Tuesday, 16 October 2018

Cultural Heritage and Climate Change

Buy unpapered artefacts, endanger
the future of humanity?
An article in the Conversation explores the relationship between our heritage and the changing global climate:
More powerful storms, flooding, desertification and even the melting of permafrost are already destroying important sites at an alarming rate. While we race to preserve or record these places before they are lost forever, it is also the case that some sites – especially those that are or have been highly adaptable and flexible – can also be assets in understanding adaptation strategies more generally. (Cathy Daly, Jane Downes and William Megarry, 'Cultural heritage has a lot to teach us about climate change' The Conversation, October 16, 2018)
The authors are exploring how global heritage can be used not only to stress urgency about the dangers and risks of climate change, but also as an asset to enforce community resilience and develop adaptation strategies for the future. The article discusses threat to the material heritage (and I'd stress that) resulting from climate change using as examples melting permafrost and rising water levels.They then give an optimistic view of how 'heritage' can teach us a lot about communities’ response to threat which they present as 'a study of climate change resilience', how - for example - 'globally, coastal and river communities have been living with (and adapting to) similar events for centuries'. They quote an example from an island cultural landscape proposed WHS  in the Brahmaputra River in Assam, India, where communities and their monuments simply move each time a site is threatened by flooding.
Over hundreds of years, communities on Majuli have developed modular and portable building techniques using local materials including building on stilts. The river and its annual flooding have become part of the everyday experience of living on Majuli and is a part of the local worldview. [...]These places and their associated cultural heritage have evolved to be portable, a valuable skill in a landscape which changes regularly. 
the authors suggest that by understanding places like this river island 'we will learn much about resilience and adaptation to the inevitable impacts of climate change'. Will we? I do not think simply moving human settlements and getting used to this is going to solve anything. We cannot move Venice for example or the historic waterfront of any Medieval port town (like Gdańsk). But climate change affects more than just buildings close to the water's edge, but whole ecosystems - and adaptation to changes in those ecosystems will mean cultural change. And the whole mood of our times, the alt-right included is a reaction against cultural mutation/adaptation ('threats' sic to 'our culture'). If you GoogleEarth the island to which Daly, Downes and Megarry refer, it is closely covered by swamp and fields, if the swamps increase, there is no room for more fields to feed the population of that island/region. One assumes that this population will not decrease, so what will happen when the limits of adaptability of subsistence systems to adapt to falling crop yields is reached? It's no use following Daly, Downes and Megarry's suggestion that 'mobility is the key', because desertification and other processes will be leading to  reduction of area and huge shifts n the location of farming land. Irrigation will require more energy input and use up resources. Even moving to another planet would mean consuming huge amounts of resources of this planet to keep even a small human colony alive up there on Mars, or wherever. I think what archaeology tells us is that in fact, human communities do not survive, something tipped the balance and the Western Roman Empire collapsed (despite major cultural realignments from the middle part of the fourth century - on top of those happening in the previous three). Even collectors can see this effect, those for example who buy the lithic tools from North Africa from the so-called Green Sahara of the Neolithic - but their buying of stuff encourages Collection-Driven exploitation of the sites, sites which arguably have the potential of showing how those communities reacted and - at first - adapted to the climate change - but ultimately failed and disappeared.

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