Thursday, February 10, 2005

IN HIS BOOK, COLLAPSE, Jared Diamond asks the question, "What did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say while he was doing it?" The question encapsulates the central mystery about Easter Island: Why did a place that supported a thriving society of as many as 30,000 people for hundreds of years (from the end of the fourth century C.E. to sometime before 1700 C.E.) end up with just a tiny fraction of its original population, almost completely abandoned? Why did an island that was covered with forests used by the human inhabitants to build enormous statues up to 30 feet high end up completely devoid of trees?

Easter Island has become the single most compelling example of an ecological disaster that directly affected a human society. Diamond goes through all of the theories about why and how the collapse of Easter Island's Polynesian culture came to happen. Was it climate change? Was the ecology of Easter Island particularly vulnerable to destruction? Did Easter Islanders themselves contribute to their own downfall by deforesting their own island to build their homes, keep warm, and build those gigantic statues?

It's easy for us now, in our modern, globalized, interconnected world, to ask ourselves what these Polynesians were thinking when they destroyed the very resource that made their existence possible. But Diamond is really good at giving us a new framework in which to view these questions. In truth, Easter Islanders almost 2,000 years ago might not have been that much different from contemporary Americans in the way they approached the problem of preserving the elements of their environment that they also had to actively consume and use in order to live. While cutting down that last tree, Diamond asks, did the logger, like loggers today, "...shout 'Jobs, not trees!' Or: 'Technology will solve our problems, never fear, we'll find a substitute for wood!' Or: 'We don't have proof that there aren't palms somewhere else on Easter, we need more research, your proposed ban on logging is premature and driven by fear-mongering'?" Under the humor is a serious point: We may shake our heads at those short-sighted ancient peoples, but we are making the same decisions today. Every society that has to deal with the dilemma of preserving natural resources does.

And now I am on to the Pitcairn and Henderson Islands, Chapter 3 in Collapse.

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