Student Research: Why the Past (Really) Matters

By Yolanda Lopez-Maldonado

Concern has grown in recent years over how our actions have transformed the natural world. This worry has prompted a deluge of news stories about environmental crises and their impact on global societies, such as climate change, food and water security, resource degradation, loss of biodiversity, and rising costs of resource management. But what are the future challenges and risks associated with these past influences? This was one of the issues addressed at “Transformations of the Earth,” an international graduate student workshop in environmental history that took place at Renmin University of China in Beijing from 21 to 23 May this year. The event was organized by the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society and Ludwig Maximilian University, and cosponsored by Renmin University of China’s Center for Ecological History.

Photo: Yolanda Lopez-Maldonado.

Part of our goal at the workshop was to assess different examples in the natural and social sciences to advance transdisciplinary research that might facilitate the study of socio-ecological dynamics. Students presented papers covering a number of subjects, ranging from coastal areas to rivers, and from tropical regions to the Arctic. Several case studies were also examined, which addressed topics such as salmon aquaculture and distribution in modern America, the environmental history of tea plantations in India, insights into the salmon farming industry in Chile, and transformations in the corn seed industry in the United States. The workshop has since stimulated more detailed research on the long-term patterns of changes, exploitation, and overexploitation of our natural and material world.

As a geographer specializing in complex systems analysis and groundwater modeling, developing novel experimental approaches to real-world problems related to human-groundwater interactions—like overuse, overexploitation, and pollution of groundwater basins—is central to my research. Systems analysis is a research tool that identifies pathways through the connections between processes to respond to global human needs; it integrates systems methods and applied research in globally relevant and universally important problems, and is a process in which scientists, stakeholders, and decision makers can take part.

Photo: Yolanda Lopez-Maldonado.

I find the collapse of complex societies in this field to be particularly fascinating. How can complex civilizations sustain long periods of adaptation (e.g. how can societies develop ways to adapt to different environmental conditions), only to suddenly collapse (e.g. if they cannot adapt to changes)? How do societies evolve, and how does this change affect their natural world? To answer these questions, we need to draw on different disciplines and consider that societies are often only able to respond to challenges by developing how they manage their resources. My case study—analyzing groundwater as a common-pool resource embedded in complex social ecological systems—addresses these questions and the larger objectives of the workshop.

Part of my research focuses on a relatively small area of Yucatán, in Mexico, which was once known for its historic Mayan water management system and which is now classified as a geohydrological reserve zone. A thin freshwater lens is the only source of water in the peninsula of Yucatán. An area of 900 km2 has been proposed as a hydrogeological reserve to ensure an adequate source of drinking water for the city of Mérida. In recent years, the area has gained international fame as the site of a 65 million-year-old meteor impact.

Photo: Yolanda Lopez-Maldonado.

History has shown that the Mayan society of Yucatán grew in scale and complexity despite a crucial environmental drawback: no surface water exists in the region. To survive in a place where water was scarce and difficult to obtain, the Mayas had to work together to design systems to help manage their water resources. The ancient Maya developed a complex water management system dependent on water collection and storage. The hydraulic system was tailored to the biophysical conditions of the region and engineered to adapt to the evolving needs of a growing population. Despite their ingenuity, the Maya’s numbers gradually declined and the society disappeared. They suffered unexpected and extreme hardships such as natural disasters, financial crises, and epidemics, which drastically altered the path of their societal development. However, this cultural group had a unique cosmology and worldview, and handed down traditional ecological knowledge through the generations. So, what lessons can we learn from the Maya? How can we use their successes and failures to address our own problems?

To answer these complex questions it is imperative to remember that in natural resource conservation, the past matters. Environmental history can provide some of the answers and guide us towards a holistic understanding of socio-ecological dynamics embedded in complex adaptive systems of the past. The ideas generated could lead to a new and progressive approach towards natural resource conservation and sustainability for a better future.

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