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 socio-ecological 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. What can we learn from these past smaller scale crises that can help us better understand and respond to the global current one?
The goal of studying history has always been to understand the past in order to understand and deal with the present and the future. So what has changed? Three key changes enable us to learn very new and different things from the study of history:
- An enormous influx of new data about the past environment is 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.
- Our ability to visualize all of this information and share it over the internet has increased tremendously in recent years, allowing a much larger community of scholars to be involved.
- Our ability to use all this information to understand and model complex dynamic, co-evolutionary systems of humans embedded in nature is rapidly improving.
These changes present enormous opportunities and challenges. There are technical challenges concerning how to represent and utilize data of highly variable type, quality, and spatial and temporal coverage; and how to build and test truly integrated models of humans embedded in ecological systems. But perhaps even larger challenges have to do with the cultural and sociological difficulties of transcending disciplinary boundaries. Our working group hopes to transcend these disciplinary boundaries by providing shared goals and a common project to focus the activity.
A central hypothesis of this Working Group is that the probability of societal decline or collapse increases with loss of resilience in social-ecological systems. The Working Group will assemble integrated environmental and human historical data at the global scale for comparative analysis, and for a few key case study areas for dynamic analysis in order to help build this understanding. The group will develop criteria for integrating and analyzing disparate data across scales and disciplines. It will develop better ways to integrate, visualize, and model data from the broad range of relevant sources (i.e. from historical narratives to ice cores) and with a broad range of spatial and temporal resolution and quality. In assembling the integrated database the Working Group will develop measures of environmental predictability and system resilience. They can then test the ability of these measures to explain sustainability or breakdown of social structures, relative to alternative hypotheses. This improved understanding of the past will help create a better, more sustainable, and desirable future.