magnitude in recent years, allowing a much larger community of scholars to be involved;
3. our ability to use all this information to understand and model complex dynamic, co-evolutionary, systems of humans embedded in nature is rapidly improving.
...Creating a transdisciplinary synthesis of earth’s history will require a long-term, concerted effort among a broad range of researchers from across the humanities, and the social and natural sciences....

To develop this integrated, transdisciplinary, understanding, a project of the global change research community has been initiated IHOPE Integrated History and future of People On Earth, hosted by the SRC Stockholm Resilience Center. It is co-sponsored by the PAGES Past Global Changes project of the IGBP International Geosphere/Biosphere Programme, and the IHDP International Human Dimensions Programme.

The AIMES Analysis, Integration and Modeling of the Earth System project of the IGBP is the central node for the IHOPE initiative. It is anticipated that IHOPE will soon become a project of the entire ESSP Earth System Science Partnership.

(abridged from Costanza, R. 2007. The need for a transdisciplinary synthesis of history. Ambio 36:521)

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