Monday, April 2, 2012

Historic Archaeology and Sustainability

I've been thinking a bit about the significance of historic archaeology and sustainability. 

Archaeologists of all ages help with an
excavation at Michigan State University
as part of their campus archaeology program.
Click for photo credit.
The concept of sustainability has been evolving in recent decades, but largely involves understanding how best to live in order to preserve resources for future generations in equitable and economically sound ways.  Sustainability can mean different things to different people and largely depends upon one's geographic setting.  Sustainability to me in developed Long Island just outside of New York City is likely considerably different from someone's concept of it in rural Moldova.  Because of this, sustainability can be a values-driven concept when comparing different places and when constructing global measurements of sustainability.  Of course, we also find different viewpoints and values within small geographic areas.  Just take a look at how different sustainability ideas skew experiences on a gradient across Long Island from Brooklyn and Queens to the Hamptons.

But what about sustainability across time?  Can historic archaeology be used to understand how past societies lived either sustainably or unsustainably on our landscape? Can we learn from the past to live more sustainably today?  The folks at Michigan State University's award winning Campus Archaeology Program have been doing just that.  They have been studying how their campus changed over time in order to better understand energy use, food sourcing, building materials, and a variety of other factors that we now look at today to measure campus sustainability.  It would be fascinating to apply some of the sustainability measurement schemes, such as the Clean Air, Cool Planet greenhouse gas inventory tool on a 19th century campus.  How different are the greenhouse gas emissions on a per capita basis in 1890 compared with 2012?  I am sure we would find that we do better at some things, and worse at others.  But, we would certainly learn a great deal from such a comparative approach.

Historic home in Roslyn I pass each day.  How sustainable were
its inhabitants over generations?  Click for photo credit.
Each day when I drive to Hofstra's campus, I pass through the small historic Long Island community of Roslyn.  It's quite an interesting place.  It was founded in the late 1600's as a harbor and mill town.  It became a very affluent area in the 19th century and was the home of William Cullen Bryant.  The community has one of the most well-preserved and documented groupings of historic buildings on Long Island.  Some of them are on one of the busiest north/south routes in Nassau County, Roslyn Road.  Each day thousands of cars pass by within feet of homes that are hundreds of years old.  I always wish I could see what the area was like prior to the advent of the automobile.  I wonder how sustainable Roslyn was in its day?  Could we measure the carbon footprint of residents of Roslyn in different periods from its founding to today?  Would we find that per capita carbon footprints varied with time?  If so, by how much?  What about how they would have fared if we measured other sustainability indicators such as water, food, equity, and economic development?  How would Roslyn, arguably a pre-suburban suburb of New York, have compared with New York City over the same time periods?

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