Easter Island Lessons
.....If people know two things about Easter Island, it is that at some point before the arrival of Europeans, in the process of making and transporting those heads, someone cut down the last tree. Whoever it was could have looked around the island, half the size of the Isle of Wight, and seen it was the last tree. They could have gazed out on an horizon unbroken on all sides, on which no ship had passed in centuries, and known there were no trees to be found elsewhere. But they cut it down anyway.
And then, the island’s ecology collapsed. Food ran out. The stone heads still in the quarry were left, unfinished. The stone heads en route to the coast were abandoned, like our moai, mid-transit. Eventually, the Rapa Nui — the indigenous Polynesian population — turned to the only food source left, and a great cannibal war transformed this island paradise into a living hell. Still to this day, their obsidian arrowheads line the ground, so numerous they crunch underfoot.
Environmentalists have a name for what happened here: ecocide. A process that was the subject of Collapse, a 2005 book by the bestselling author Jared Diamond, its message is inescapable — and has been reiterated at environmental conferences the world over. Like us, the Easter Islanders became obsessed with producing ornaments and fripperies. Like us, they used scarce resources to make them. Like us, they knew they were causing irreparable environmental damage. But they did it anyway — and then died.
It is a dark parable for our times. And it makes archaeologists angry. ....
Colin Richards, an ordinarily placid professor of archaeology, looks angry. “All this talk of catastrophe is nonsense,” he says. “We’ve had this one assumption, and built upon it and built upon it. That’s the history of work on Easter Island.” He rises to a satisfying crescendo. Behind him a South Pacific storm builds to its own crescendo. “It is falseness and idiocy upon idiocy.” He gesticulates, sadly not quite in time with the distant thunder....
...But if we still insist on turning a single event on a complicated island into a simplistic parable, then this new parable of Easter Island becomes one less conducive to the environmental movement. In Hamilton’s interpretation it is, instead, a story of human ingenuity overcoming apparently insurmountable ecological challenges. If applied to the current climate-change debate, it might well be better used by those who oppose the environmentalists, who argue we shouldn’t worry about emissions, that we should trust in humanity’s ability to adapt.