Recent scientific findings around the ancient city of Angkor in Cambodia hint at some pretty disturbing news for great civilizations. And Angkor is not alone in the lesson it has to teach us about how major societies can collapse. The southwest American civilization of Anasazi — the famous cliff dwellers — disappeared from the scene after hundreds of years of being at the top of their game. Could the same thing happen to us?
Of course it can. Otherwise I wouldn't be writing about this.
So, what happened to Angkor and to the Anasazi that swept these well-developed societies off the scene? Actually, it was probably not just one thing, but a combination of events that led to the demise of these (and other) great civilizations. But thanks to recent archeological discoveries at Angkor, and similar discoveries made long ago in the land of the Anasazi, we know at least one factor was severe drought.
Angkor was a world-class empire (as were the Anasazi in their realm). In fact, Angkor was a major player in southeast Asia for nearly 500 years, and the great city itself spread across more than 385 square miles, three times the area of modern Philadelphia. The city boasted a complex network of channels, moats, embankments and reservoirs to collect and store water during the monsoon season so it could be used during times of drought. The largest Khmer reservoir could hold 1.87 billion cubic feet of water.
Researchers studied sediments from the floor of the reservoir, to determine what happened. They found that sediment deposits in the bottom of the reservoir were one-tenth of normal when the city fell. Scientists surmise that a prolonged drought overwhelmed even their best efforts at water management, using the technology available at the time (15th century).
Here was a society that was living at the highest level of efficiency, taking many steps to keep their civilization fed and watered — and yet it wasn't enough to survive the change of climate. Mary Beth Day, a paleolimnologist at the University of Cambridge in England said, "Angkor can be an example of how technology isn't always sufficient to prevent major collapse during times of severe instability. Angkor had a highly sophisticated water management infrastructure, but this technologic advantage was not enough to prevent its collapse in the face of extreme environmental conditions."
The Anasazi faced the same situation, and their agricultural efforts collapsed under the weight of a 26-year drought.
Notice that both of those climate change events took place before the industrial revolution, so I don't believe "manmade global warming" had anything to do with it. Fact is, the earth's climate has always been undergoing one kind of change or another. It happened in the past, it will happen in the future.
But the point I want to make is that any civilization, no matter how highly technological or how primitive, can be taken down by such a simple thing as a prolonged drought. Primitive people probably fare better because they are less dependent on someone else to deliver their necessities. Modern societies are particularly vulnerable because the populace doesn't know how to supply themselves with what they need to survive.
Our society is not immune to this kind of catastrophe. In fact, I'd say we're prime candidates. We've become an entitlement society that is dependent on government to give us what we need. That's not a good way to build a stabile civilization that can withstand something like a long-term drought, or a food shortage, or a shutdown of services for any reason.
A good New Year resolution is to work on becoming personally less dependent and more capable of taking care of ourselves.
And if you feel like taking a vacation, I suggest a trip to the ruins of the great city of Angkor. But if you don't want to travel all the way to Cambodia, why not stop by the four corners region of the U.S. southwest and take a tour of the Anasazi cliff dwellings. If you listen to the wind blowing through the slickrock canyons, perhaps you'll hear a warning voice.