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Underground History: It’s Getting Hot In Here

Unless you have been living under a rock, you will have been inundated with dire headlines, terrifying statistics, and direct evidence of warming and increasingly unpredictable weather. We’ve all had a front row seat as the climate crisis morphed from a theoretical discussion to an acute situation. And it is terrifying. We had a conversation about these fears with Todd Braje, author of Understanding Imperiled Earth: How Archaeology and Human History Inform a Sustainable Future (Smithsonian Books, 2024), on a recent episode of Underground History. Braje’s very approachable and public-oriented book bravely tackles this daunting subject and forces us to think bigger and broader about this unprecedented moment in time by highlighting the ways in which humans have always had to adjust, pivot, and evolve to keep up with the changing world around them.

Oregon archaeologists have had a front row seat to many of these historical changes. We have documented ancient sites in the eastern desert that were once lakeside abodes, charted how a river changing course could have a dramatic impact on available resources, and we’ve had plenty of catastrophic floods, fires, and tsunamis. And yet people lived, endured, and sometimes thrived. In short, while the planet has never been exactly here before, society, culture, and day to day life have been impacted by the need to course-correct in order to survive for millennia. According to Braje, we don’t need to reinvent the wheel, we can look to the past for guidance.

You don’t have to dig very far (or even touch a shovel) to find evidence of environmental change across the globe. Braje’s book looks at wild birds and tuna markets and even has a fascinating chapter using the lack of timbers available for the restoration of Notre-Dame as a launching point to explore European deforestation over the last 800 years. We have always been impacting and impacted by the natural world. The Industrial Revolution just supercharged the impact.

During our conversation I asked Braje about a particularly terrifying section of the book, wherein he describes how we are living within a sixth mass extinction. Loss of biodiversity has devastating consequences for humans (and plants and animals…), but this time, our nightmare has a silver lining. Unlike the dinosaurs who were just minding their own business when an asteroid ruined the party, humans have caused our current predicament (or at least greatly contributed), and therefore humans control some of the factors that can be used to reverse or mitigate it. For the many folks that have been ringing alarm bells for decades this is nothing new, but perhaps more people are ready hear it and make meaningful changes—or as Braje encourages, to embrace uncertainty and take bold action. With unseasonably high temperatures fire season looming, I know I’m ready.

Chelsea Rose is the director of the Southern Oregon University Laboratory of Anthropology (SOULA) and host of the Underground History podcast, which airs during the Jefferson Exchange on JPR's News & Information service and can be found on all major podcast platforms.