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Study in remote area of Northern Ireland sees hope for climate change survival

The inhabitants of Slievenorra survived through climate, disease and famine — and persisted thanks in large part by "getting on with the business of living."

(CN) — As communities around the globe grapple with climate change, a remote bog in County Antrim may provide hope. Research published in PLoS ONE on Wednesday dives into the history and resilience of Slieveanorra — a bog in Northern Ireland whose inhabitants survived a variety of natural disasters over the last millennia. 

Historians had written off Slievenorra as a climate-vulnerable area, susceptible to crop failure in times of environmental decline. But using peat cores and census records, researchers found humans had occupied the region during the Little Ice Age, European Famine, Black Death, and the Irish Potato Famine. 

"This population wasn't caught up in the mainstream of what was happening in lower Ireland. These people were just getting on with the business of living, and that, I think, is what made them able to adapt," said Gill Plunkett of the Queen's University Belfast, one of the study's authors.

Plunkett noted many people lost their autonomy as property ownership took hold across Europe in medieval times. Being out of the mainstream meant more communal access to lands. Instead of people owning specific plots and ultimately restricting resources, the group was able to move toward rivers and forests if their crops had failed. 

This isn't to say that the Slievenorra occupants had it easy — they struggled through climate, disease, and famine. Nevertheless, they recovered and generally maintained their population size by growing various crops, utilizing the free natural resources around them, and producing hemp and linen. The occupants' diverse economy created a type of safeguard, shielding them from complete devastation.

"I think this will have resonance — particularly at the moment we see issues with oil and gas supplies — we need to be more self-sufficient. We need to be producing what we need. We need to be producing things locally; we need to not be driven purely by profit," Plunkett said. 

Fringe, out-of-touch communities are typically thought of as marginalized, yet they can be the most resilient. The group at Slievenorra had been sustainable and biodiverse for centuries and weren't considered marginalized until the 20th century, when members started feeling the social pressures to move to larger towns like Belfast in search of greater social opportunity. Modern societies look vastly different than the Slievenorra community, but that doesn't mean there isn't anything to learn from them.

"We should encourage diverse production. We need to move away from mass production in specialized areas. It's the specialization — so we're only growing a particular crop in this area, but making it more biodiverse and not over-exploiting environments is important," Plunkett said. "At the local level, I think there needs to be more support for local producers who are producing food in a locally sustainable way."

She said the answer to our ability to adapt to environmental change is self-sufficiency. 

"To say that climate didn't affect these people — that's not the message. Climate could have affected these people, but climate didn't destroy the population. Yes, calamities happen, famines happen, epidemics break out, but populations can recover," Plunkett said.

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