Skip to main content

The solution to sustainability problems might be found in our history


What can today’s societies learn from the past when it comes to sustainability? According to archaeologist Christian Isendahl, we can learn a lot from studying how cultures in the past responded to climate change, for example. He is the lead editor of a new anthology of works by over 50 international researchers focusing on what lessons we can learn from the really long-term perspective.

The Oxford Handbook of Historical Ecology and Applied Archaeology contains just over 30 chapters by more than 50 authors in fields such as archaeology, history, anthropology and geography. Many of the authors are world-leading researchers in their fields. There is also one chapter by a farmer.

“Yes, there is actually a chapter by a person who runs an organic farm in Tuscany. He uses an Etruscan water management system. A 3,000 year old method where the water is conducted underground,” says Christian Isendahl.

This method of water management in agriculture is just one of many things that we have forgotten in today’s societies.

“There are plenty of examples of agricultural techniques and resource management systems that are no longer used.”

Various aspects of sustainability

The book primarily addresses archaeologists, development researchers and those engaged in research on various aspects of sustainability.

“It’s a means of showing how archaeology belongs to sustainability research. Our area is historical ecology, or rather classical historical research that studies people; what previous generations did and what impact that had,” says Christian Isendahl.

By looking at how something has changed over a long, long period of time, you also get a perspective on our time, he argues. And long-term perspectives means looking backwards – or even forwards – much further than just a few generations. The book’s perspective stretches all the way back to the glacial period.

“The essence is this deep time perspective. Archaeologists think in terms of hundreds or thousands of years, while politicians for example look only at the period of time before the next elections.

Historical ecology

Historical ecology is based on recognition of the fact that mankind is not only capable of impacting the environment but also that all environments all over the world have already been modified by human activity, directly or indirectly.

The book takes up examples of how various cultures reacted to changes in the climate and of sustainable cities in the past.

“What are the reasons why cities turn out to be not sustainable and disappear? Why are social systems such as cities so often resistant to change and why are they not resistant in some instances? How can societies change creatively so that they can respond effectively to various forms of problems or crises?”

One chapter also shows how you can look at quality of life in the past and compare it over time.

“How social equality has changed over a long, long time also gives us a perspective on our time,” says Christian Isendahl.

The Oxford Handbook of Historical Ecology and Applied Archaeology doesn’t just focus on defining what consequences early humans’ lives have had, but also on how understanding these changes can help to inform contemporary practices and development policy.

“There is huge potential in using, and learning from, the history of human resource utilisation in order to construct and test models for future changes!”

Contact details:
Christian Isendahl, Phone: +46(0)709-367 666, e-mail: