Easter Island tends to grip the imagination of people. But the things that people remember most about it (even perhaps the only thing) are the giant stone statues of faces that exist on the island.
Jared Diamond tells the sad story of this island as a warning to us all in a chapter of his book Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed, but an earlier essay by him can be seen here. Thanks to MachinesLikeUs.com for the link.)
The reason that Easter Island, more than any of the other examples given by Diamond, strikes me as being relevant to global warming is because the island, being remote from the rest of the world, comes closest to the Earth in being an almost isolated system.
Easter Island, with an area of only 64 square miles, is the world’s most isolated scrap of habitable land. It lies in the Pacific Ocean more than 2,000 miles west of the nearest continent (South America), 1,400 miles from even the nearest habitable island (Pitcairn).
All the other examples of collapse cited by Diamond were linked more closely to the rest of the world, and so it is possible to speculate that outside forces contributed to their decay and demise. But the Easter Islanders seemed to have clearly done it all by themselves. Diamond poses the question of how and why “In just a few centuries, the people of Easter Island wiped out their forest, drove their plants and animals to extinction, and saw their complex society spiral into chaos and cannibalism.”
As this extended except from Diamond points out, initially Easter Island had a lot going for it.
Its subtropical location and latitude – at 27 degrees south, it is approximately as far below the equator as Houston is north of it – help give it a rather mild climate, while its volcanic origins make its soil fertile. In theory, this combination of blessings should have made Easter a miniature paradise, remote from problems that beset the rest of the world.
. . .
The earliest radiocarbon dates associated with human activities are around A.D. 400 to 700, in reasonable agreement with the approximate settlement date of 400 estimated by linguists. The period of statue construction peaked around 1200 to 1500, with few if any statues erected thereafter. Densities of archeological sites suggest a large population; an estimate of 7,000 people is widely quoted by archeologists, but other estimates range up to 20,000, which does not seem implausible for an island of Easter’s area and fertility.
. . .
For at least 30,000 years before human arrival and during the early years of Polynesian settlement, Easter was not a wasteland at all. Instead, a subtropical forest of trees and woody bushes towered over a ground layer of shrubs, herbs, ferns, and grasses. . . . The most common tree in the forest was a species of palm now absent on Easter but formerly so abundant that the bottom strata of the sediment column were packed with its pollen. The Easter Island palm was closely related to the still-surviving Chilean wine palm, which grows up to 82 feet tall and 6 feet in diameter. The tall, unbranched trunks of the Easter Island palm would have been ideal for transporting and erecting statues and constructing large canoes. The palm would also have been a valuable food source, since its Chilean relative yields edible nuts as well as sap from which Chileans make sugar, syrup, honey, and wine.
. . .
Among the prodigious numbers of seabirds that bred on Easter were albatross, boobies, frigate birds, fulmars, petrels, prions, shearwaters, storm petrels, terns, and tropic birds. With at least 25 nesting species, Easter was the richest seabird breeding site in Polynesia and probably in the whole Pacific.
. . .
Such evidence lets us imagine the island onto which Easter’s first Polynesian colonists stepped ashore some 1,600 years ago, after a long canoe voyage from eastern Polynesia.
. . .
The first Polynesian colonists found themselves on an island with fertile soil, abundant food, bountiful building materials, ample lebensraum, and all the prerequisites for comfortable living. They prospered and multiplied.
But the inhabitants then set about creating a lifestyle that slowly but surely destroyed the very environment around them.
Eventually Easter’s growing population was cutting the forest more rapidly than the forest was regenerating. The people used the land for gardens and the wood for fuel, canoes, and houses – and, of course, for lugging statues. As forest disappeared, the islanders ran out of timber and rope to transport and erect their statues. Life became more uncomfortable – springs and streams dried up, and wood was no longer available for fires.
. . .
By the time the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen arrived there on Easter day in 1722 (thus giving the island its modern name) his first impression was not of a paradise but of a wasteland. What he saw was grassland without any trees or bushes over ten feet in height.
This is the description of the island given by Roggeveen:
“We originally, from a further distance, have considered the said Easter Island as sandy; the reason for that is this, that we counted as sand the withered grass, hay, or other scorched and burnt vegetation, because its wasted appearance could give no other impression than of a singular poverty and barrenness.”
