by Judith Curry
Update: response from Jared Diamond.
Several years ago, I read with great interest Jared Diamond’s book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. The starkest example in the book was the ecological collapse of Easter Island.
Mark Lynas has written a provocative essay that argues that “recent archaeological work suggests that the eco-collapse hypothesis is almost certainly wrong – and that the truth is far more shocking.“
The collapse of Easter Island
Jared Diamond’s book Collapse popularized a theory of the collapse of Easter Island that was put forth previously in a 1992 book entitled ‘Easter Island, Earth Island’, by paleoecologists Paul Bahn and John Flenley:
“…the person who felled the last tree could see that it was the last tree. But he (or she) still felled it. This is what is so worrying. Humankind’s covetousness is boundless. Its selfishness appears to be genetically inborn. Selfishness leads to survival. Altruism leads to death. The selfish gene wins. But in a limited ecosystem, selfishness leads to increasing population imbalance, population crash, and ultimately extinction.”
From Lynas’ essay:
Diamond’s thesis is that the island’s original lush tree-cover was destroyed by the Polynesian colonists, whose cult of making massive statues (for which the island is now famous) required prodigious amounts of wood to transport these huge rock idols. He suggests that as the ecological crisis brought on by deforestation worsened, the islanders tried to appease their apparently angry gods by making and transporting yet more statues, creating a vicious circle of human stupidity.
And just to show how nasty things can get in a collapsing society, Diamond makes sure to include tantalisingly unpleasant allegations that the islanders actually ate each other on a large scale:
“In place of their former sources of wild meat, islanders turned to the largest hitherto unused source available to them: humans, whose bones became common not only in proper burials but also (cracked to extract the marrow) in late Easter Island garbage heaps.”
Diamond rounds off the chapter with the kind of call to arms that will be familiar to any environmentalist:
“The parallels between Easter Island and the whole modern world are chillingly obvious. Thanks to globalisation, 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… Those are the reasons why people see the collapse of Easter Island society as a metaphor, a worst-case scenario, for what may lie ahead of us in our own future.”
Lynas asks the following question:
But what if almost none of this is actually true, in straightforward historical terms? More recent archaeological work has now challenged almost every aspect of this conventional ‘ecocide’ narrative, most completely and damningly in a new book by the archaeologists Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo entitled ‘The Statues That Walked’. Hunt and Lipo did not set out to challenge the conventional story: their initial studies were intended merely to confirm it by providing some greater archaeological detail. However, as they dug and analysed, things turned out very differently.
Take the deforestation issue. Hunt and Lipo discovered that initial estimates of the date of first colonisation by migrating Polynesians were out by several hundred years. So whilst human arrival on the island did indeed lead to near-total deforestation, it was nothing to do with statue-building, which came later. Certainly people would have cut and used some of the trees, but the more likely explanation for the extinction of the island’s native palms was the proliferation of rats – brought by the human immigrants – which ate the seeds of the trees and prevented them regenerating. (The same thing happened on many other Pacific islands, including those in Hawaii.)
And instead of the statue-building cult being evidence of stupidity and ecocide, Hunt and Lipo suggest that it was actually an important contributor to the success of Easter Island society – which (again in contradiction to the assertions of Diamond) maintained a relatively peaceful nature over many centuries. Moreover, the statues were never transported by being dragged using wood rails – they were instead ‘walked’ along specially-constructed roads in a similar way to how you or I would walk a heavy refrigerator across the kitchen.
So deforestation happened at the beginning of Polynesian colonisation, and Easter Island’s new inhabitants then developed ingenious methods for eking out a sustainable existence in their infertile and climatically hostile new home. These included lithic mulching (using stones as mulch), erecting multiple wind-breaks (again out of stone) and making very effective string and rope out of plant fibres.
Benny Peiser’s paper
Lynas refers to a paper by Benny Peiser:
As Benny Peiser points out in this 2005 paper, fish supplies were abundant, and reports from early European explorers that the islanders were thin and miserable-looking are highly contradictory (others report that they lived in comparative luxury). Certainly Diamond’s reading of this seems highly partisan. As Peiser puts it:
“Together with abundant and virtually unlimited sources of seafood, the cultivation of the island’s fertile soil could easily sustain many thousands of inhabitants interminably. In view of the profusion of broadly unlimited food supplies (which also included abundant chickens, their eggs and the islands innumerable rats, a culinary ‘delicacy’ that were always available in abundance), Diamond’s notion that the natives resorted to cannibalism as a result of catastrophic mass starvation is palpably absurd. In fact, there is no archaeological evidence whatsoever for either starvation or cannibalism.”
Peiser further states:
“The real mystery of Easter Island, however, is not its collapse. It is why distinguished scientists feel compelled to concoct a story of ecological suicide when the actual perpetrators of the civilisation’s deliberate destruction are well known and were identified long ago…
As a final point, I would argue that Easter Island is a poor example for a morality tale about environmental degradation. Easter Island’s tragic experience is not a metaphor for the entire Earth. The extreme isolation of Rapa Nui is an exception even among islands, and does not constitute the ordinary problems of the human environment interface. Yet in spite of exceptionally challenging conditions, the indigenous population chose to survive – and they did…
What they could not endure, however, and what most of them did not survive, was something altogether different: the systematic destruction of their society, their people and their culture.”
What happened to the Easter Islanders?
Whilst the conventional narrative blames the islanders for committing a kind of collective ecological and social suicide (hence the term ‘ecocide’) this reading of history is almost certainly perpetuating a monumental injustice. For the Easter Islanders were indeed subject to a genocide – but it did not come from within. Instead, visiting ships brought epidemics of new diseases which wiped out the majority of the population – with most of the remnants later carted off in slave raids.
Nor was this the final insult. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the island was converted into a massive sheep ranch, with its surviving human population held in virtual captivity. The sheep converted it into a true ecological wasteland, eliminating the remaining smaller trees and causing large-scale soil erosion – for which the early Easter Islanders would once again later be blamed by latter-day environmentalists.
JC comments: The power of Jared Diamond’s book is in its simple narratives and effective writing. Occam’s razor suggests that we should tend towards simplest theories. However, in complex coupled social-ecological-environmental systems, simple theories are almost certain to be too simple. The complexity of such coupled systems precludes simple cause-effect analyses. If we are arguing about such a system on the scale of Easter Island, what hope do we have of understanding and managing such interactions on continental or even global scales? Ecosystems eventually adapt to climate change and insults from humans. Lynas makes the following statement on the true lesson of Easter Island:
Like all of us, modern Easter Islanders are inter-dependent with the rest of the world. Perhaps the more recent studies of their history will help challenge the Hobbesian and pessimistic view that human nature necessarily tends towards destruction and violence. Resilience and sustainability are just as likely outcomes, even over the longer term. This, I think, is the true lesson of Easter Island.