May 2008

What Easter Island Means to Me

by Jonathan Wallace

A few weeks ago I was in Florida in a borrowed apartment. Naturally, the first thing I did was snoop around the bookcases, because that is what I do. I found a copy of Jared Diamond's book "Collapse" and read a few chapters. I have always been fascinated by accounts of the collapse of nations and civilizations; a genre which began with Gibbon, who famously said that "History is indeed little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind."

Diamond's book, which you should immediately rush out and buy or borrow, deals with the subset of collapses in which there is a significant environmental cause. I read the chapters on Easter island and the Anasazi.

I knew virtually nothing about Easter Island, except that it is famous for huge stone heads left by a vanished culture. Diamond, relying largely on the archeological record, sketches in the background.

Easter Island is almost two thousand miles from anywhere else, and the humans who first settled it lost touch with other settlements; there is no evidence that anyone visited it until Europeans arrived almost five centuries later, nor did the islanders visit or trade with other cultures. It is likely that the inhabitants after some time on the island thought they were the world, the only humans in existence. Diamond points out that of the various cultures he studied, the Easter islanders provide the most nearly perfect metaphor for our planet itself: no-one else to turn to when the going gets rough, and nowhere else to go.

Island society differed in two interesting respects from that of other Pacific islands. The most important difference is that there was apparently a single peaceful culture governing the entire island, as opposed to the Hobbesian warlord-per-valley who ruled on other islands. The evidence for this is that for centuries on end, it was possible to quarry huge pieces of stone on one part of the island and move them anywhere else without opposition. Another interesting difference is that the Easter islanders had a percentage of dolphin in their diet which was far higher than that of other islanders. Easter Island apparently lacked plentiful inshore fishing; the inhabitants built huge ocean going canoes from available tall trees and went far out to sea in search of protein.

The progress of their diet across the centuries can be studied from bones left in middens and from coproliths (fossilized feces). There comes a time when dolphin drops out of their diet. By this time, many of the large local species have also been completely exterminated. Diamond describes a point at which headless mouse skeletons start turning up in human shit. Apparently anyone who spotted a mouse while working the fields caught and beheaded it, then swallowed the rest of it whole. Then, inevitably, there comes a period of cannabilism (human bones cracked, severed from one another, with evidence of cooking).

The decline of Easter Island can also be traced in the art. When the island was wealthy and peaceful, the people carved the remarkable stone heads weighing many tons, moved them long distances, and raised them. Later smaller statuary shows people with the usual physical signs of malnutrition and starvation. Finally, when the chiefs could no longer feed their people, there was a period of revolution, of island-wide war in which opposing forces toppled each other's statues.

The moment at which the islanders could no longer go to sea to catch dolphin came when the last tall tree had been cut down and ocean-going canoes could no longer be manufactured. Yes, the population of Easter island over several centuries cut every single tree. Diamond speculates amusingly about the statement made by the man in charge as he ordered the felling of the final tree. Was it: Don't worry, we will invent a substitute for wood. Or: we haven't proven that there are not trees somewhere else on the island.

My question, and you shouldn't try to answer it too quickly, is: what fundamental difference, if any, is there between us and the Easter Islanders?

I have given this a lot of thought, and the only answer I can come up with is: we have more technology.

More technology, sadly, only means that we can use up all remaining resources faster than they could.

I don't see any real difference between the Easter Islanders and us when it comes to stewardship of the planet or a sense of responsibility to future generations.

As I keep mentioning, there are twice as many people on Earth as there were when I was a child. We can't keep that up, but we are effectively doing nothing to deal with the consequences. Nothing substantial to combat global warming. Next to nothing to develop alternatives to oil. Gas prices just broke four dollars a gallon, food riots are breaking out in Third World countries, people are losing their jobs and homes and we just had the first bank run since the Great Depression.

I believe that a new dark age is coming. This doesn't necessarily mean that we will all eventually live in a "Mad Max" kind of world, though it may. A dark age is one in which the quality of life is much lower than what people had before. Less money, less food, less health, less education, shorter life span.

I am reminded every day of the inescapable dose of self-delusion most people must take daily in order to carry on with their lives. Something will turn up. We will find alternatives to oil, just at the last moment, when we need them. We can't have another depression; the government/banks/people in power won't let it happen. America cannot fade as a superpower because we are Americans, and Very Special.

In one important sense, we are not even as smart as the Easter Islanders. They at least had one government, ruling their entire world. That didn't save them. We are more like the other Pacific islanders, with a warlord in every valley. That is not a superior approach. Global problems such as warming and famine can only be solved at a global level (and by this, I don't mean the bickering, powerless UN). We are being destroyed by the tragedy of the commons, as each nation extracts, or attempts to extract, the resources necessary to its own survival, and the devil take the hindmost. I call this the game of "fuck the future"--and it will.