Posts Tagged ‘Ecology’

Dun Dun Dunnnn

You may have heard of Jared Diamond. He wrote the pulitzer prize winning book “Guns, Germs and Steel”. More recently he published “Collapse: how societies choose to fail or succeed”, which focuses on instances of societal collapse which he often attributes to changes in the environment.

I bought the book before my first year in college and didn’t get much of it read by the time classes started. I did, however, get through one section of this book which was dedicated to his most extreme example of society failure, Rapa Nui (Easter island). Diamond used a few different pieces of evidence to show that people destroyed their already unstable ecosystem. For example, Constructing Moai and their platforms, he says, would have required immense amounts of timber and Sediment cores taken from Rapa Nui show that palm forests that once thrived here were decimated some time after the island was settled. Long story short, Diamond attributes the extinction of palm tree forests and numerous birds to a local population which aggressively used up its resources.

The picture he draws of the consequences are stark. He leaves readers with the feeling that Easter island would have been a horrible place to live after this, and that the folks who lived on the island had nobody to blame but themselves. In a particularly heart rending paragraph, Diamond writes: “I have often asked myself ‘What did the easter islander who cut down the last palm tree say while he was doing it?’ Like modern loggers, did he shout ‘jobs, not trees!’?”

It is a horrifying thought. Nobody would like to think that someone could bring themselves to do this. How could you do such a thing? This is the ultimate example of a resource hungry humanity, unable to see past the desire for just a bit more, and willing to condemn its descendants. I glanced at the back of my copy of the book and saw that this example resonated with a reviewer at Time magazine: “With Diamond’s help, maybe we’ll learn to see our problems a little more clearly before we chop down that last palm tree”.

Not everyone has been swept off their feet by the ideas that Diamond writes about.Two archaeologists, Professors Terry Hunt from the University of Hawaii and Carl Lipo from California State University published an article in response to Diamond. They attribute the decimation of palm trees on Rapa Nui, not to its human inhabitants, but in large part to the rats they introduced! They draw the Ewa plain on the south western extreme of the island of Oahu in Hawaii as a parallel example of what they say happened on Rapa Nui. Upon being introduced, rats could destroy a forest in a relatively short period of time before those forests see any human settlements. Sediment cores show that palm forests of the Ewa plain. were indeed destroyed before any archaeological evidence of settlement on this part of the island. As Hunt and Lipo write:

“The ecological catastrophe of Rapa Nui had a complex history that cannot be reduced to psychological motivations of people who cut down the last tree. Indeed, the “last tree” may simply have died, and rats may have simply eaten the last seeds. What were the rats thinking?”

"Jobs, not trees!"

I started thinking about this topic because Dr. Hunt leads a field school at Rapa Nui which I am considering taking part in this summer. While researching the field school I stumbled on the paper and remembered that chapter I read in “Collapse”. I think Diamond wrote a recent article in Science about easter island specifically following up the research he did. If it was published after the Hunt article I’d like to see his responses.

Aside from the actual causes of deforestation on Rapa Nui, I think that Diamond’s scenario had a needlessly apocalyptic tone considering that a sizable population was still thriving on the island after the deforestation occurred.

Hunt, Terry and Carl Lipo

2010 Ecological Catastrophe, Collapse and the Myth of “Ecocide” on Rapa Nui (Easter Island). In Questioning Collapse: Human Resilience, Ecological Vulnerability and the Aftermath of Empire, edited by Patricia A. McAnany and Norman Yoffee, pp. 21-54. Cambridge University Press.

Diamond, Jared

2005 Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Penguin Books, London.

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