Science, society and environmental change in the first millennium CE - Lecture: Transformative social changes and slowly unfolding environmental catastrophes in the Norse North Atlantic
An exploration of flexible responses to environmental change and path dependency
This talk is based on a chapter in a forthcoming book on catastrophes in context that will appear later this year published by Berghahn Books. Since the 9th century Norse colonisation of Iceland, soil erosion has transformed some 15-30% of the island’s surface area and impacted the animal husbandry that was a primary means of subsistence for a whole society into the early modern period. Buffered by the sufferings of regions of Iceland, individual farms and particular social groups, Icelandic society as a whole has endured through subsistence flexibility, social inequalities, and the ability to tap into larger provisioning and economic networks. This demonstrates how an adaptable society can confront challenges through social organisation and by diversifying their impacts on ecosystems. In the medium term—multi-century timescales—this can be an effective, if costly, strategy, in terms of both the environment and society. In Iceland, soil conservation is now a national priority, woodland is returning, and climate warming is opening up more potential for arable agriculture. However, the slow catastrophe of Icelandic soil erosion is still unfolding and with the perspective of the longue durée it is evident that decisions made in the Viking Age and medieval period still resonate, constraining future options for resilience and adaptive flexibility.
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