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Diamond’s Collapse: Twilight at Easter

I’ve always been drawn to islands. In his book The Islanders, author Christopher Priest wrote that islands gave “an underlying feeling of circularity, of coast, a limit to what you could achieve or where you might go” (p. 281). On a small enough island, one could grow to recognize every landmark, every beach, every peak, and become attached to the landscape in its entirety. There’s something attractive and alluring about being able to comprehend a place as a whole, in its entirety.

I first learned about the history of Easter Island, also known as Rapa Nui in high school. It remains a curiously strong memory: Someone had left behind a poorly photocopied and blurry article on the ground underneath a computer desk. Before that moment, I knew very little about Easter Island. I knew that it was very remote, that it was populated with large distinctive statues, and that aliens were somehow involved – all standard fare. But the article conveyed a far more interesting tale than extraterrestrial shenanigans; it spoke of an ingenious society that eventually collapsed because it had overexploited its surroundings. I kept that worn and wrinkled article with me throughout my undergraduate degree in Environmental Science. Every so often I would pull it out, smooth out its pages and creased folds, and imagine the lives of the islanders during the decline of their society.

Jared Diamond’s book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, came out after I finished my degree. Within its pages is a chapter titled “Twilight at Easter”. Diamond provides a comprehensive and compelling overview of Rapa Nui’s history, much more so than my original and now lost article. His narrative serves as a powerful reminder of the dangers of environmental exploitation. What happened on that island can happen on a much larger scale, and we ignore the lessons of history at our own peril.

The History of Easter

“No other site that I have visited made such a ghostly impression on me as Rano Raraku, the quarry on Easter Island where its famous gigantic stone statues were carved (Plate 5). To begin with, the island is the most remote habitable scrap of land in the world. The nearest lands are the coast of Chile 2,300 miles to the east and Polynesia’s Pitcairn Islands 1,300 miles to the east (map, pp. 84-85). When I arrived in 2002 by jet plane from Chile, my flight took more than five hours, all spent over the Pacific Ocean stretching endlessly between the horizons, with nothing to see below us except water. By the time, towards sunset, that the small low speck that was Easter Island finally did become dimly visible ahead in the twilight, I had become concerned whether our plane had enough fuel to return to Chile if we overshot and missed Easter. It is hardly an island that one would expect to have been discovered and settled by any humans before the large swift European sailing ships of recent centuries.”

– Collapse, p. 79

Perhaps one of the most astonishing feats of preindustrial civilization was the discovery of Easter Island by ancient Polynesian explorers. Unmatched in their navigational prowess, they had found a way to this remotest of islands, a speck of land in the vast Pacific. Once there, they not only survived, but also flourished; an estimated 6,000 to 30,000 people lived at the height of the Easter Island civilization (Collapse, p. 90). When Polynesian colonists first came upon Rapa Nui sometime before 900 A.D., it was an island with abundant food resources and dense subtropical forests.

Easter Island Edge of the world

On the edge of the world. Photo from enjoyyourholiday.

Diamond pointed out that the Polynesians could not have known that Easter Island was in reality a fragile environment. Compared to other Pacific islands, it was drier, cooler, less fertile, and less resilient. As people exploited more and more of their surroundings, the environment was unable to cope. As a result, the complex society that was sustained by the environment collapsed. Even today, centuries removed from the height of Easter Island civilization, Rapa Nui remains incapable of supporting a large population, and is devoid of trees or bushes of any significant height.

Culture’s reliance on the environment

Hidden Moai at Rano Raraku

The works of man and of nature. Photo by Louis Vest.

