Lessons from Easter Island

Easter Island, also known as Rapa Nui to its indigenous Polynesian inhabitants the Rapanui, is an isolated, triangular volcanic island located in the south-eastern Pacific Ocean, some 3500 km west of Chile. The total area of the island is about 160 km2 and it is currently home to an estimated 5000 people, the majority of whom are from Polynesian Rapanui descent. There is some considerable uncertainty surrounding the original date of settlement of Easter Island by seagoing Polynesian peoples from the Marquesas Islands in the west. In his excellent and highly recommended book Collapsegeographer Jared Diamond outlines studies suggesting that 900 CE is a more realistic estimate than the earlier dates of 300 to 400 CE.

The location of Easter Island, one of the world’s most isolated inhabited islands, 3500km west of Chile (Source: Wikipedia)

Easter Island is famed for its turbulent and mysterious history, epitomised by the island’s famed anthropomorphic moai statues and the ahu stone pedestals upon which they stand, constructed by the early inhabitants in the form of their deified ancestors and dedicated to their glory. There is also archaeological evidence of extensive and impressive stonemasonary in the form of walls and houses and other monumental structures, thousands of stone carvings known as petroglyphs, evidence of a written, but undecipherable, language known as rongorongo as well as intricate wooden carvings and amulets.

The moai statues are peppered along the coastline of the island with their backs to the sea, providing spiritual protection to the island’s inhabitants and ensuring that the Rapanui had a constant connection to their ancestors in the afterlife, upon which the entire cultural and religious ideology of the island’s societal structure was based. These impressive monuments, numbering around 880 – the largest of which is 10m tall and weighs a staggering 75 tonnes- were constructed at great cost by rival, class-based clans in desperate competition with each other. As a result of this competitiveness and chronic overpopulation, the island’s already delicate ecosystem collapsed under the weight of extreme, practically complete deforestation, as extensive supplies of wood were required to move and effectively carve the moai. Unsustainable management of the islands long-lived, slow growing indigenous flora resulted in the extinction of practically all native trees and shrubs. The agricultural structure of the island disintegrated as erosion decimated the fertile, unprotected topsoil and fishing was limited by the lack of materials for canoe and outrigger construction. Fuel for warmth during the cold nights became scarce and wild food in the form of fruits and animals and birds disappeared. The population of the island plummeted some 70% and in dark times an increasingly desperate society turned to cannibalism or starvation.

Coinciding with the collapse of the ecosystem and population of the island, the traditional religious class-based structure of Easter Island was also overthrown in a military coup during the middle of the last millennium, which resulted in a fundamental upheaval of the dynamics of Easter Island society – moai were toppled, civil war erupted, traditional homes were abandoned and in their diaspora people took to living in caves for protection from each other.

There is a lesson for us in the sad tale of Easter Island – a once proud, prosperous and advanced society with a rich cultural history descended into chaos, violence and cannibalism at the hands of the environmental mismanagement that they wrought upon themselves, fuelled by their innate sense of competition and greed. Isolated populations can and do collapse under the strain of the overexploitation of the bounty of their natural environment. In the case of Easter Island the pivotal resource was wood; today it could be any number of finite substances in which we place our unbridled trust, and around which our entire society is based: oil, coal, metals and radioactive fuels for example. The Easter Islander who cut down the last tree did so in desperation – probably not aware of the significance of that final plant – but by the time that solitary shrub was felled it was already too late for the population of Easter Island to avert the environmental disaster that was now imminent. The damage was done long before; life giving soils washed into the cold Pacific, canoes vital to fishing rotted and leaked and the chilling wind of violent societal upheaval swept across the tiny island. Decades of short-sighted exploitation, environmental mismanagement, greed and overpopulation resulted in the decimation and collapse of an entire civilisation.

Milky Way Above Easter Island

We are an isolated population here on Earth, as they were on Easter Island. A retrospective microcosm of our lonely planet whose turbulent history should serve as a reminder that our global society is not too big nor too advanced to fail and if, or rather when, it does – when that last tree, or drop of oil, or lump of coal has been forcefully extracted from the earth – then we will have only our blind dependence on non-renewable resources to blame. I hope that in the coming decades we, as a global community, can work together to wean ourselves off of our dependence on non-renewables and take progressive steps towards a globally integrated, sustainable energy solution to ensure that our world does not befall the same fate as that of the Easter Islanders.


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