Did you know, Earth is an island – that is, an inhabitable island in the vastness of the universe? At first this might seem as a radical way of looking at our existence, but taking into account the current path that our capitalist societies have chosen, and the manifold global crises that are connected to this way of doing things, I consider it as pretty down to Earth. With globalisation connecting every part of this planet and with an exponentially growing 7.6 billion people already today (in January 2018) we are at a point in time when Earth’s seemingly infinite resources resemble that of an island, with its not so infinite stack of food, water, space and other life enhancing resources.
I got inspired by Jared Diamond’s book, ‘Collapse – How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive’, which investigated how societies in human history managed to commit societal suicide, often despite knowing about the doomed path that they were on. While the reasons for their downfall were manifold, pretty much all the examples from the maya, over to the vikings, among others, show that those societies were unable, or rather said, unwilling to change their ways despite the knowledge that their ways of doing things would necessarily lead to defeat. My favourite story, which most impressed me, is that of the Rapa Nui, today more commonly known by their colonial name as Easter Islanders.
Rapa Nui society (i.e. the Easter Islanders) was founded by incredibly skilled seafarers, who supposedly came from the area of what is today known as Papua New Guinea. Even though their origin is still disputed, it is no secret that they traveled on small rafts, what would seem to us people used to air travel, as a reckless way of traveling over the oceans. They used the wind and more importantly ocean currents to their advantage and somehow arrived on Rapa Nui around 900 CE, what was then an uninhabited island. It is one the most isolated islands in the world. Their closest neighbors are Pitcairn Islands (2000 km to the west) and the closest mainland is Chile (3500 km towards the east), which the Rapa Nui belongs to.
The pacific islanders lived the good life for many generations, as they had all they needed. As part of their religion they tend to carve huge stone faces from the island rocks – without these statues the Rapa Nui would probably be unheard of, at least in Europe. Over centuries they transported almost 900 statues, called moai, from the quarries further towards the coastline. How they moved the moai is still a question that archeologists are marvelling about, as these statues weighed between 10 and 270 tons and up to 20 m tall. It is almost certain that huge amounts of wood were used for the safe passage of each statue to its destination, using potentially wooden sleighs and/or rolling logs. Unfortunately, there came a time when mostly all palm trees were felled and wood became scarce.
Researchers assume that the disappearance of the trees and thus the forests, brought along several devastating consequences: islanders could no longer built strong seagoing canoes for fishing, land animals (an important food source for the hunters) that used the forest for shelter became extinct, the trees no longer protected the soil from the sun, and thus by the combination of strong winds and rains the already meager top soil vanished.
Jared Diamond asked some interesting questions in this context:
“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!’? Or: ‘Technology will solve our problems, never fear, we’ll find a substitute for wood?’ Or: ‘We don’t have proof that there aren’t palms somewhere else on Easter [Island], we need more research, your proposed ban on logging is premature and driven by fear-mongering’?”
We won’t know the answer, but one thing is clear, the Rapa Nui society was effectively destroying their very own life support system and as a result committing ecological suicide, which Jared Diamond then termed as ecocide. Which leads me to the question if this story could be useful for the survival of humanity? Never in human history has there been as much knowledge as today, but will that help to eventually pierce through our collective ignorance and turn around the suicidal course, namely ecological collapse, that humanity has taken? I think Jared Diamond’s comparison between the problems that the Easter Islanders faced and our gloomy future today is more than justified when he says:
“The parallels between Easter Island and the whole modern world are chillingly obvious. Thanks to globalization, international trade, jet planes, and the Internet, all countries on Earth today share resources and affect each other, just as did Easter’s dozen clans. Polynesian Easter Island was as isolated in the Pacific Ocean as the Earth is today in space. When the Easter Islanders got into difficulties, there was nowhere to which they could flee, nor to which they could turn for help; nor shall we modern Earthlings have recourse elsewhere if our troubles increase. Those are the reasons why people see the collapse of Easter Island society as a metaphor, a worst-case scenario, for what may lie ahead of us in our own future.”
In a way I see our modern society and its path towards ecocide as an Easter Island Project 2.0, seemingly an unconscious, live and large scale experiment, pardon the cynicism. Which is what I am planning to write more about and also why I named this blog the Easter Island Project. However, I don’t want anyone to be paralysed by despair and helplessness facing such gloom and doom prophecies. Spreading gloom and doom has been an obsession of civilisations for at least as long as there is written record, think of the Maya calendar suggesting a date for the end of the world (“Mayan calendar ends; world doesn’t” titles the CBSN on 21/12/2012; ), the Christian believe of the Judgment Day, or the modern world fetish for apocalyptic movie scenarios such as Mad Max or the Walking Dead. I find these dystopias quite entertaining at times and some have even educational value – don’t you think?
I believe that inspired by the downfall of the Rapa Nui and other societies before us, we should be using this knowledge to our advantage, for a positive transformation of our society. Surely you would agree, that often we do know what we should do from a rational point of view and then we do something entirely different, which won’t solve the problem but seems more “realistic”, economically feasible, hence, a more comfortable solution. How we can change our ways towards a more sustainable future, where this small but after all big enough Island Earth will still be of use to our descendents, say in seven generations from now, that is what I would like to discuss with you in this blog. Given that this is a massive task, we will start with little steps.
I hope you found the Island Earth metaphor as inspiring as it was for me and I gladly invite your opinions for a creative, constructive and fruitful discussions.
“It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.”