The Demise of Easter Island’s Eco-Collapse Parable

By Keith Kloor | January 21, 2014 2:48 pm

I have often asked myself, What was Jared Diamond thinking when he first learned that everything Easter Island symbolized to him might be wrong? Did the prize-winning, internationally celebrated writer ever look around at the accumulating evidence and think that maybe–just maybe–Easter Island isn’t the best metaphor for ecocide?

By all indications, Diamond has not allowed such doubts to enter his mind. But I’m getting ahead of myself. 

In 1994, Diamond wrote in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society:

The greatest risk to humanity in coming decades is that we may continue to damage our environment to a degree where our current standard of living or even our existence becomes impossible. That dilemma has seemed a unique one in human history, a consequence of our uniquely high modern numbers, coupled with our uniquely destructive modern technology.

However, it is now being realized that many past societies did collapse through destroying their environmental underpinnings, and that we thus do have environmental lessons to learn from our past.

In the following year (1995), Diamond wrote in Discover magazine:

As we try to imagine the decline of Easter’s civilization, we ask ourselves, Why didn’t they look around, realize what they were doing, and stop before it was too late? What were they thinking when they cut down the last palm tree?

By now the meaning of Easter Island for us should be chillingly obvious. Easter Island is Earth writ small.

In 2003, Diamond gave a lecture called, “Why Do Some Societies make Disastrous Decisions?” recorded and transcribed by Edge. Here is a lengthy excerpt that discusses the questions that guided Diamond’s “collapse” thesis for Easter Island (emphasis mine):

Education is supposed to be about teachers imparting knowledge to students. As every teacher knows, though, if you have a good group of students, education is also about students imparting knowledge to their supposed teachers and challenging their assumptions. That’s an experience that I’ve been through in the last couple of months, when for the first time in my academic career I gave a course to undergraduates, highly motivated UCLA undergraduates, on collapses of societies. Why is it that some societies in the past have collapsed while others have not?

For example, the Easter Islanders, Polynesian people, settled an island that was originally forested, and whose forests included the world’s largest palm tree. The Easter Islanders gradually chopped down that forest to use the wood for canoes, firewood, transporting statues, raising statues, and carving and also to protect against soil erosion. Eventually they chopped down all the forests to the point where all the tree species were extinct, which meant that they ran out of canoes, they could no longer erect statues, there were no longer trees to protect the topsoil against erosion, and their society collapsed in an epidemic of cannibalism that left 90 percent of the islanders dead. The question that most intrigued my UCLA students was one that hadn’t registered on me: how on Earth could a society make such an obviously disastrous decision as to cut down all the trees on which they depended? For example, my students wondered, what did the Easter Islanders say as they were cutting down the last palm tree?

Were they saying, think of our jobs as loggers, not these trees? Were they saying, respect my private property rights? Surely the Easter Islanders, of all people, must have realized the consequences to them of destroying their own forest. It wasn’t a subtle mistake. One wonders whether — if there are still people left alive a hundred years from now — people in the next century will be equally astonished about our blindness today as we are today about the blindness of the Easter Islanders.

Hmm. It seems to me that Diamond’s predisposed assumptions had already formed his thinking on Easter Island, which was given full expression in his 2005 bestsellerCollapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed. In that book, he concludes that “the history of Easter Island is as close as we can get to a ‘pure’ ecological collapse.” The question of Easter Island’s “self-inflicted environmental damage” still nagged at him:

I have often asked myself, “What did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say while he was doing it?”

Diamond’s central assumption is that deforestation degraded the island’s ecosystem and left the inhabitants little means of sustenance. But as I write in a short piece in the upcoming issue of Cosmos magazine, “this portrait of prehistoric ecocide is cracking under a mounting body of scholarship.”

One of the first major challenges to Diamond’s popular narrative was mounted in this 2006 article in American Scientist by the archaeologist Terry Hunt. In 2009, an entire book taking aim Diamond’s case studies for Collapse was published. Entitled Questioning Collapse: Human resilience, ecological vulnerability, and the aftermath of empire, it stated that for Easter Island, “there is no evidence that the island represents a case of ‘ecocide’ where a large population crashed from environmental ruin before Europeans arrived.”

In 2011 Hunt and fellow archaeologist Carl Lipo also published a book-length rebuke to Diamond, which was the basis for this 2012 National Geographic cover story. My piece in Cosmos briefly discusses that book and more recent research by anthropologist Mara Mulrooney (whose work was covered last month in Science News and NPR, among other outlets.)

What these scholars have uncovered is a story not of eco-collapse but of remarkable resilience, made possible by the ingenuity of the prehistoric residents, who converted their island into an extensive network of agricultural fields. As I note in my piece:

Some years ago in a critical essay on Diamond’s book Collapse, anthropologist Joseph Tainter wrote: “Jared Diamond is a man with a message. Collapse was meant to tell how anthropogenic environmental degradation doomed past societies and, on a grander scale, will undermine us if we don’t change.”

There may well be something to this larger message, but it appears we will no longer find it expressed in the history of Easter Island.

Additional reading:

A recent paper in Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution summarizes the latest paleoecological and archaeological research on Easter Island.

See this paper from several years ago, by Mulrooney and colleagues, which “reviewed the evidence for a pre-European societal collapse” on Easter Island.

Read the exchange between Diamond and Hunt and Lipo, which was hosted in 2011 by Mark Lynas at his blog.

Photo/credit: Wikipedia

ADVERTISEMENT
NEW ON DISCOVER
OPEN
CITIZEN SCIENCE
ADVERTISEMENT

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Collide-a-Scape

Collide-a-Scape is an archived Discover blog. Keep up with Keith's current work at http://www.keithkloor.com/

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an 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.

ADVERTISEMENT

See More

ADVERTISEMENT
Collapse bottom bar
+