How can archaeologists improve the prospects for a sustainable world?

The following is an extended column by Archeology Division Contributing Editor E Christian Wells. A shorter version appears in the March 2011 AN. Comments are welcome.

In this editorial, I invite readers to contribute articles to the AD column throughout 2011 that address archaeology’s role in making the world a more sustainable place and helping us understand what is and what is not sustainable.

The question posed in the title of this essay is one considered by Jerry Sabloff in his highly popular book, Archaeology Matters (Left Coast Press, 2008), which outlines some of the ways in which archaeologists are addressing contemporary global problems with historical data from pre-modern civilizations. A similar issue was raised in a recent (2010) issue of The SAA Archaeological Record (10[4]) by Mike Smith, who asks “Just how useful is archaeology for scientists and scholars in other disciplines?” Sabloff and Smith are not alone in their interrogations. Archaeologists are increasingly exploring how their research can be action oriented and integrated into other knowledge seeking enterprises.

My impression from examining some of these contributions over the past few years is that many such efforts can be characterized as various forms of outcome-driven sustainability science, in which the goal is to better understand changes—both adaptive and resilient—in the human trajectory. For archaeologists, this means applying the insights that we uncover from our shared past to engage the large questions of the human condition. And, importantly, this also means finding new and effective ways of communicating how our research is relevant to these global grand challenges.

In his essay, “Four Challenges of Sustainability” (Conservation Biology 16[6]:1457-60, 2002), Oberlin College Professor of Environmental Studies David Orr writes, “the overall challenge of sustainability is to avoid crossing irreversible thresholds that damage the life systems of Earth while creating long-term economic, political, and moral arrangements that secure the wellbeing of present and future generations” (p. 1458). He argues that there are four main tasks before us to improve the prospects for a sustainable world: 1) creating more accurate models and measures to describe the human enterprise relative to the biosphere; 2) developing more effective institutions of governance and a well-informed, democratically engaged citizenry; 3) informing “the discretion of the public” by improving higher education; and 4) transcending divergent problems formed out of the tensions of competing worldviews. It may not seem obvious on the surface, but anthropological archaeology—through both research and teaching—is uniquely situated to make significant contributions to all of these domains.

First, archaeological research that examines long-term records of coupled social and ecological phenomena can provide empirical models to help us understand the nexus of population growth, resource capacity, and the political and economic systems that societies create to manage these dynamics. In his essay, Orr observes, “from the perspective of systems ecology, the efflorescence of humanity in the 20th century is evidence of a natural pulsing. But having exhausted much of the material basis for expansion, like other systems, we are entering a down cycle…before another upward pulse” (p. 1458). Recent work, such as that documented in The Archaeology of Environmental Change (University of Arizona Press, 2009), exemplifies the kinds of contributions archaeologists can make toward understanding the cycling of human ecosystems.

Second, archaeologists studying how cooperation and conflict are materialized in the designed and built environments can address the characteristics of resilient cities. Resilience, Orr writes, “means dispersed, not concentrated, assets, control, and capacity” (p. 1459). Archaeological work carried out over the past few decades in the Mediterranean, Southeast and Southwest Asia, Mesoamerica, and Andean South America show how and to what extent the governmental institutions of ancient urban populations were flexible and the degree to which they were self-equipped to anticipate and manage unintended consequences.

Third, archaeologists working in higher education can (and should) take a more prominent role in shaping the academic curriculum and providing intellectual leadership to reinforce holistic perspectives on humanity so that students can better appreciate where they stand relative to larger cycles and trends. Orr follows others in suggesting a curriculum “organized around the study of relationships between energy, environment, and economics and how these apply across various scales of knowledge” (p. 1459). In the cases with which I am familiar, archaeologists and archaeological perspectives have been influential in the creation of Arizona State University’s School of Sustainability and the University of South Florida’s School of Global Sustainability. Given recent global dialogues on carbon neutrality, climate change, national security, and energy independence, it may be a strategic time in which to leverage archaeology’s strengths in diachronic perspectives, materialism, and holism to influence the nature of higher education and simultaneously secure our place within it.

Fourth, archaeologists engaged in the broad field of heritage studies can help address human problems that are not solvable by “rational” or technological means. Orr writes that a graceful transition to sustainability “will require learning how to recognize and resolve divergent problems” (p. 1459), including cultural conflicts fueled by fundamentalism that threaten global citizenship. A wide range of recent archaeological work examining cultural heritage and human rights, identity and representation, and the preservation and management of visual and material expressions of past events and lifeways convincingly demonstrates the powerful role that archaeology has in helping humanity realize and appreciate the value of human biological and cultural diversity.

There is a growing awareness of archaeology’s potential not just to describe the world around us, but to change it. I challenge the members of the Archeology Division to consider your own answers to the question posed in the title of this article, how can archaeologists improve the prospects for a sustainable world? Further thoughts are encouraged in the form of article length or shorter submissions to this column, including essays, summaries, critiques, and other scholarly forms of communication. “Nothing in science has any value to society if it is not communicated, and scientists are beginning to learn their social obligations” (Anne Roe, The Making of a Scientist; Dodd, Mean, and Co.; 1953, p. 17). Archaeologists are not exempt.

To learn more about the Archeology Division, visit our website. Send news, notices, and comments to: Christian Wells,

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