Easter Island Island Earth

Easter Island/Island Earth
As Jared Diamond and others have argued, Easter Island offers some lessons in the effects of over-population and excessive exploitation of natural resources on a civilization’s fate. But there is one lesson by analogy which they don’t mention, that denial of the signs of that fate leads to some peculiar social expressions.

Whatever it may have been that led to the collapse of the Easter Island civilization, depredation by rats, over population, deforestation, etc., it appears that prior to the collapse the Easter Islanders indulged in large scale production of the now world-famous statues, the moai, set up along the seaside by the different clans. That the production of the statues ended abruptly rather than gradually is indicated by the many partially finished statues still remaining in the quarries, as well as others apparently abandoned en route to the sea. If it had been a cultural evolution that had led to the cessation of statue making, it seems unlikely that the stone carvers would not have been notified of the change and told not to start work on still more.

This abruptness suggests some intriguing scenarios. If the people, and particularly the rival clan leaders, were aware that something was amiss, that for example deforestation was making it impossible to construct water craft, which in turn made it difficult to fish, why would they have not changed their policies, urging the people to protect what trees were left and take other measures to preserve and enhance their island, rather than continue in the wasteful building of statues? Or was statue carving a way to occupy the surplus labor of overpopulation, men who might otherwise conspire against the powers of the clan leaders?

Besides the industrial process of carving the statues, transporting them to the coast, and setting them up, there was also very likely an elaborate ritual system centered around the statues once they were in place. It is unlikely that so much effort would have gone into the merely decorative, and again the rituals may have had several uses: diverting the population, solidifying clan identity and rivalries, legitimizing the power of the elite, and (hopefully) soliciting the intervention of the gods or ancestors to solve the growing problems of the island. This latter would suggest that the people were aware of being under threat, and some researchers have suggested that measures were taken to try and increase agricultural productivity to feed a population that exceeded the natural carrying capacity of the island.

None of these measures, industrial, ritual, or agricultural, could ultimately solve the problems the islanders faced, and at some point the population collapsed, from an estimated high point of about 15,000 to a low of a few thousand. There is evidence of intense warfare that toppled the statues and may have contributed to population collapse. Even today, despite centuries of contact with the outside world (and in part even because of it), the native population remains small, and economically dependent on tourism, and the island remains barren of trees.
But is there a legitimate analogy between the fate of Easter Island and the prospective fate of the planet? A small island is not the world, after all. But Island Earth is more isolated in the expanses of space than Easter Island is in the expanse of the Pacific Ocean; we are far less capable of escaping our cosmic island than the people of Easter Island were of theirs.

We are receiving plenty of warnings. The effects of climate change are now too well documented to be credibly denied, nor can it be denied that human activity, i.e., the wholesale gluttonous burning of fossil fuels, is the primary cause of the changes. Invocations of natural cycles, sunspots, or whatever else are no more than appeals to a higher power as a way of avoiding self-blame and the unpleasant consequences of taking practical action. As for over-population, it is a mystery why anyone would take comfort in the prospect of the human population “stabilizing” later in the century at 9 billion or 10 billion when it is so evident that the present population of 7+ billion is already too many. Even as the so-called “green revolution” is running out of steam, arable land, and the water to irrigate it, is declining. Some say that we have plenty of food, that it is only a matter of equitable distribution that leaves so many people undernourished or outright starving, and this may be true—but distribution itself is an intractable problem, especially when agriculture is increasingly exclusively in the hands of large corporations whose operations and bottom lines are designed to exclude the small farmer from the system.

Meanwhile, corporate and political elites (increasingly the same people) are preoccupying themselves with grand construction projects that do no one any good and harm many. There is, for example, the Chinese project of constructing an ultra-mega city said to be eventually the size of Kansas and containing 130 million people—although necessities such as reliable transportation, schools, health clinics, and water supplies seem not to be part of the plans. Back in deforested Brazil, which will host the 2016 summer Olympics, the water in which many of the aquatic events will take place is so polluted with human feces that athletes are likely to get quite sick. This despite estimates that the total bill for the games will exceed the original estimate of $11.9 billion dollars by 50%–i.e., for a total of nearly $18.5 billion. Such cost overruns for sporting events and facilities are the norm, which by the way is why Boston recently declined the dubious privilege of hosting the 2024 games.

For elites, there is a great deal of prestige associated with grandiose sporting events; our universities are graced by state-of-the-art stadiums while their libraries crumble from lack of funds and attention. When not used for the “big game,” such stadiums provide venues for that other great contemporary ritual, the rock concert, complete with drugs that enhance the emotional experience of participating in something bigger than oneself—rather like religious rituals that make us feel good about ourselves while disparaging our rivals, even as our infrastructure collapses beneath our feet.

But we are promised, by gurus speaking ex cathedra from their antiseptic cloisters in Silicon Valley, in ways that are never quite specified, in terms that have the ring of magic incantations, that technology will solve all problems, whether of work, wealth, population, water, food, or climate change. There is something painfully shamanistic about proposals to seed the skies with salt water, or aluminum chips, or sulfate aerosols, or what have you, as there is about the prophesied wonders of more and faster Internet connections, even unto the remotest African or Tibetan village. Although I understand that as yet no one has figured out how to send food or water through fiber optic cables.

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