Diamond’s examination of Easter Island once again demonstrates that culture cannot survive without nature. He notes the devastating blows inflicted on the tribes as they experienced the loss of raw materials, wild-caught foods, and the decrease in crop yields as soil fertility declines. Deforestation was the root cause of all three problems. No large trees meant a shortage of dependable firewood and a lack of bark for making clothing, rope, and sails. The lack of suitable wood for the construction of deep ocean canoes crippled the civilization’s ability to catch porpoises, an important source of protein for Easter Islanders. This led to increased and unsustainable pressures on land and sea-bird populations; colonies were either wiped out or severely reduced in numbers. The lack of trees led to topsoil erosion by wind and rain, and people had to resort to lithic (stone) mulches to grow food. Without sufficient food, Diamond wrote that “the further consequences spiraled with starvation, a population crash, and a descent into cannibalism.” (P. 109). I could scarcely imagine the despair and the hopelessness felt by the survivors of the shattered society. They adapted the best they could, but it was not an easy life by any means.

The Pinnacle of Human Ingenuity

Curious Moai Easter Island

That they were an ingenious and creative people there can be no doubt. Photo by Elizabeth Crapo.

No one can think about Easter Island without thinking also of the moai’s. These giant figures, hewn from compressed volcanic ash and ranged anywhere from a dozen to over eighty tons, were constructed to show off the prowess and prestige of each tribe. As I came to be captivated by the history of the island, these statues become a constant source of speculation for me. What inspiration shaped the creation of these figures? What did these silent monoliths witness as civilization around them crumbled?

The sheer scale and size of these monuments never cease to amaze me. Here were a people with no draft animals; they did not have access to cranes, metal tools, electricity, or plastics. All they did they achieved through muscle power and ingenuity. They received no help from anyone beyond their own shores (sorry alien conspiracy theorists). Despite these limitations, they were able to mobilize, organize, and sustain their entire society around this single task.  In order to undertake these massive projects, the Easter Islanders had to achieve something even greater: The construction of an integrated and relatively stable society that endured for centuries.

Can modern society do better given similar circumstances? If we had the resources the Easter Islanders had access to – stone, bones, lumber, rope, muscle – would we be able to carve, transport, and erect these monolithic statues? Perhaps. Perhaps not.  To me, the statues of Easter Island represent human triumph and ingenuity, displayed in full, as awe-inspiring as any feat of architecture from the ancient and modern world.

Yet I wonder if in their obsession to trump one another they forgot to look around at the changes they wrought in their surroundings. In their unending desire for prestige to show up the other tribes with taller and heavier statues, did they ever notice the gradual thinning of their forests or the annual diminishment of their crops? Surely people would have observed that there were fewer and fewer trees with each passing year. To steal a phrase from Dr. Seuss, did no one speak for the trees? Diamond asks the very same question:

 I have often asked myself, “What did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say while he was doing it?” Like modern loggers, did he shout “Jobs, not trees?!” Or: “Technology will solve our problems, never fear, we’ll find a substitute for wood”? Or: “We don’t have proof that there aren’t palms somewhere else on Easter, we need more research, your proposed ban on logging is premature and driven by fear-mongering?”

– Collapse, p.114

Self-inflicted environmental damage is always difficult to understand. Diamond believes that the collapse of Easter Island was not because people were “unusually bad or improvident.” (p. 118). The Easter Islanders did not understand that the land they inhabited was fragile. They did not see or did not wish to see the connections between their actions and the environmental consequences. In that sense, they resemble many of us. As Wade Davis, explorer in residence at the National Geographic society, wrote in his book The Wayfinders, “Polynesians were fully capable of overexploiting the natural world, and when their populations exceeded the carrying capacity of the land, they had no choice but to move on.” Unfortunately on Rapa Nui, people had nowhere to go. Their society outstripped their environment, to the detriment of both.

Comparisons of Easter Island to Earth

“The Easter Islanders’ isolation probably also explains why I have found that their collapse, more than the collapse of any other pre-industrial society, haunts my readers and students. The parallels between Easter Island and the whole modern world are chillingly obvious. Thanks to globalization, international trade, jet planes, and the Internet, all countries on Earth today share resources and affect each other, just as did Easter’s dozen clans. Polynesian Easter Island was as isolated in the Pacific Ocean as the Earth is today in space. When the Easter Islanders got into difficulties, there was nowhere to which they could flee, nor to which they could turn for help; nor shall we modern Earthlings have recourse elsewhere if our troubles increase. These are the reasons why people see the collapse of Easter Island as a metaphor, a worst case scenario, for what may lie ahead of us in our own future.”

