Sometimes it can seem hard to visualize what a successful sustainable community can look like. The technical, political, social and environmental challenges can be daunting, the costs prohibitive, and the timeframes unrealizable. And yet, there are many examples of places that have organized themselves in ways that environmentally, socially, and even politically sustainable. Indeed, some of the most promising new solutions are can be found in very old ways of supplying the water and food on which basic survival depends.

For a powerful example, look no farther than the subak, a 19,500-hectare (75-square-mile) network of Balinese water temples that dates back to the 9th century AD, and was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 2012.

The five rice terraces and their water temples have deep cultural significance to the area’s farmers, who decide planting and water management strategies at monthly meetings where traditional caste boundaries are set aside. 

“The subak reflects the philosophical concept of Tri Hita Karana, which brings together the realms of the spirit, the human world, and nature,” states the UNESCO profile of the temple network. “The subak system of democratic and egalitarian farming practices has enabled the Balinese to become the most prolific rice growers in the archipelago despite the challenge of supporting a dense population.”

Good Intentions Imperil the System

The subak is a stable, deeply sustainable system for the communities that manage and depend on it. But it has faced its share of challenges in the last half-century, mostly when well-intentioned outsiders have tried to improve it with interventions that pushed past its natural carrying capacity.

The first threat came in the 1970s, when the Green Revolution introduced more intensive cultivation techniques to increase rice production. In a 2012 Pop!Tech talk, Steve Lansing of the Stockholm Resilience Centre said the communities objected when they were required to introduce high-yield crops, pesticides, and fertilizers, in the hope of boosting production to three crops per year.

Community elders said the introduction of water to the rice fields had to be timed very carefully, in accordance with traditional practice. The new techniques yielded bumper crops for a couple of years. But after that, the elders’ concerns were borne out, when massive infestations forced farmers and the Indonesian government to spray the fields with pesticides. Lansing said the farmers’ philosophical objection—that killing anything disturbs the creation—mirrored the inadvertent attack on a complex natural and cultural system that had functioned quite well on its own for centuries.

Not All Attention is Good Attention

The second threat resulted from Lansing’s own successful effort to gain a World Heritage designation for the subak. In a 2013 Pop!Tech talk, architect Julia Watson noted that tourists’ enthusiastic embrace of heritage sites can overwhelm traditional cultures and practices.

“These places are living monuments,” she said, “and the protection of the lives of the people, their rituals, and their landscapes is what we’re interested in.”

Knowing that an estimated 12 million conservation refugees have been displaced from national parks and protected areas in Africa, Watson and her colleagues are working with the subak on a participatory design process, to protect the water temples and their bounty from an onslaught of up to three million tourists.

The Lessons of the Subak

The story of the subak shows that it’s a mistake to assume that old systems and traditions are simple or obsolete, or that new approaches are necessarily an improvement. Particularly if those new approaches depend heavily on global supply chains and extensive use of petrochemicals, they run the risk of destabilizing local ecosystems, while making communities more reliant on inputs derived from fossil fuels linked to climate change.

While climate change itself is undoubtedly a global threat, it is driven largely by consumer and business demand for petroleum products, and its effects are felt most acutely at the local and regional levels. So it makes sense that the search for greater climate resilience should go back to the traditional landscapes, practices, and cultures in our own back yards.

Julia Watson says the knowledge to tap those resources is neither lost nor forgotten. “It’s just hidden in some of our remotest locations around the world.” Learning the lessons of the subak will be an important step in adapting to climate change and gradually reducing our reliance on the fossil fuel economy that drives it.

- Mitchell Beer