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Professor represents ASU at Royal Society meeting

December 01, 2009

Arizona State University archaeologist C. Michael Barton has gained a reputation for learning about human-environment interaction by applying a long-term perspective, as well as the latest technology, to his research. His Mediterranean Landscape Dynamics project is creating multidimensional computer models of landscape change and agricultural land use practices for a 6,000-year period from the beginning of farming to the rise of urban civilization.

This work could be used as a predictive tool for present and future human-environment interaction. Integrating decades' worth of data from archaeologists, ecologists and geoscientists with recent advances in geospatial modeling and agent simulation allows Barton and his team to investigate the long-range social and ecological consequences of alternate land use practices.

This November, the Royal Society of the United Kingdom tapped Barton to speak about his research at a conference titled, "Water and Society: Past, Present and Future." The scientific discussion meeting not only examined the relationship between water and society throughout the ages but also addressed humanity’s role in the current water crisis and the climate change that is intensifying it.

Barton, a professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, traveled to the Royal Society’s headquarters in London to lecture on water- and human-based changes to Mediterranean landscapes during the Holocene, as well as his experience with modeling long-term dynamics of complex socioecological systems.

Other topics at the November 8–9 conference included social responsibility, paleo-climate modeling and political discourses on water supply issues. The range of subjects represents what many researchers deem a need to address global environmental concerns and the area of sustainability through scholarship that cross-cuts established academic disciplines.

Barton calls the conference significant because it showed "a recognition that the most critical environmental issues we face can only be understood and mitigated when observations carried out today are combined with detailed knowledge of the past dynamics of human and natural systems provided by archaeology and other historical sciences."

The presentations emphasized the connectedness between the social and natural worlds, another integral point according to Barton. He explains, "Many phenomena of central importance to human life and well being must be treated as coupled human and natural systems; the artificial division of the world into the 'social' and 'natural' does not reflect reality and runs the risk of misunderstanding the dynamics of each."

The conference’s themes mirror those in Barton’s research and the work of other faculty in the school and across ASU. "The fact that these themes are being discussed at the highest levels of the scientific establishment serves to further validate the emphasis we have given to this holistic approach to the social and natural sciences," he says.

The Royal Society is making the lectures available as podcasts, and the papers will be published in an upcoming issue of Philosophical Transactions A, the society’s journal of mathematical, physical and engineering sciences. The Royal Society was founded in 1660 by a group of scientists that included Christopher Wren and Robert Boyle. It is the United Kingdom’s national academy of science.