Sustainability and the Lesson of Angkor


Angkor, Cambodia

“Our struggle to control [water] has been behind the rise and fall of some of the greatest civilizations on Earth,” says geologist Iain Stewart in the BBC documentary How the Earth Changed History: Water. Some societies have successfully and sustainably adapted to water’s rhythms; others, like the ancient Khmer Empire of Angkor (Cambodia), epitomize societies that “conquered” water’s rhythms to suit their needs (and hubris).

The Khmer dug reservoirs and an underground irrigation system to store water from the monsoon rains throughout the drought season. The water system spanned over 1200 square kilometers and connected the natural lake (Tonle Sap) to the artificial reservoirs (barays) via a series of canals. The 12th century “temple-mountain” Angkor Wat was built as a spiritual home for the Hindu god Vishnu.

Angkor flourished for six centuries and, undoubtedly as a result of the water-harnessing ingenuity of the Khmer, became the largest pre-industrial city in the world. However, the impact of water management to sustain a growing population, along with deforestation practices and other watershed alterations, eventually led to erosion that choked the system with sediment and rendered it unmanageable. By the 15th century, Angkor collapsed—a victim of its own success.

Scholars have speculated that the downfall of this elaborate water system and the commerce it generated led to the end of Angkor. While climate played a part, environmental issues caused by the Khmer themselves finally brought down the empire. By the 15th century, Angkor had outstripped its resources and tipped the movement of power toward Phnom Penh. Somehow, in their success, the Khmer empire had crossed the threshold from healthy adaptation to unsustainable expansionism, to achieve the fate of all great civilizations whose mandate is to “conquer Nature”: collapse.

When a civilization seeks to “conquer” vs. co-evolve with Nature cooperatively, the result is always collapse. The Khmer, like so many others before and after them, pursued a “rule over Nature” mandate embraced by most androcentric* societies.

“Instead of adapting our development to the available water supply of a region we choose to force the water supply to “adapt” to our desired locations,” Malcolm McDowell tells us in the 2008 water documentary Blue Gold.

Today, we control water on a massive scale, interrupting the natural water cycle and taking water away from where it was to bring water to where it never was before. We’ve constructed over 50 thousand dams on the planet according to Helen Sarakinos, Dams Programs Manager of River Alliance of Wisconsin. Reservoirs around the world hold 10,000 cubic km of water; five times the water as all the rivers on Earth. Most of these great reservoirs lie in the northern hemisphere, and the extra weight has slightly changed how the Earth spins on its axis, speeding its rotation and shortening the day by 8 millionths of a second in the last 40 years.

“Ten thousand years ago, we lived at the whim of the water cycle,” geologist Iain Stewart tells us in the BBC program How the Earth Changed History: Water. “Since then,” says Stewart, “we have harnessed the power of rivers to advance our civilizations. We have extracted ground water from the depths of the most unlikely places. And we have learned to redirect and store water on a massive scale. Today we have unprecedented power over the planet’s water. But one thing hasn’t changed: there’s still only a finite amount of water on Earth. It seems to me that water is the Achilles’ heel of our modern civilization; it’s the one resource, more than any other, with the potential to limit our ambition. The fundamental limits of the water cycle are still there. But the lesson of history is that the most successful civilizations learn to adapt to those limits.”

Sustainable adaptation requires a paradigm shift, which I believe is currently in motion; a shift resulting from the natural evolution—the heroic journey—of humankind with the planet. According to Richard Tarnas, author of The Passion of the Western Mind, this involves an “evolutionary imperative for the masculine to see through and overcome its hubris and one-sidedness, to own its unconscious shadow, to choose to enter into a fundamentally new relationship of mutuality with the feminine in all its forms. The feminine then becomes not that which must be controlled, denied and exploited [like Nature], but rather fully acknowledged, respected and responded to for itself…not the objectified ‘other’; but rather source, goal, and immanent presence.”

Today, while water wars and unsustainable diversion run rampant in California, the citizens of Bolinas have decided to live within the limits of their watershed; they stopped housing development as that limit was reached.

*Androcentric describes a form of governing system in which rulers are exclusively male and/or follows the hegemony of patriarchy—as opposed to a gylanic social system based on respectful equality of men and women, using integrated masculine and feminine principles in governance and all aspects of social life. These terms are described in detail by Riane Eisler in her book “The Chalice and the Blade”.


BBC. 2010. “How the Earth Changed History: Water”. Narrated by Iain Stewart.

Eisler, Riane. 1989. “The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future”. Harper & Row. New York. 296pp.

Munteanu, Nina. 2011. “Spiritual Ecology and the Lesson of Crete” in The Alien Next Door, May 26, 2011.

Tarnas, Richard. 1993. “The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our World View”. Ballantine Books. 560pp.

Excerpted from “Water Is…” (Pixl Press, Spring 2016) by Nina Munteanu

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist, limnologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit for the latest on her books.

One thought on “Sustainability and the Lesson of Angkor

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s