Roland Fletcher: On Past Futures at Sydney Writers’ Festival

Professor Roland Fletcher discussed climate change and how we can learn from the past.
Professor Roland Fletcher discussed climate change and how we can learn from the past.

Something that is really frustrating for archaeologists such as Roland Fletcher is the total disregard people have for the origins of their food. “You really couldn’t give a damn!” he joked in his Curiosity Lecture Series talk at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. “You might think archaeologists are a bit mad, because they spend their time grovelling through other people’s garbage. But if you look through someone’s garbage bin, you can see what people really do, not just what they say they do.”

Fletcher is a professor of archaeology at the University of Sydney and instigator of the Greater Angkor project, which uses laser imaging to map the “lost” ancient megacity Angkor in Cambodia. “It’s strange that they call it a ‘lost city’ – as if the locals were so incompetent that they’d lost it,” Professor Fletcher said. “The local people showed explorers how to get there.”

He believes that by comparing the destruction of the ancient city to what is occurring in present day societies, we can be better prepared for the effects of climate change. “We have to have memory for a reference point for what we do, and a reference point for our relationship with others,” he said.

The temple of Angkor Wat – which is the size of the University of Sydney – was once a testament to the creativity, imagination and skill of its people, until it suffered the effects of severe erosion as a result of the transition from the Warm Medieval Period in the 14th century to the Little Ice Age in the 16th century.

“Angkor went through mega monsoons interspersed by severe drought, which led to the destabilisation of the city,” Professor Fletcher explained. “[They] had re-engineered their landscape and destroyed forests to create the city. There was a period of severe erosion and redeposition of thousands of tonnes of sand into their water systems.”

According to Professor Fletcher, this occurrence is significant. “Angkor was a giant, low density city, cleared of natural vegetation and hit by an extreme period of climate. The city became impossible to repair.” Sound familiar? Professor Fletcher finds it “disturbing” that 50 per cent of humanity currently lives in urban environments, a far larger statistic than in previous historical periods. Considering the worsening effects of climate change, he believes we are beginning a transition into a new climate period. “It might be worth paying attention to the material memory that lies in our past,” Professor Fletcher said. “Most of Angkor’s population reformed the community around its perimeter, and the same thing happened in Sri Lanka.”

Professor Fletcher suggests part of the solution lies in decentralisation. “It’s important to diversify your base. Committing to mega infrastructure means that if a disaster occurs it can be almost impossible to repair. There should be variety, and many means of power and transport.” He rounded out the discussion by expressing his desire for new urban studies programs that go beyond current short-term orientations, and instead incorporate more of a focus on the past to build a better future.

Originally posted at Sydney Uni Life

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