Human response to climate change

Human resilience and how we have dealt with catastrophic environmental changes in the past will be the focus of a free public lecture by Professor Bill Boyd at Southern Cross University next Thursday, November 5.

Professor Boyd (pictured) described himself as a “geo-archaeologist” and said his lecture will “bring together environmental science and archaeology to answer questions about how society interacts with its environment.”

“I see resilience as the ability to maintain structure and function despite disruption. Societies in the past had to be adaptive and there are plenty of lessons to be learned from their experiences. While it is true that some past societies have collapsed when faced with extreme environmental changes, it is also true that many societies have been resilient enough to adapt and survive. There have been incredibly long periods of time - thousands of years - when societies have been stable and I am interested in the characteristics of those societies,” he said. “Over long periods of time their populations have increased and decreased, their forests have come and gone, rivers flooded and run dry, the temperature has gotten hotter and colder, the oceans have risen and fallen - yet human life has adapted and even flourished.

“Humans have a great capacity for survival and change.”

As we are bombarded with more and more dire predictions from scientists about the effects of climate change, Dr Boyd said we need to look back in history to see what can be learnt from how society's have adapted in the past.

One of the examples he will use in his lecture is about a civilisation in Papua New Guinea where they experienced catastrophic volcanic eruptions for 25,000 years.

“These were huge eruptions, enormously destructive... when you see people living through that and coming back to live similar lifestyles in the face of what were unimaginably catastrophic events, you see that people are surprisingly resilient and there is some scope for optimism.

“While we need to know if our current models of climate change prediction are right, we also need to know how past societies have adapted to similar events and learn about how they survived and developed their resilience.”

Professor Boyd acknowledged that what we are facing may be “outside the normal boundaries of what societies could cope with”. He said he was a “theoretical pessimist, but a practical optimist.”

“We may be looking at something that is significantly different... (but) one of the other ideas I will be discussing comes from my understanding of history, and it's a simple idea that we sometimes forget, and that is we can't do anything until we have the idea. So you can be pessimistic because you can't see a way out...but we have to encourage research and the community to be engaged in thinking about solutions. At the moment when we are looking at complex problems, we have to be open to as many new ideas as we can.

“Perhaps living in massive floating cities or even in underwater cities or space stations.

“But until we have that new idea, you can't do anything with it.”

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