People of the Watershed: An Ancient Paradigm for Sustainability

By Matt Oppenheim, PhD

A Call for Urgent Change

On March 15th, hundreds of thousands of youth from over 100 countries marched to save the planet from dramatic climate change: from melting glaciers, creating rising sea levels that inundate land, to record hurricanes, storms and tornadoes; to unheard of heatwaves, fires and then floods; to drought and desertification causing the death and displacement of millions.

Figure 1

These youth call for an urgent systems change that places a primacy on the biosphere as well as changing an economic system from privileging the wealthiest 1% to being more equitable. In this article, I offer an integrated Neohumanist/Proutist systems change, based on over 12,000 years of anthropological; archeological and historical evidence. Here we must look to the unchanging fabric of our planet: the system of watersheds that cover every ecological niche on the planet (See Figure 1: The Watersheds of Africa). When human societies live in harmony with the watershed, we flourish; when they are ignored, we perish.

As you will see, the founder of Neohumanism and Prout, Prabhat Rainjain Sarkar, can be considered one of the world’s pre-eminent watershed experts and innovators of watershed sustainability. In fact, I believe that every feature, concept and principle of Neohumanism/Prout can be realized through Sarkar’s insights and recommendations for working synergistically with watersheds

Watersheds: The eternal fabric of planet earth

Figure 2

Watersheds (See figure 2) are fed by high, often glacial mountain chains. As rivers, tributaries, and rivulets flow down lesser mountains and into valleys, we find resplendent forests and mineral-rich soils. Further into the plains we find savannahs, bush and abundant animal life and underground aquifers. As the rivers fan out into deltas, they create nutrient-rich alluvia and then enter the oceans. Coastal estuaries, marshes, and swamps create an amazing dynamic, where the coast is protected from the impact of hurricanes and storms while providing an amazing ecological niche of flora and fauna that has continued to provide a resplendent existence to humanity.

Whether through epic river civilizations—the Yangtze, Tigress and Euphrates, Indo-Gangetic or Nile or smaller systems such as the Mississippi, Thames, Rhine, Amazon, Nairobi or Niger—human beings have co-created and defined their worlds through their watersheds. Your local watershed is all around you. It may well be smaller than these grander watersheds, but it is determined by both the history of culture and land use and the ecological and geological characteristics that surround you. Chances are that you can walk out the door and see parts of the watershed. We are all “People of the Watershed”.

Our Ancient Watershed Legacy

Figure 3

Many ancient indigenous societies defined their cosmos as formed by their watersheds. In Southwest pueblo and Navajo cultures, creation emerged from “Sipapus”: large holes from the mountain tops, and evolution continued to flow down the watersheds. Later societies and civilization defined their territories by the surrounding mountains. Common names for people and places referred to features of the watershed: “He/she born by the lake’s edge”, “The gathering place where water flows across flat rocks”, “A circle of juniper trees”, for example.

Many emergent societies and civilizations were designed in conformity to the flow of water. Villages, settlements, and cities of the early U.S. Southwest were first designed to follow the course of water, through acequias or water dispersal systems both amongst pueblos and later Hispanic cultures. In the Shinto practice of Satoyama in early Japan, fish life and water flow interspersed with housing, transportation, and merged back into ponds and larger lakes (See Figure 3). A similar process was used in Norway, rural China and throughout rural Africa and New Zealand.

A review of the long cycle and evolution of human society has proven time and time again that when following the above dynamics, societies and ecologies are resilient and stable. With ignorance and then conscious destruction of these watershed dynamics, civilizations eventually collapse.

Thousands of archeological research projects around the globe attest to the challenges and solutions cited throughout this article. The common conclusion is that decentralized, self-sufficient, ecologically based societies are more resilient, while urbanized, centralized and hierarchical societies fail.

The Cause of Civilizational Collapse

As societies evolved to greater complexity, many became super-urbanized and hierarchical. This initially helped govern the fields, utilized individual talents, and distributed resources. However, as each aspect of urbanization intensified, collapse was eminent. What occurred in these civilizations is that leadership became more aloof from human need; natural resources were destroyed, and human capacity focused on activity that depleted rather than replenished the economy.

So, it is by no coincidence that the decentralization and community autonomy that emerges after the fall of large unbalanced urban systems is precisely the human return to the laws of the watershed. Land and trees; marshes, plains and agricultural land are replenished. Despite large-scale desertification, massive deforestation, strip-mining and desecration of the world’s river systems, the watershed remains the one great constant in the story of planet earth.

An illustrative example is many Mayan Empires. As the priestly class gained power, much of the labor force, once focused on farming, was redirected to the building of huge temple complexes and the creation of ceremonial objects. Forests were rapidly lost and water resources dried up. In other words, the leaders of society lost their purpose in protecting and facilitating the collective good and balance with the environment and rather focused on their personal fame, wealth, and power. Does that sound familiar?

Civilizations survive when attuned to the Watershed

However, there are other examples that fly in the face of this paradigm. With the Mayan center of Tikal (which lasted over one thousand years), what is seen as a huge city center is actually a huge network of water canals, water cisterns, and distribution centers that reached a network of small villages. What appears to be the huge primary temple complex was actually made of large stone blocks, carved from the bedrock to create this water storage and distribution system. The runoff from these complexes would disperse into marshes, reservoirs, and rivulets. Mayan culture still remains vibrant and resilient based on interdependent networks of autonomous, community-based villages, – and decentralization with self-reliant economies.