– Collapse, p. 119

Comparisons between Easter Island and Earth are inevitable. There’s no doubt that we inhabit in a much more robust and resilient system than the ancient Polynesians. Anyone who has an aquarium knows that a larger aquarium is much easier to take care of than a small one. Parameters are easier to stabilize and harder to disrupt in a larger tank; there is more margin for error and more buffer against shocks. Earth is a tremendously dynamic system, complete with huge nutrient and mineral cycles that operate on a greater scale than on a relatively isolated landmass like Easter Island. But modern civilization’s ability for change is orders of magnitudes beyond those of the Easter Islanders. As the following video depicts, humanity’s abilities to alter the world are now on the geologic level:

How we choose to exercise our powers is more important now than ever before. Diamond’s terse but vivid descriptions of Rapa Nui reminds me of the post-apocalyptic Earth depicted in one of my favourite novels, The Dispossessed:

“My world, my Earth, is a ruin. A planet spoiled by the human species. We multiplied and gobbled and fought until there was nothing left, and then we died. We controlled neither appetite nor violence; we did not adapt. We destroyed ourselves. But we destroyed the world first. There are no forests left on my Earth. The air is grey, the sky is grey, it is always hot… There are nearly a half billion of us now. Once there were nine billion. You can see the old cities still everywhere. The bones and bricks go to dust, but the little pieces of plastic never do – they never adapt either. We failed as a species, as a social species.”

– The Dispossessed, p. 348

As I have written previously on this blog, our actions are not always negative; our force for positive change is as great as our propensity for destruction. The desolate wind-swept landscape of modern Easter Island reminds me of the landscape in The Man who Planted Trees. What if the one or two of the dozen tribes on Easter Island had the foresight to replant the land with palms before it was too late? Perhaps that could have saved their civilization and altered the course of history.

We who have the advantage of hindsight, of history, of cultural knowledge, and of science, must look to Easter Island and learn from the mistakes. We must be careful not to admire our accomplishments too much, lest we ignore the environment that sustains us. We cannot afford to do so. Like the Easter Islanders, we have nowhere else to go.

Twilight at Easter Island

Twilight at Easter – Could it happen to us? Photo by Elizabeth Crapo.

Question

  • Do you think of nature as something that is resilient or fragile? What about humanity?

Next Up: Hayao Miyazaki’s definitive film on nature and culture.

Related Ekostories:

Reference

Davis, Wade. The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom matters in the Modern World. Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2009.

Diamond, Jared. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York: PenguinGroup , 2005.

Le Guin, Ursula K. The Dispossessed. New York: HarperCollins, 1974.

Priest, Christopher. The Islanders. London: Gollancz, 2012.

Featured image: A gorgeous shot of Rapa Nui (Easter Island) by fellow WordPress blogger Murray Foote.

 

11 Comments

  1. Very useful summary, Isaac and very well written. I completely agree with what you are saying though I have some comments about the fine details.

    Actually there are some large trees on Easter Island. There is a small eucalypt forest in the centre of the island, ironically probably on what used to be prime farming land. There are also coconut palms at Anakena, planted in the 19th century and previously not native to Easter Island.

    I have also read that it’s not clear that the Rapa Nui actually chopped down the last palm tree; it may have been European settlers in the nineteenth century. For another native tree, the last one was chopped down in 1965 for firewood though not before Thor Heyerdahl had rescued some seeds and sent them to Kew Botanical Gardens in England. Some specimens of that tree were later reintroduced.

