Apocalypse Then…Apocalypse Now? – Three civilisations caught out by climate change

The story of the Maya reveals that human induced climate change is not the recent phenomenon it is so often perceived to be. In fact, it stands as a warning to current generations in Central and South America who are deforesting the region at an unprecedented rate.

History repeats itself – Large scale deforestation is occurring throughout the Americas.


3. The Khmer Empire – Cambodia

Image by Robert Nyman, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic licence, via Flickr

The Khmer civilisation is best known for building the stunning city of Angkor in modern day Cambodia. The largest pre-industrial city in the world 10, Angkor was renowned for its sophisticated water management system. However after a period of decline in the 13th and 14th centuries the city was all but abandoned by the end of the 15th.

Tree ring data indicates that the city experienced decades-long drought interspersed with intense monsoons through the 14th and 15th centuries that put a heavy strain on the water management system and contributed to its demise 11.

While conflicts and invasion ultimately sealed the fate of Angkor, there is strong evidence to suggest that the fortunes of the Khmer were fundamentally linked to fluctuations in the reach and volume of the Asian monsoon 12. At the time of the civilisation’s collapse, sediment cores from the city’s reservoir complex show that the water supply had declined by a factor of ten 13.

nature cloud sky sunrise sunset morning lake dawn dusk evening reflection jungle asia trees temple cambodia history angkor wat mirroring afterglow temple complexes
Angkor was known as the ‘Hydraulic City’ due to its sophisticated water management system.

Without a doubt, the modern world has done a remarkable job of buffering us against the temperamental nature of the natural climate. Not only can we understand and predict weather and climate, but we can transport resources at a scale and over distances which were unimaginable to our ancestors.

But in the process we have become detached from nature, and risk taking it for granted. Never forget that every component of the modern world was either dug from the ground or grown in it.  Plastic, glass, concrete, steel – all the trappings of an urban environment – started in the ground. And our food still relies on the fundamental natural processes that govern the climate.

Now, with carbon dioxide levels up 40% in 200 years, we have effectively put natural climate variability on steroids. Whether we accept it or not we, like the Egyptians, Maya and Khmer, are at the mercy of the climate. Does this mean modern civilisation, like its predecessors, will collapse due to climate change? Perhaps not. But for the ancients, societal collapse was preceded by a period of decline directly related to an unpredictable and unreliable climate. Unless we heed scientific facts and the warnings of history, we are in danger of watching our society slowly unravel like a disaster viewed in slow motion.



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