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Mobilizing the past to shape a better Anthropocene


As our planet emerges into a new epoch in which humans dominate the Earth system, it is imperative that societies initiate a new phase of responsible environmental stewardship. Here we argue that information from the past has a valuable role to play in enhancing the sustainability and resilience of our societies. We highlight the ways that past data can be mobilized for a variety of efforts, from supporting conservation to increasing agricultural sustainability and food security. At a practical level, solutions from the past often do not require fossil fuels, can be locally run and managed, and have been tested over the long term. Past failures reveal non-viable solutions and expose vulnerabilities. To more effectively leverage increasing knowledge about the past, we advocate greater cross-disciplinary collaboration, systematic engagement with stakeholders and policymakers, and approaches that bring together the best of the past with the cutting-edge technologies and solutions of tomorrow.

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Fig. 1: A summary of key ways that historical data can enhance the resilience of societies today and into the future.

Michelle O’Reilly, Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.

Fig. 2: Application of past practices and solutions to modern-day challenges.

Michelle O’Reilly, Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.

Fig. 3: Using past data to create modern baselines.
Fig. 4: Summary of key deliverables the past offers in addressing the challenges of the Anthropocene.

Michelle O’Reilly, Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.


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We thank M. O’Reilly for figure production. N.B. is supported by the Max Planck Society.

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Boivin, N., Crowther, A. Mobilizing the past to shape a better Anthropocene. Nat Ecol Evol 5, 273–284 (2021).

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