    I did considerable research on Easter Island both before I went there and while I was writing up my blog later. I didn’t encounter Jarad Diamond’s Collapse until very late in that process so he didn’t have much effect on my analysis even though I agree with much of what he says. However I think his fundamental thesis is oversimplified. Specifically, most writers appear not to have read the journals of the early European visitors. His thesis that there was a collapse due to the Rapa Nui implies that it happened before European arrival but I think it is more complex than that.

    This is what I think happened: (1) The Rapa Nui society suffered an ecological crisis before the arrival of Europeans with 50% reduction in population, at least some cannibalism and marked reduction of food sources (they were left mainly with chickens and a few root vegetables). When Roggeveen arrived in 1722, the situation had stabilised, the traditional society and hierarchy was intact and probably all the moai (the giant statues) were still standing. However, the Europeans had food and guns and shot a few natives who stole from them. The moai represented dead chiefs and the priests communed through them with the Gods to guarantee prosperity. Yet the newcomers were obviously more powerful than the chiefs so how could the chiefs and priests continue to claim a divine monopoly? (2) By the time the next Europeans arrived nearly fifty years later, the chiefs and the priests were largely vanquished and the moai overturned (though overturning moai continued until the last one was overturned at Ahu Te Pita Kura around 1840). (3) From the late 18th century through most of the 19th century, European visitors created carnage through kidnapping, murder, rape and disease until the population had fallen from 10,000 or more at around 1300 to only 110 in about 1870.

    Worldwide, we face issues with sustainable development analogous to what happened to the Rapa Nui before European contact. We still may have time to ameliorate or recover from these issues or suffer a greatly impoverished future. However, the Rapa Nui didn’t have the capacity to affect world climate though they no doubt affected their microclimate by wiping out the forests. Although global warming is really a special case of unsustainable development, it may cause a systemic adverse effect such as the earth has seen only in previous mass extinction events.

    I think we all have a responsibility to do what little we can and hope that collectively we can nudge events in a sane direction.

    Isaac has seen this but if other readers are interested, I have an Easter Island summary page that includes links to my posts, historical and ecological topics and also other references and links: http://murrayfoote.com/2011/07/12/easter-island-wrapup-and-contents/

    I also have an essay on whether what happened in Easter Island offers a Parable for our Times (starts 5 paragraphs down): http://murrayfoote.com/2011/07/07/27th-april-easter-island-ahu-runga-vae-and-ahu-hanga-te-tenga-3/

    Regards,
    Murray

  2. I read Jared Diamond’s Collapse a few years ago, but it was good to read your refresher on this topic of societal and natural resilience. I am not sure if we have made any progress in becoming a more sustainable world in the years since then.

    From what I’ve read, North America has been doing a better job of reforestation than in the past, but many parts of the world are destroying trees at perilous rates. And of course, materialism is now globally interconnected more than ever before.

    Your article makes me want to do some research and see if there are any analysis on the condition of global resilience and sustainability. I read a Scientific American article with a global analysis a few years ago. Isaac, do you know of any recent work on the state of earth’s critical ecosystems?

    Karen

    • Hi Karen,

      Coming off the heels of the disappointing +20 Rio Summit, I don’t think the news is very good for a more sustainable future, unfortunately, without some major systemic changes.

      The approach we are taking really isn’t working. More and more I believe that modern environmentalism movement appeals to too narrow a base, and the messages we espouse don’t resonate with the general population. Decrying consumerism is bad, as much as it may be true, doesn’t help move us in a more sustainable direction; people need better metaphors and ideas around the notion of resilience, and different paths for exploring what a good life is or can be while being inherently sustainable. Francis Moore Lappe’s book, Ecomind, looks specifically at the thought traps environmentalists and other environmentally aware people fall into when we wish (unsuccessfully) to persuade people to change their behaviour and mindsets. Here is an excellent review here I recently read:

      Recrafting the green message

      If you’re interested in exploring global resilience and sustainability, The Worldwatch Institute publishes pretty good annual State of the World reports.

