Project Goals


Our Initiative aims to integrate the research of scholars in all the relevant social scientific and natural scientific disciplines in order to evaluate and interpret the evidence for societal resilience to environmental stress and change. This aim is met by homing in on a series of case studies. Through workshops, seminars, colloquia and lectures the specific interests and research skills of the Princeton-based organizers have been represented. These activities are complemented by seminars delivered by colleagues working in other areas and periods.

Historical examples of socio-ecological resilience have been, from the beginning, the focus. Resilience is a concept borrowed from the field of human ecology and postulates the existence of causal links between the resilience of natural environments on the one hand, and social systems existing in these natural environments on the other. By focusing on a variety of historical cases in which comparable pre-modern societies responded in different ways to similar climatic and environmental changes, this project contributes to a number of debates within policy and planning circles as well as within environmental science and in disaster mitigation and prediction modelling in its aim to integrate environmental and societal variables in a unified analysis. This approach permits the investigation of the various factors – political, economic and cultural – that mediate the impact of environmental change together with the social and cultural factors that determine the mechanisms of resilience.

Our projects focus on five key elements: natural hazards, social vulnerabilities, culture, planned responses, and outcomes. For each of these in turn we look in detail at examples of past resilience and the role of culture, belief systems and human agency. This requires analysis of types of sustainability strategies in premodern societies and the different roles played by both political elites or states and by communities in developing or maintaining sustainable environments and mitigating expected environmental challenges. We also look at uneven sustainability strategies and unintended consequences, with discussion of contemporary policy responses and the difficulties accompanying efforts to address significant global environmental and climate challenges.  Not all hazards are equal: a multi-decadal drought is a far different prospect to a three-year one, and a multi-decadal parching of land accompanied by war and soil erosion is worse still. The scale and number of hazards matter, as do the way these interact with social structure and vulnerabilities, and how they are addressed by culturally molded responses. Not all responses were automatic cultural adaptations, but could also be more explicit, centralised state reactions. The sum of these factors shaped what kind of society would emerge from the climatic and environmental stresses and challenges it faced. We apply this framework to a range of case studies from the Andes to Mesopotamia and Southern Asia, with a focus in particular on the last three millennia.