The Cautionary Tale

A while back NOVA ran a special on world population called "World in the Balance." On their website they feature an article about Easter Island. It's about how the growing population of the people on the island, the Rapanui, destroyed the natural habitat and ultimately their own economy.

To see just how clearly a growing human population relies on and impacts its natural environment, one need look no farther than Easter Island, the South Pacific isle with the famous stone statues known as moai. I have been doing a lot of reading about the fate of Easter in preparation for an upcoming trip, and, as the geographer John Flenley and archeologist Paul Bahn write in The Enigmas of Easter Island, "it is a story with an urgent and sobering message for our own times."

Easter Island is the most isolated piece of inhabited land in the world. A speck of volcanic rock only about twice the size of Manhattan, it lies roughly 2,250 miles northwest of Chile and 1,300 miles east of Pitcairn Island (of Mutiny on the Bounty fame). When, as most scholars believe, the first Polynesian settlers arrived from the west about the middle of the first millennium A.D., they found a pristine tropical island. Covered in a palm forest, it resounded with the cries of 25 or more species of nesting seabirds and at least six land birds. Though its soils were low in nutrients, the island bore a wide coastal plain well suited for cultivation of the taro, yam, sweet potato, and other crops these pioneers brought with them and which became their staples.

The population grew slowly at first, then more quickly, reaching a peak around the middle of the second millennium A.D. of anywhere from 10,000 to 20,000 people. By this time, the Rapanui, as the islanders are known, had developed a complex society of chiefdoms and elaborate stone architecture epitomized by the moai. Beginning around 1600, however, Rapanui civilization began to fall apart, and by the mid-19th century, it had all but disappeared.

After decades of painstaking work, a host of archeologists, ethnographers, and other specialists have painted a comprehensive picture of what transpired on Easter Island. And the parallels between what happened there and what is occurring today in the world at large—albeit more slowly and on a much vaster scale—are, as the evolutionary biologist Jared Diamond has put it, "chillingly obvious."

So this is the "cautionary tale" of how an island civilization collapsed under the weight of its own population, presented as a potential microcosm of the Earth's impending doom, and how we humans will ultimately destroy ourselves.

The article presents a fairly good analysis of how the destruction of the forests upon which the people of Easter Island depended ultimately led to the civilization's destruction. However the most telling part of the article is dramatically downplayed:

Even as the forests dwindled, Rapanui chiefs intensified food production, eager to create surpluses to support the carving of ever-larger statues. But that practice stressed an already fragile agricultural system built on marginal soils and insufficient water. "The removal of the forest may have reduced localized rainfall and lowered the productivity that was needed for corporate work efforts and by a large and growing population," says Christopher Stevenson, an archeologist with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources who has done years of work on Easter Island. "They reached a threshold where their economy took a really severe hit."
To us today, the most obvious manifestation of that hit is the crash of the moai culture. Oral tradition holds that the last moai was erected in 1620. With the religious basis of their power severely weakened or gone, the chiefs and priests who had held sway on the island for centuries were overthrown by military leaders around 1680. The society collapsed into civil war, and rival factions began toppling moai; the last erect statue recorded by European visitors was seen in 1838. (All standing statues today were re-erected in modern times.)

The trouble with the reasoning here is that economies (and the economy of Easter Island four centuries ago in particular) are too complex to always point to a single cause of a downfall. It's easy to oversimplify because of a common logical trick that many people fall into. The reasoning goes like this:

If we remove X factor will the collapse still occur?

If the answer is "no the collapse will not occur if "x" is removed," then "x" is attributed as the cause of the collapse.

In this case we see that if the Rapanui people had not been increasing in number past some unspecified and unknown critical threshold then (presumably) their economy would not have collapsed. But likewise if their leaders had not pushed them to pour huge amounts of resources into the building of ever larger statues at a time when their economic infrastructure was under stress then the collapse may also not have occurred. If they had been less driven by their cultural and religious beliefs, if they had been better at killing rats, if they had been better at planting new trees, or if they hadn't fallen into a civil war (possibly) then perhaps their economy and ultimately their civilization would not have collapsed. Any of these could potentially be used as the "x" above.

It seems to me that the dramatic differences in the cultural and religious beliefs of the Rapanui, and the cultures and beliefs of most of the people on this planet is enough to disqualify Easter Island as being an accurate microcosm and cautionary tale for the whole planet. What the evidence suggests to me is that the culture and religion of the Rapanui which was deeply intertwined with their governing system was at the core of their destruction. It led them to choose actions that undermined their economy, and to not choose actions that could have allowed them to adapt to their new situation.

If anything this hints at the dangers of intertwining religion and the state.

What we cannot know is if any of the Rapanui people disagreed with the ideas and teachings of their chiefs and priests and how those individuals were ultimately treated. We cannot know how change and innovation was treated. We cannot know to what degree the people followed their religion and obeyed their leaders out of fear. We cannot know the degree to which new thought and ideas were stifled. We can only speculate as to what degree the Rapanui's ultimate resource, the minds of their people, was repressed or utilized.

What we can see is that when the state controls that resource, whether through religion or fear, then the cautionary tales and dooms day scenarios of those that would reduce humans to walking "mouths to feed" become startlingly more accurate.

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Posts like this make the

Posts like this make the Blogosphere worthwhile. Great work!

Great post, Rainbough! I

Great post, Rainbough! I probably needn't bother cleaning my house today, eh?

Perhaps the problem was

Perhaps the problem was Unanimous Fallacies.

"It isn't the "globalization, international trade, jet planes, and the Internet" that Diamond worries about that are the problem, it is the “Concorde fallacy”, big projects entered into for flimsy reasons and maintained even when it is crystal clear that they are nothing but resource sinks. It's important to grasp this because Diamond's solution is to engage in even "greater integration of parts" so that he can enforce his proposed bans on logging or whatever. Group behaviors are less intelligent than individual behaviors for such problems and the larger the group the more this is true."

Fascinating blog.

Fascinating blog.

The Rapa Nui probably did

The Rapa Nui probably did not have a market system with protected property rights going for them.