Beware of Cautionary Lessons

By Keith Kloor | April 13, 2009 9:34 am

Some months ago, Joseph Tainter published a withering essay entitled, “Collapse, Sustainability, and the Environment: How Authors Choose to Fail or Succeed.”

The title is a clever play off of Jared Diamond’s 2005 best-seller. Anyone interested in an overview of collapse literature and a counter-perspective to the current popularizing of the concept should read Tainter’s essay. As he writes at the outset,

There is a long history, within anthropology and other social sciences, of scholarly interest in the environmental dimensions of social life…In general the literature of this strand postulates that collapses result from shortages of resources, brought on by normal environmental variation, abrupt climate shifts, or human damage.

More recently, Tainter notes, contemporary scholars have fueled “discussions of our own sustainability and sustainable development,” which

postulate that ancient societies collapsed because they degraded their environments, justifying the concern that today’s socieites could collapse for the same reason.

A parable that many have latched on to is the case of Easter Island.  As demonstrated yesterday in this post by my colleague Tom Yulsman, scientists and science journalists join environmentalists in viewing Easter Island as a cautionary tale for our times.

The true “collapse” of Easter Island, however, is more complex than ecological degradation via over-exploitation. Even Wikipedia offers a more nuanced perspective than is commonly known:

A series of devastating events killed or removed almost the entire population of Easter Island in the 1860s. In December 1862, Peruvian slave raiders struck Easter Island. Violent abductions continued for several months, eventually capturing or killing around 1500 men and women, about half of the island’s population. A dozen islanders managed to return from their slavery, but brought with them smallpox and started an epidemic, which reduced the island’s population to the point where some of the dead were not even buried. Contributing to the chaos were violent clan wars with the remaining people fighting over the newly available lands of the deceased, bringing further famine and death among the dwindling population.

Tainter discusses this history in his essay, as well as other complicating factors, such as the possible role of the Polynesian rat (introduced by islanders) on the decline of the Palm forest. (Tainter is not a lone critic, either. See here, for more on those rats.)

Diamond’s use of Easter Island and other case studies in “Collapse” strike Tainter as too convenient:

Jared Diamond is a man with a message. At least that was his intention. Collapse (2005) was meant to tell how anthropogenic environmental degradation doomed past societies and, on a grander scale, will undermine us if we don’t change.

That last point may well prove true, but trumpeting Easter Island as a cautionary lesson appears to rest on scientifically shaky ground.

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About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, a senior editor at Cosmos magazine, and adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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