Hervé Reculeau, Assistant Professor in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, answered a few questions about "Coping with Changing Climates" a collaborative project exploring climate change and its effect on human societies. "Coping with Changing Climates" was recently awarded a grant through the Humanities Without Walls Consortium which is funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
1. Has climate change always been a topic of interest or is this a new field of study for scholars?
Climate change and how it affects human societies, has been a topic of interest for as far back as we can trace intellectual traditions. But, unlike our more modern notions of climate change, climate was seen as something static, found in specific locations on earth. Research regarding climate change didn't really pick up steam until about the 1980's. This was mainly due to a drastic influx of data from rapidly advancing technologies, and the open acknowledgement of contemporary climate change itself. Since then, there has been an ongoing discussion concerning humanity's progressively prominent role in major environmental and climatic changes from practices of production and consumption, like the burning of fossil fuels or nuclear tests.
2. Why is the study of climate change in the ancient world relevant to today?
It is increasingly relevant today because, in many respects, current scholarship on these past events has been framed by the issues that our societies are facing today. There is an urgent need for scholars studying past societies to counter the over-simplistic discourse linking abrupt climate changes to ancient societal 'collapses'. These instances are more than mere lessons from the past, and it is important to acknowledge there is a complex relationship between humans and their environment. Most episodes of climate change in the past were slow, gradual processes, whose effects spread over decades, if not centuries. It is crucial to understand how these episodes were perceived, and how they affected the relations between these ancient societies and their environments.
3. "Coping with Changing Climates" include anthropologists, historians, archaeologists, Hittitologists and Assyriologists. What does this interdisciplinary collaboration do for the study of climate change?
Collaboration is essential when addressing transversal questions such as how climate change affected human groups at specific places and times in history, because the data is simply so diverse, and it would be impossible for any one person to successfully analyze all that information. What is so different about this particular collaboration is that it does not involve our colleagues from the Natural Sciences. This is not because we are choosing to ignore their findings, but rather because we deliberately chose to focus on human-environmental relations, an aspect of the discussion usually left in the shadows. Scholars focusing on ancient societies are in a unique position to influence modern discourse and policy by addressing timely questions like how we consider human-environment relationships in the past, how we define modernity's environmental history against antiquity, and how we envision humanity's agency in contrast to environmental forces.
4. What does the grant funding specifically allow you to do that wasn't possible before?
The award from the Humanities Without Walls Consortium will allow us to do several things. First, it will fund three direct meetings between participants over the course of three years. These meetings will culminate in a closing conference, which will take place at the University of Chicago in 2020, where we will present our collective research. This grant will also allow us to do something that's never really been done before: providing funding to facilitate work between faculty and graduate students. In 2019, participating institutions will be offering Winter and Spring seminars that will use a common syllabus and engage in several joint sessions. The goal is for these graduate students to develop poster proposals for the 2020 conference and participate in some of the various research projects. Lastly, this grant will really help us disseminate the work. Not only will our findings be published through the Oriental Institute, but the grant will allow us to showcase work conducted by participating graduate students through various research exhibits at the three partner institutions (the University of Chicago, the University of Michigan and Purdue University), as well as on the project's website.
5. What do you and your colleagues hope to accomplish with this project?
We have three main goals with this project. The first is to present a more nuanced understanding of historical processes than what can be achieved when focusing only on large scale studies or cases of "supposed" abrupt change, as have been the prevailing approaches until now. Second, we hope that by fostering collaboration, not only between institutions, but between students and faculty, we can encourage a new generation of scholars that will value collaboration and seek to find new ways to develop interdisciplinary projects. Finally, we hope that through the combination of the seminars, the conference and poster exhibits, as well as the public information that will be made available, we can stimulate debates on the interactions between societies and their environments in contexts of climate change, both ancient and modern.
*The Humanities Without Walls Consortium is funded by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and is based at the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities. More information on the project itself is available on the Oriental Institute's website.