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Finding my niche: teaching Greco-Roman understandings of nature to help the environment today


Pax in Natura (Peace in Nature) is a live, online and in-person teaching business that I am developing to address the environmental sustainability concerns we face today. Uniquely, my approach is to create discussion through the study of Greco-Roman environmental and medical history and archaeology. The main aim is to engage with a wide audience in order to consider how we, as individuals and small groups, can take action to play our part and help resolve this global crisis.

I have worked as an Associate Professor for almost twenty years, teaching ancient Greek and Roman history and archaeology. My research is in the history and archaeology of Greco-Roman medicine and Roman gardens and natural environments. These relate to my passion for environmental sustainability and healthful living. Anyone reading this is probably asking themselves how do these different subjects fit together and what is the importance of learning about the Greco-Roman world when we have so many immediate problems related to the environment and health and wellness today?

Many are concerned about the environment and do what they can in terms of recycling, switching to renewable energy, or buying locally grown foods, for example. Yet, as part of a global community it is a matter of urgency that we take immediate and sustained action. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recorded that in about 10 years the problems on climate change could reach their tipping point and become irreversible. Changes have to be made now.

Someone who is not a scientist, policy maker, or is simply trying to make a living, may feel frustrated or unable to react to the immediacy of this cause given the societal infrastructures in which we live and work. Moreover, in general, our western philosophical view on life is one where we see ourselves as separate from nature—we live in it, but we are not part of it. This disconnection can also cause us to distance ourselves from environmental concerns.

Some ways that we can overcome these problems are through considerate conversations with each other about our ideas for taking action and by questioning how we see ourselves in relation to nature. Changing our philosophical outlook on life can help us take a more active role in resolving environmental issues. One catalyst for these conversations comes through studying ancient perceptions of the natural world and health and wellness.

So why online teaching?

My teaching and research originally seemed separate from this pressing modern concern. This was because ancient philosophies on health are quite different from ours, and are tied to the four humours: yellow bile, black bile, phlegm, and blood. In general, a balance of these humours in the body was an indication of good health. Ancient physicians and natural philosophers also wrote about the direct influence the surrounding environments had on bodily mixtures. They believed natural spaces with good air were vital to the wellbeing of all living creatures. Columella, a first century AD Roman agricultural writer, even used this idea of balance and good air for keeping bees. The humoral system remained the basis for western medicine well into the early-modern period (16th and 17th centuries).

I found that teaching my students about ancient perspectives of wellness in relation to their gardens and natural spaces regularly leads to discussions about the environmental and health problems we face today. When I began to see the positive discussions I was having with my students, I realised that I had found a niche way to link ancient history and archaeology to problems of environmental sustainability. Given the urgency of the situation, I also realised that it would be beneficial to teach to a larger audience outside the confines of academia. Thus, I came up with the idea to do live, online teaching where people from around the globe can speak to each other about their concerns, come up with ideas, and support each other when taking action. Furthermore, it allows a two-way dialogue where I also have the opportunity to learn from those with a wide-range of experience and expertise that cannot be found in an academic environment.

I have tested the viability of this idea by running some experimental, in-person, courses to both adults and school children. The enthusiasm for the project was immediately apparent and much discussion was generated. I also learnt a lot from those I taught, which gave me other ideas about how and what to teach. Consequently, I decided to set up an online teaching business. Along with this, I will offer in-person workshops, school events, fieldtrips, and consultancy work, which is an exciting way to play my part in helping the environment.

Although I would never advocate following ancient cures for medical treatments today, I do think that we can learn something from Greco-Roman physicians and natural philosophers about seeing ourselves as part of nature. And, because of this, it is easier to argue that healthy spaces, devoid of pollution, are important for both our mental and physical wellbeing. Ultimately, if we see environmental sustainability as healthy for ourselves, we are more likely to take action, and more people will feel able to engage with the issues. Moreover, rethinking our ideas about how we live our lives can have global benefits for present and future generations.

My website is still under construction, but I intend to start classes in May or June 2020, so please watch this space. In the mean time, I will be writing regular blogs related to environmental topics and the ancient world. Please contact me with any questions, I would love to hear from you. Thank you for taking the time to read this and for your early interest.

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