When scientists catalogued life on the island, they found the range of flora and fauna a shadow of its former rich variety and abundance.
Modern botanists have identified only 47 species of higher plants native to Easter, most of them grasses, sedges, and ferns. The list includes just two species of small trees and two of woody shrubs. With such flora, the islanders Roggeveen encountered had no source of real firewood to warm themselves during Easter’s cool, wet, windy winters. Their native animals included nothing larger than insects, not even a single species of native bat, land bird, land snail, or lizard. For domestic animals, they had only chickens.
In another extended except, Jared Diamond poses the key questions, provides the answers, and lays out their chilling significance.
As we try to imagine the decline of Easter’s civilization, we ask ourselves, “Why didn’t they look around, realize what they were doing, and stop before it was too late? What were they thinking when they cut down the last palm tree?”
I suspect, though, that the disaster happened not with a bang but with a whimper. After all, there are those hundreds of abandoned statues to consider. The forest the islanders depended on for rollers and rope didn’t simply disappear one day – it vanished slowly, over decades. Perhaps war interrupted the moving teams; perhaps by the time the carvers had finished their work, the last rope snapped. In the meantime, any islander who tried to warn about the dangers of progressive deforestation would have been overridden by vested interests of carvers, bureaucrats, and chiefs, whose jobs depended on continued deforestation. Our Pacific Northwest loggers are only the latest in a long line of loggers to cry, “Jobs over trees!” The changes in forest cover from year to year would have been hard to detect: yes, this year we cleared those woods over there, but trees are starting to grow back again on this abandoned garden site here. Only older people, recollecting their childhoods decades earlier, could have recognized a difference. Their children could no more have comprehended their parents’ tales than my eight-year-old sons today can comprehend my wife’s and my tales of what Los Angeles was like 30 years ago.
Gradually trees became fewer, smaller, and less important. By the time the last fruit-bearing adult palm tree was cut, palms had long since ceased to be of economic significance. That left only smaller and smaller palm saplings to clear each year, along with other bushes and treelets. No one would have noticed the felling of the last small palm.
By now the meaning of Easter Island for us should be chillingly obvious. Easter Island is Earth writ small. Today, again, a rising population confronts shrinking resources. We too have no emigration valve, because all human societies are linked by international transport, and we can no more escape into space than the Easter Islanders could flee into the ocean. If we continue to follow our present course, we shall have exhausted the world’s major fisheries, tropical rain forests, fossil fuels, and much of our soil by the time my sons reach my current age. (my italics)
Every day newspapers report details of famished countries – Afghanistan, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Somalia, the former Yugoslavia, Zaire – where soldiers have appropriated the wealth or where central government is yielding to local gangs of thugs. With the risk of nuclear war receding, the threat of our ending with a bang no longer has a chance of galvanizing us to halt our course. Our risk now is of winding down, slowly, in a whimper. Corrective action is blocked by vested interests, by well-intentioned political and business leaders, and by their electorates, all of whom are perfectly correct in not noticing big changes from year to year. Instead, each year there are just somewhat more people, and somewhat fewer resources, on Earth.
It would be easy to close our eyes or to give up in despair. If mere thousands of Easter Islanders with only stone tools and their own muscle power sufficed to destroy their society, how can billions of people with metal tools and machine power fail to do worse? But there is one crucial difference. The Easter Islanders had no books and no histories of other doomed societies. Unlike the Easter Islanders, we have histories of the past – information that can save us. My main hope for my sons’ generation is that we may now choose to learn from the fates of societies like Easter’s.
It was this story that alarmed me personally and made me realize that we cannot assume that collective self-interest alone will result in environmental problems being recognized and addressed. We need to take global warming seriously, even if we are not 100% certain that it is on an irreversible course. Unlike the people of Easter Island, we have knowledge of the past. We have the ability, via science, to understand the environmental problems facing us. We have the technology to solve the problems.
The only remaining unanswered question is whether we have the will to take the requisite steps. Or, like the Easter Islanders, whether we will drive ourselves, literally and metaphorically, into near oblivion.