      • Hi Isaac,
        I follow Lester Brown, and wathc the Earth Policy Institute trends, and some things are growing, those that have some economic value associated with them like wind and solar power. Yet, so many things are discouraging. To me in the U.S., we have such a political and ideological divide in the country that environmentalists unfortunately are suspect by half the population because of media distortions.
        When I ran a green business program for the City of Chicago, from 2006 through 2008 and it was very successful, partially because we had a lot of government funding. But now, there’s not much ongoing government funding that in my opinoin is needed to make big changes happen.
        Given that there is no funding or true leadership. In my opinion, Obama’s record on strengthening the environment is a failure, because surprisingly there was more funding for many green programs on George Bush. Of course, the problem is the federal deficit and all the politics around that and so many cuts have been and continue to be made because the wealthy aren’t being taxed the way they used to be.
        Without a leader of a global power that inspires people to care about the earth, grassroots efforts will have to create the change. Maybe it’s possible that crowdfunding could be used for this. I agree that environmentalism could use some great marketing genius to work on it. I’ll check out Ecomind your link to recrafting the green message.
        Yet, having not read the article, I feel like there’s an even bigger issue in that the culture is so materialistic and “market-driven” that we can’t see the bigger picture no matter how many Day After Tomorrow movies are out there.
        Maybe this is what you’re saying, but I think we need to have a utopic story that appeals to the broader population. Fear and dystopic view aren’t changing much. A positive future that makes life today better needs to somehow be articulated.

        • Hi Karen,

          I know what you mean by the vitriolic atmosphere that pervades many a discussion around environmental issues. I’ve actually been really surprised that even on wordpress alone there have been quite a backlash on issues that I thought were commonly accepted as non-contentious. Stewardship of the earth shouldn’t really be a partisan issue. That’s what I mean when I say that modern environmentalism has too narrow a base, when messages surrounding sustainability and resiliency should be ideas that should find resonance in everyone.

          What I was saying is not that consumerism isn’t a major issue, but rather that even it is a symptom rather than the core problem. In her book, Lappe wants to go a different road. She asks the question: Why do we find such satisfaction in materialism? Many of use crave those things because participating in the system fills a void and a need that we intrinsically have: the need to connect and the yearning for meaningful relationships with ourselves and with others. Part of the vision for a more positive future is one where we understand how to feel connected and secure without engaging in the destructive actions that is seriously damaging the natural world.

          Part of why I started this blog is to see if I could introduce people to new stories or that they know and love in perhaps a different light, to shake things loose a little bit, to create a new connection or two that may lead to a deeper-seeded change in mindset and behaviour. I wholeheartedly agree with you that we need new narratives and new metaphors to lead the way to a more sustainable future, and that fear and dystopias can’t be the only way to go; we need great and recognizable futures that provide people with a meaningful and comfortable lives. I also think that narratives that are explicitly environmental, The Day After Tomorrows, the Loraxes, and the Avatars, aren’t going to be very effective because they are often pigeonholed as “environmental films and stories” and dismissed as such. I personally am interested in exploring stories that have environmental ideas embedded at their core, and are conveyed without elements of preachiness, guilt, or blame.

  3. Hi Murray,

    Thank you for your comments. It’s awesome to hear about Easter Island from someone who’s had first-hand experience. I think your web resource is probably one of the best resources I’ve come across on this subject and what it means for modern society. Couple of things:

    1.) I agree with you: Reality was definitely not quite as simple as described in the chapter. I’m not currently at home and don’t have access to the book, but I do recall that Diamond’s narrative focused very much on the era prior to European contact, and drew significantly on pollan records and archeological evidence to support his assertions. I think the point he was trying to stress was that massive deforestation was a major factor in the decline of the Rapa Nui’s fortunes prior to European contact.
    2.) Diamond did mention that Rapa Nui society had adapted, obviously to a much lower standard of living before the ecological crisis, having to resort to lithic mulches to shield agriculture from winds in the wake of major deforestation and moving towards the intensification in the cultivation of chickens as their primary food source. I do think he gave the people too little credit on them being able to make a life for themselves, even in a degraded world.
    3.) I find your comment about the European encounter as a second crippling blow to be extremely significant. The cultural shock, coupled with disease, violence, and atrocities proved to be too much for them. I am reminded of the meeting of civilization Wade Davis describes in The Wayfinders, which spoke of the Marquesan’s contact with the Spanish and how it shook the foundations of their society:

