Well, maybe not yet.
In just a few centuries, the people of Easter Island wiped out their forest, drove their plants and animals to extinction, and saw their complex society spiral into chaos and cannibalism. Are we about to follow their lead?
Among the most riveting mysteries of human history are those posed by vanished civilizations. Everyone who has seen the abandoned buildings of the Khmer, the Maya, or the Anasazi is immediately moved to ask the same question: Why did the societies that erected those structures disappear?
Diamond’s essay appears in different, and longer form (as I recall) as a chapter in his book Collapse. That book is all about why civilizations collapse.
A lot of it boils down to wasting of resources. Easter Island had not always been the grass-only rock with just a couple of thousand people clinging to a desperate existence, as Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen found it on Easter Sunday, 1722 (April 5). When the ancestors of the tiny population found the island, it had forests, and probably animals, and rich enough resources to support a larger population.
Until they deforested it, hunted to near extinction every animal that couldn’t escape, and caused the collapse of their own civilization.
Is this an analogy for what humans are doing to the planet now with pollution, especially atmospheric-warming air pollution?
Diamond concluded his essay:
I suspect, though, that the disaster happened not with a bang but with a whimper. After all, there are those hundreds of abandoned statues to consider. The forest the islanders depended on for rollers and rope didn’t simply disappear one day-it vanished slowly, over decades. Perhaps war interrupted the moving teams; perhaps by the time the carvers had finished their work, the last rope snapped. In the meantime, any islander who tried to warn about the dangers of progressive deforestation would have been overridden by vested interests of carvers, bureaucrats, and chiefs, whose jobs depended on continued deforestation. Our Pacific Northwest loggers are only the latest in a long line of loggers to cry, “Jobs over trees!” The changes in forest cover from year to year would have been hard to detect: yes, this year we cleared those woods over there, but trees are starting to grow back again on this abandoned garden site here. Only older people, recollecting their childhoods decades earlier, could have recognized a difference. Their children could no more have comprehended their parents’ tales than my eight-year-old sons today can comprehend my wife’s and my tales of what Los Angeles was like 30 years ago.
Gradually trees became fewer, smaller, and less important. By the time the last fruit-bearing adult palm tree was cut, palms had long since ceased to be of economic significance. That left only smaller and smaller palm saplings to clear each year, along with other bushes and treelets. No one would have noticed the felling of the last small palm.
By now the meaning of Easter Island for us should be chillingly obvious. Easter Island is Earth writ small. Today, again, a rising population confronts shrinking resources. We too have no emigration valve, because all human societies are linked by international transport, and we can no more escape into space than the Easter Islanders could flee into the ocean. If we continue to follow our present course, we shall have exhausted the world’s major fisheries, tropical rain forests, fossil fuels, and much of our soil by the time my sons reach my current age.
- Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker review of Diamond’s book, Collapse; the review is notable for pullling out Diamond’s recounting of what happened to the Viking attempt to colonize Greenland, a subject of great misunderstanding in climate debate
- Explanation and discussion of the text of Collapse at Wikipedia
- Grist discussion of the book
- TED Blog on Diamond and the book
- Eli Rabett is right in the comments: Gotta link to Easter Bunny Island
Jared Diamond in a 2003 appearance at TED: