How to manage risk has vexed human societies for thousands of years. From the Ancestral Puebloans’ increasing dependence on one crop — maize — to feed an expanding population to modern-day efforts to thwart power blackouts, whether a society can successfully deal with the uncertainty inherent in natural and human-made systems has profound implications for how it functions.

The SFI working group “Managing Natural Risk in the Modern and Prehistoric World,” led by archaeologist Stefani Crabtree and energy expert and SFI External Professor Seth Blumsack, both based at Pennsylvania State University, explores the parallels between ancient and modern societies’ challenges in managing risk and what lessons might be found there.

“It’s about using the past in ways that can benefit us for the future,” says Crabtree.

Both long-term risks, such as the droughts Ancestral Puebloans dealt with, and short-term risks, like our modern challenge of keeping the lights on during grid overloads or storms, require anticipating change in time to avert problems.

“There are huge differences in time scales, but you have this situation where you have people from very different worlds that are fundamentally asking the same question,” says Blumsack. “Which is, under what conditions do these dynamic systems change, in a way where if you poke them in some way they’re not going to come back? Are there ways for us to look at data and find what are essentially early warning systems of these dynamic transitions?”

The exchange of knowledge goes both ways, Crabtree adds. “We’re looking not only at the data from the past but also some of the methods that Seth uses in his understanding of modern power systems to model vulnerabilities from the past, looking at those critical stages where transitions occur,” she says.

While it might be unusual for an archaeologist and a power grid expert to collaborate, Crabtree and Blumsack say that after meeting for a drink to discuss their respective work, it wasn’t long before they recognized that their fields could learn from one another.

“You get two people together with beer, and all of a sudden crazy stuff starts to flow,” laughs Blumsack. “People like me are interested in some of the data that people like her have been able to dig up about natural resource risk. And people like her are interested in some of the tools people like me have used to detect change in dynamic systems. We said, well why don’t we get a few people on each side together for a few days in Santa Fe — because where else would you do something like this — and let’s see if there’s something there.”

The working group runs Oct. 22-26 at SFI.

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