    “Thus to the Marquesans, the Spaniards were as demons, embodiments of depravity born beyond the far reaches of the eastern sky. Carnal and deceitful, cruel beyond reason, the Spaniards offered nothing. They had no skills, no food or women, no knowledge of even the most fundamental elements of the natural world. Their wealth lay only in what they possessed, curious metal objects that were not without interest. But they had no understanding that true wealth was found in prestige, and that status could only be conferred upon one capable of acquiring social debts and distributing surplus food to those in need, thus guaranteeing freedom from want. …These strangers who came from beyond all shores had no place in the order of life. Such was their barbaric state that sorcery did not affect them, or even the power of the priests. So complete was their ignorance that they did not distinguish commoners from chiefs, even as they treated both with murderous disdain.” (Chapter 2, The Wayfinders)

    It’s definitely likely that the Rapa Nui society had stabilized prior to European contact, but had lost much of its resilience and were ultimately much more susceptible to the influences of Europeans at the time of contact. Perhaps that’s one of the lessons we can take away from Easter Island. Environmental degradation and the loss of ecosystems and biodiversity may not necessarily lead to an acute and catastrophic end for humanity, but it will lead to a significant and perhaps fatal loss in our ability to cope and handle problems. We really don’t know how good we have it until the existing natural buffers and capital are gone.

    • Hi Isaac

      I think there are a few more things that Easter Island suggests, too.

      The classical society obviously had a large agricultural surplus otherwise they wouldn’t have been able to undertake all the building activity. When you have a seemingly successful, positive society and the general standard of comfort is at an unprecedented high, then there is little incentive to criticise the workings of that society. But when the way in which the society exploits resources undermines its capacity to produce them and this is not turned around in time, the period immediately before the times of great hardship can be the period of greatest prosperity.

      When people these days think about scarce or finite resources they tend to think of petroleum and I think not so many realise the same applies to many minerals, water and food. If we deplete our resource base, our societies will become much poorer and life will become much harder but we will still struggle along, as the Rapa Nui came to do before the Europeans arrived.

      However, if we corrode the atmosphere to the extent of a climactic climate tipping point then we risk corroding our societies and life in general to the point where recovery becomes difficult. This is equivalent to the impact Europeans had on the Rapa Nui.

      Here in Australia, both political parties are committed to perpetual material progress. One has a constraint of making some improvements for sustainable development and climate change, the other denies science. Either way, it’s the wrong way around. Our societies should commit to an intelligent approach to sustainable development, utilising the best independent scientific advice. To that end, we should be prepared to retreat from some of our levels of comfort if necessary lest the cost be much greater even in the medium term.

      • Well put. It’s really easy to see how people love to adhere the status quo when things are going well without wishing to look at how that success is being achieved. If things are good, why question or change it? This mentality probably applies equally to us and to the Rapa Nui people; this societal inertia is very difficult to overcome.

  4. I read Collapse several times – each time pledging to change the way I lived MY life. For that is where it begins – at the individual level. There have been many that have warned us before Jared Diamond – there is no excuse for embracing the status quo. “By polluting clear water with slime you will never find good drinking water.” Aeschylus (c. 525/524 BC – c. 456/455 BC) Greece

  5. Nice post…it is interesting to me to think of every place as having island qualities. Consider how some of the world’s natural parks have in effect become islands. I have been watching North America’s trees with great concern because there are so many factors at play now that can take entire species out of an ecosystem. On another note, thanks for reblogging one of my stories! It’s much appreciated.

    • Yes, protected but isolated preserves can definitely be considered as island-esque for many species.

      It was my pleasure to reblog one of your entries. Keep up the great work!

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