The lesson of Easter Island
Vail CO, Colorado
Long before industry or global warming, mankind’s ambitious and oftentimes excessive lives have impacted the environment. The lack of an environmental consciousness in pursuit of progress has never boded well for Mother Nature and eventually has negatively impacted the human societies at its root. Today’s modern societies are not the first to face the dire environmental consequences of our habits and behavior. Many ancient societies faced similar forecasts. Some adapted and survived, others did not.
Somewhere around 900 A.D. the first Polynesian settlers arrived on the shores of Easter Island. Born entirely of three sea-raised volcanoes, Easter Island’s soil was fertile. The island was rich in beauty and natural resources. Its forests were vast and teaming with several species of land and sea birds. Though warm by North American standards, Easter Island was cool in comparison to typical Polynesian islands. Its subtropical climate and lower-than-average rainfall created an environment more fragile than its warmer, more tropical neighbors. What those first Polynesian settlers saw when they landed on Easter Island was paradise. Ten generations later, what was left of the once flourishing island was tragically astounding.
Not unlike our planet today, Easter Island was an abundant resource located in relative isolation. The closest shore was a 17-day canoe ride away. While it had plenty of resources, they were scattered across varying terrain and spread unevenly across the island. For this reason, each of the dozen or so clans that made up the island’s human population possessed some but not all of the resources necessary for sustained life. Trade was necessary for survival. Because they relied on each other, war among clans was rare. Instead, each clan demonstrated superiority through the construction and display of large stone statues. These statues, called Moai, resembled giant human heads. The larger the Moai, the higher the social standing of the individual possessing it.
The mystery of these great statues lies in just how a primitive society devoid of basic technology (they had not yet invented the wheel), was able to sculpt, transport and erect such massive structures, the largest of which weighed 80 tons. The answer, it seems, was through the use of an abundant amount of natural resources.
The islanders constructed tracks, similar in form to ladders, which laid flat on the ground and across which they drug the Moai. Some of these tracks extended up to nine miles. In addition to the massive amount of wood used to construct the tracks, bark from fibrous trees was woven to fashion thick rope needed for dragging the Moai, and land was cleared for farming to supply the calories required by an enormous amount of manpower. For 300 years the islanders tirelessly continued the process. As the Moai got larger, so too did the amount of resources needed to sculpt, drag and place them. Then one day it all stopped.
In a period of about 800 years, from the moment they first set foot on Easter Island to the day when the first Europeans discovered their depleted society, the islanders had managed to discover, settle, flourish on and destroy an entire ecosystem. Overuse of resources lead to the complete extinction of every native tree species; including those depended on for nuts and fruit. Additionally, every species of land bird was gone and one-third of the sea bird population was lost.
With every wild food source except rats consumed, and little or no combustible material available for fire or shelter construction, society on Easter Island collapsed. Civil war broke out over the remaining resources, populations dwindled and starvation lead to cannibalism.
By the time Europeans arrived in the 1700s, the island population was decimated. Of those that remained, many succumbed to disease or were taken as slaves to work in Peru’s guano mines. By 1872, only 111 islanders remained.
Today’s environmental movement seems to focus most of its energy on the future. The future is a question that only time will answer. We can, however, learn valuable lessons from the past.
Over 800 Moai remain in various states of abandonment on Easter Island. Their shadows cast a ghostly reminder of a once-proud civilization succumbed to the results of excessive lifestyles and overuse of natural resources.
In America, where if the rest of the world adopted our standard of living another four planets worth of resources would be needed to sustain it, it is not hard to see the chilling parallels between the ancient Easter Island society and our own.
The planet is our island, its resources finite. Ignoring the consequences of our lives condemns us to, at best, an uncertain future. At worst and probably more likely, if we do not take quick steps to control the rate at which we continue to deplete our planet, we will commit ourselves to a tragic fate.
We must learn from history and stories like Easter Island or we most certainly will be doomed to repeat them.
Ryan Sutter of Avon writes a biweekly column for the Vail Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.