At Angkor Wat in the Mekong Delta in Cambodia, the central “Water Temple” was actually an elaborate web of water distribution centers, represented in a network of smaller temples, where water managers and their communities decided how to distribute water, and decision-making was made amongst a huge region of self-reliant villages attuned to the watershed. This great civilization finally collapsed, when the priorities of governance shifted to large scale maritime trade and military conquest; a common theme of empire collapse.

The common adage in these civilizations was to waste not one drop of water. There were ingenious ways to lift and carry water; to disperse water and to preserve and enhance all sources of water.

Principles of the watershed have been desecrated throughout history, through empire-building and conquest, and more recently the Chinese Cultural Revolution. It has really been the onset of the industrial revolution in the mid-eighteenth century that has blinded our attention to the watershed—our eternal legacy on this planet. Because of this, we view history from the lens of the “carpentered” environment that commodifies rather than sustains. Free market capitalism has made these problems extreme and barbaric.

The Current Problem

Analogies to today’s dire urban predicament are evident. Large monument-like buildings utilize 76% of electrical energy in the United States. Inside are many industries that take away, rather than adding to a productive economy. In capitalism, the priests of ceremony and ritual are replaced by the stock market, and financial sector, which more often create the potential for destruction rather than genuine economic development. Added to this are the banking, insurance, and health sectors. Urban health care costs have accelerated through air pollution, high urban stress, lack of exercise, and aloofness from the nurturing natural world. At the same time, while urban environments are disconnected from their rural support regions, they rely on the food production of China and other Asian and third world countries, which quickly become overused.

There is the obscene loss of energy from the global exchange of goods that traverse the globe; clogging shipping lanes and wasting fuel as basic goods are moved back and forth across continental highways. Then there are the escalating long-term consequences from petroleum disasters, both on the sea and on land.

Eighteen of the twenty-five largest urban centers across the world are along the coast. Because of rapidly melting glaciers, these cities are beginning to flood and will be completely flooded by the end of the century. Sweeping fires, leading to massive soil loss and flooding, have created a “climate diaspora” that has reached tens of millions. Multinational corporations are privatizing precious water, leading to millions of the poor to bathe in, cook with, and drink toxic water from toxic industries. Over 7 million people in the world are without sanitary water.

Only seven percent of land in China is considered arable. The human displacement, malnutrition, and unimaginable waste of resources foretells a doom scenario that is frightening. Even worse, this crisis is on a global scale, not just on the scale of one isolated watershed-based civilization that could collapse and recover without impacting others.

A Return to Our Legacy

We must return to the well-proven interventions that evolved over thousands of years, and then apply current technology to these systems. Many Moghul societies created systems of cisterns and water canals that dispersed water over large areas. Small ponds, lakes, dams, and reservoirs preserved fish and plant life, and meant that all people had easy access to clean water. In parched deserts, Muslim societies built desert mechanisms to extract enough water to serve large villages. Many ancient societies were water temple cities.

Sparking a Transformation of Consciousness to Conscious Action

There are many keys to returning our worldview, ethics, and visceral experience of life back to the watershed. Most countries still boast ancient watershed pilgrimages that link ancient cisterns and natural springs together as well as linking modern religion with ancient mythic spirituality. All large rivers have their gods and goddesses and spirit-beings. People in Egypt still beseech the Nile god to assist them in times of social and economic strife. In India there are massive river pilgrimages that introduce the pilgrim to vastly different languages, arts, and agricultural practices that still exist in symbiosis with the watershed.

Prabhat Rainjan Sarkar travelled great lengths of rivers in India, studying the impact of soils on language and how the convergence of rivers impacted culture. He created several model examples of how to return colonized regions of India back to their sustainable beginnings, and then how to link that to a modern future. He wrote extensively on reforestation, water-harvesting techniques and how to develop local, decentralized economies based on natural resources. He devised plans for small reservoirs and ponds and lakes where water plants and fish life converged with creepers and shrubs and then trees and bushes to create a resplendent ecological niche to enhance both natural and human life.

His vision for “master units” is for dispersed demonstration hubs where local technology, alternative energy, integrated farming techniques and local industries demonstrate a vibrant economy and ecology that return to harmony with the watershed. Here are living Neohumanist principles that preserve and enhance all life and recognize cultural and language differences, where diverse peoples cooperate across watersheds. Here also, all principles of Prout, from Economic Democracy to decentralized economic planning, to three-ier industries, to the essence of samaja, integrate seamlessly with the watershed.

The reshifting of priorities and urgent changes argued above are already occurring. Along with trial projects, there has been a shifting of consciousness, with many finding renewal and resilience by walking their own watersheds. Now this needs to become the dominant paradigm.

Plans for Action

“People of the Watershed” is a return to the laws of the watershed, brought to life through Neohumanism and Prout. A book is being written; workshops are being held and curriculum is being developed.

If you work in a Neohumanist school or with Prout, here is a quick guide:

  1. Define your local watershed. Draw a simple map.
  2. Describe its current condition and what has caused positive and negative impacts.
  3. Research indigenous use and oral history of the watershed.
  4. Plan a walk through the watershed. Collect samples of flora and fauna as well as of pollution and industrial effluent, and create a watershed scrapbook.
  5. Meet with organizations that work with the local watershed and brainstorm a common activity.
  6. Start utilizing the ideas of Sarkar to design a sustainable watershed. In addition, learn the many Prabhat Samgeets that sing of the magic and wonder of watershed features.
  7. Begin with one project.
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