History tends to repeat itself. So why not taking our lessons and try to improve? I feel like repeating my theory on the lessons of the decline of old civilizations, but here we go again, yet with another case.
One of those lessons learned is the rise and fall of the old Khmer civilisation, the constructors of the Angkor Watt in Cambodia. Many know the Angkor Wat – especially since it is recently nominated as one of the New World Wonders – but few know the real story of the Khmer empire.
Yet, the rise and fall of the Khmer empire could teach us a valuable lesson, similar to what I’ve written before in the ruins in Peru, the Machu Pichu.
Let’s start with the rise. The Khmer dynasty started constructing the Angkor Wat in the 9thcentury, at its highest point, there lived about 1 million people in the entire site. Many of the buildings are temples, dedicated to Hindu gods, and later converted into Buddhist temples.
Besides being genius architects of buildings, they were champions in irrigation techniques. The Khmer developed a genius system of irrigation cannels, reservoirs and waterways throughout the entire city. Therefore, it was often called the hydraulic city.
Its mastery of water became its strength, and its weakness as well. The Khmer dynasty managed to dominate the waterflows as such, that water went to the canals and reservoirs, rather than into the ground, while they used the huge water reservoirs to expand its agricultural production, and hence feed its growing population.
But this interruption of the natural water flow might have caused some unwanted side effects.
In the 14thCentury South-East Asia experienced some years of extreme drought, followed by some years of extreme monsoons. The two weather extremes squashed the civilisation. Ones dominating the water, they did not know how to handle the water. After the droughts, flooding ruined parts of the city. There have been attempts to adapt bridges and canals, but apparently not enough.
In combination with the military pressure of the Vietnam and Siam (now Thailand) empire, the intern unrest (caused by the expansion will of the kings in combination with starvation), the Khmer leaders could not provide a sufficient answer to the changing climatologic circumstances. It meant the fall of Angkor Watt.
What about us?
Why is that history relevant for us, would you think? Not only because of the fact that climate change is knocking our door as it has knocked the Khmer’s door in the 14thCentury, but especially considering their reaction to it.
Similar to the Khmer, we think we can dominate nature, without having its represailles. Moreover, our domination of the nature has made us the strong industrialised and globalised society as we are; however, that will come at a price, which we see now in climate change and the awareness that our sources are not as infinite as we used to believe. Nature takes back what it deserves.
But there is more. Similar to the Khmer we are a complex society, which means that there are various structures and dynamics in our society which made us as big as we are, but might cause our fall as well. Think about the old Romans, Egyptians, Inca’s, Maya’s, and now the Khmer. They are all elaborated, complex societies who one day collapsed. I would use the word: imploded.
Various case-studies of history have shown that there are in general two ways of a society to react to an abrupt change, whether of climate, whether of another kind. They might increase in complexity, implementing specific structures to cope with the problem. Think at the creation of nation-states to keep peace in Europe, or the creation of the irrigation systems in the Angkor Watt to increase waterflow, and hence food production for the growing population.
So far so good. However, at a certain point a society cannot increase complexity, or the increased complexity will come at a cost too high. This forces the society to downsize in complexity. However, this is not always easy, since the created complexity serves to cope with current or previous problems. Hence, the society cannot easily take a step back. Think about the capitalist society in which economic growth is the goal, and which will collapse when economic growth cannot longer be guaranteed.
Hence, these societies will continue in complexity until it is no longer bearable. The societies will be forced to downsize and hence collapse or implode. Not that all people of this society will disappear overnight, but the society as such will stop existing.
The group will be downscaled in various groups, who will in the end be the beginning of new societies. For those who remember the story about the Caral in Peru: the fine-elaborated society was forced to leave its empire due to climate change caused by El Nino. They hide up their houses and left. Becoming nomadic again and maybe laying the base of a new society.
Unable to change, forced to change
Hence, if we take a look at our society and climate change, we can see a similar story. For decennia already we know the faith that hangs above us, the increasing climate change and the unsustainable life style we have. Yet, so far, there are no remarkable actions taken, especially not at a global and intrusive scale.
So far, most of the answers were actually increasing the complexity of the society, rather than downsizing, besides some ecovillages and individual initiatives taken. Yet, it might be clear that our lifestyle and industrialist and capitalist society is not sustainable and needs to downsize in order to cope with climate change and the infinity of the world’s resources.
Taking this knowledge into account, one might conclude that our society is not able to voluntary downsize, and hence will wait until the circumstances force them to do so. Hence, our society as such might collapse, or implode, similar to the Khmer, the Romans, the Caral, the Egypt, …
For those who discuss the impact of war and other treats those civilisations were facing, I recommend just taking a close look at the actuality of the world nowadays. Can you see the increasing tensions, among climate change, and of which many are actually even provoked by climate change. Such as the Syrian war – many years of drought pushed farmers to the cities, where they in combination with the Iraqi refugees did not find a liveable place, hence the cities became time bombs under Assad’s regime, who eventually exploded, overflowing the world with Syrian refugees.