Past Perspectives: How can premodern environmental research be made useful in the climate emergency?

Impact Workshop, Monday May 27, 2024
Funded by the Royal Society of Edinburgh

The human species has forever been adapting to dynamic environmental conditions. The premodern world provides a laboratory of various experiments in human-environment interactions: a rich history of successes and failures, acute and chronic pressures, false-starts and path dependencies, resilience and vulnerabilities—all operating on a global scale over the longue durée. How should we collate, compare, and engage critically with this past record in order to drive change in the modern climate crisis?

Part I: Showcasing Premodern Environmental Studies

  1. How did premodern societies react to experiences of environmental change?
  2. How do societies react to ecological shocks, both acute and chronic?
  3. How/why have societies changed in response to ecological pressures throughout History?
  4. In what ways do a society’s socio-economic inequalities intersect with environmental vulnerabilities?
  5. What factors create resiliency and/or vulnerabilities in societies?

Part II: Brainstorming Applications of Premodern Environmental Studies

  1. What are the strengths and limitations of the communication of climate change science to popular audiences?
  2. What is the value and application of comparative case studies in sustainability education and policy making?
  3. How can narratives from the premodern world supplement current practice and strategy?
  4. How do historical narratives influence identity and drive behaviour/cultural change?
  5. How can representations of premodern human-environment relations in literature and art act as a resource for creative responses to current crises?


Keynote presentations will be hybrid, while all other events will be in person only (in the Physics Building at the University of St Andrews). Registration to attend in person can be directed to [email protected]. Subscribe to the CAES mailing list to receive the Teams link for remote attendance.

9:15-9:35 – Welcome and Presentation 1

Andrea Brock (St Andrews Classics): Flood Risk and Response in the City of Rome

9:35-9:55 – Presentation 2

Liz Macwhirter (Glasgow): Theopoetics: Giving voice to Julian of Norwich and trauma spirituality in the climate crisis

9:55-10:15 – Presentation 3

Justine Firnhaber-Baker (St Andrews History): Into the Woods: Negotiating Landscape and Power in Post-Plague France

10:15-10:35 – Presentation 4

Althea Davies (St Andrews Geography & Sustainable Development): Where’s the climate story? Scottish woodlands past and future

10:35-11:00 – Coffee break

11:00-11:20 – Presentation 5

Rowan Jackson (Edinburgh): Information, Perception and Learning: Intergenerational adaptation to environmental change in Medieval Greenland

11:20-11:40 – Presentation 6

Lilah Grace Canevaro (Edinburgh): The Environment and the Subaltern: focusing on the margins in Greek literature

11:40-12:00 – Presentation 7

Rhyne King (St Andrews Classics): Sustainable Water Management: Qanats in the Ancient Persian Empire

12:00-1:00 – Keynote 1

Christopher Schliephake (Augsburg): ‘Ecological wisdom’, cultural sustainability and the reception of ancient texts (the example of Homer’s Odyssey)

1:00-2:00 – Lunch Break

2:00-2:45 – Discussion Panel 1

Sian Lewis (St Andrews Classics), James Palmer (St Andrews History), and Richard Oram (Stirling) with responses to the morning presentations, considering opportunities for capitalizing on popular fascination with the ancient/premodern world

2:45-3:15 – Coffee Break

3:15-4:00 – Discussion Panel 2

James Rae (St Andrews Earth & Environmental Science), Robert Wilson (St Andrews Earth & Environmental Science), and Nicki Whitehouse (Glasgow) on the strengths and limits of the popular reception of climate change science

4:00-5:00 – Keynote 2

Rebecca Hardin (Michigan): Creating, curating and comparing case studies of the premodern to inform the present

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