Climate and Classics: Deforestation

Friday 4 November 2022

In 2020, a team of four students – Erin Limmack, Eleanor Pain, Ellis Williams and Taylor Williams – developed the following project. Its aim is to get young people thinking and talking about a contemporary environmental challenge, deforestation, via case studies from ancient Rome.


Climate & Classics is offering a short (4-day) residential retreat to Scottish, state-educated, primary school children who have had limited exposure to Classics and the classical world. The retreat is based in various locations in Scotland, which are near to woodland and other natural scenic environments. The project aims to contextualise modern deforestation through examples and comparison from the ancient world and the natural Scottish landscape. Through a series of outdoor and indoor activities, workshops and games, we will increase awareness of current environmental issues whilst demonstrating the applicability of Classical Studies in understanding and tackling them. 

The purpose, methods and aims of the Climate & Classics retreat adhere to and resemble those outlined by the Scottish Government in their Curriculum for Excellence (CfE). The ultimate goal of CfE is to make Scottish children and young people: successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors (Scottish Government, 2017). Central to Climate & Classics is the aim to create socially aware and responsible citizens who recognise the importance of the environment and sustainability. The project also aims to inspire confidence in state-educated children to pursue Classics throughout their education. Ultimately, the Climate & Classics retreat will help children to contribute effectively to future discussions on climate change and environmental concern, via Classical learning. 


Climate & Classics will introduce Classics to young people who have traditionally been excluded from the study, specifically targeting Scottish, state-educated, primary school children. A significant factor contributing to this exclusion is the inaccessibility of Classics in state schools. In Scotland, Classics is seldom available outside of the private sector; as a result, state-educated children are leaving school with no (or very limited) exposure to the ancient world (Fox, 2018). The project aims to encourage and foster the educational development of a new generation of Classicists from underrepresented backgrounds. By focusing on children at a primary level, we hope to spark an early but lifelong interest in the discipline. Demonstrating the relevancy and importance of Classics in the modern world is key to igniting this fascination with the ancient world. Climate & Classics accomplishes this by contextualising current environmental concerns, like deforestation, through examples and comparisons between the scenic Scottish landscape and the classical world. In doing so, we will simultaneously increase young people’s awareness and understanding of environmental issues. 

The synergy between Classics and environmental concern is central to Climate & Classics aims. In Britain, concern for the environment is at an all-time high. Recent data has shown that 27% of Britons now consider the environment one of the most pressing issues facing the country. This concern increases to 45% amongst 18–24-year-olds (Smith, 2019). Teenager Greta Thunberg and her climate-change activism (collectively referred to as the ‘Greta Effect’) is partly responsible for this sharp increase in public recognition (Watts, 2019). Undeniably, young people are currently at the forefront of environmental awareness and activism. Climate and Classics will engage and educate young Scottish people on the important environmental issues facing them and their modern world. In doing so, we aim to inspire them to become advocates for a greener world and the driving force behind future environmentalist movements and education. 

The scenic woodland and countryside of Scotland provides the perfect setting to educate children on the natural world and the problems it faces. Allowing children to see, interact with and immerse themselves in areas of outstanding natural beauty so close to home can inspire a love of the countryside. This can help cultivate a proud sense of curatorship and, more importantly, responsibility for Scotland’s landscape. It will not only invoke a desire to protect the Scottish landscape but the world as a whole. 

Why ancient Rome?

Roman, and more broadly, ancient culture continues to influence citizens of the 21st century. Many western traditions and habits of thought can find their roots in the ancient world. To understand and navigate our contemporary world and the issues we face today, we can look at good and bad decisions taken in the past as both inspiration and warning; and an education in Classics can contribute to that. The study of the environment in connection with Classics is a growing discipline; the University of St Andrews recently launched The Centre of Ancient Environmental Studies, which is dedicated to this burgeoning subject. Ancient Rome was affected by deforestation; for that reason, new perspectives and knowledge can be gained through its study, just like many other aspects of Classics. 

Evidence and artefacts from the Roman Empire survive to this day; they provide a wealth of knowledge that can be tapped into to gain insight into ancient environmental change and human adaptation to it. What cannot be found in tangible, written or material evidence from antiquity can be gleamed through scientific analysis and methods, such as coring and geoarchaeology. This approach is inherently interdisciplinary and helps us to access ‘deep history’. Although it might seem that science and Classics are at opposite ends of the spectrum, utilising these two disciplines allows for a deeper understanding of environmental change in both the ancient and modern world. This approach facilitates reflection on the differences between the past and present. Climate & Classics seeks to learn and adapt from Roman choices as well as our own, to help tackle not only deforestation but climate change as a whole. 

Climate & Classics acknowledge that studying environmental change in the ancient world can risk mapping anachronistic projections of climate change and deforestation onto Roman society. However, the principal aim of our project is to inspire engagement and interaction with Classics and contemporary issues; we ask hypothetical questions to contextualise and rationalise the respective disciplines. Each workshop and activity are grounded in fact, and children are asked to draw and discuss potential connections between the two, without simplifying similarities.

To find out more, why not listen to our presentation above and browse our project brochure below! You will find a learning programme for the retreat, sample lesson plans and worksheets, an outline of learning outcomes, reflections on funding models, and lots of suggestions for further reading. We hope that you are inspired by this project to think lots of different ways in which antiquity can be harnessed to contribute to climate education and action! We would love to know what you think – please contact us here to share your feedback.

What do you think?

What do you think we can gain by looking at ancient deforestation while trying to understand and tackle the causes and consequences of modern deforestation?

What are the risks of studying modern climate change through the lens of ancient environmental history?

What impact do you think this kind of project can have on how we understand and approach Classics?

If you were designing a project to address an aspect of climate change or climate justice, what events or material from antiquity would you make use of?

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