Reframing an old story

I’ve heard the story of Easter Island used many times as a cautionary tale. Recently, I’ve heard it used in a slightly different, and immensely thought-provoking, incarnation.

Here’s the story, more or less:

the people of Easter Island, quite obviously, were not born there but arrived there on boats. Liking what they saw—and being able to go no further—they stayed. They built up a society that could be considered, by many different standards, quite complex. Social order, advanced living structures with all the (then) possible creature comforts, art, domestication of animals and cultivation of crops, boat-making (they made large, sophisticated canoes for fishing) and religion. A religion that, for whatever reason, caused them to cart giant stone heads large distances (relatively speaking) across the island. What task they couldn’t accomplish from sheer manpower, and certainly not from any ‘beasts of burden’ (the largest animals on the island, other than humans, were pigs); moving the stone heads, then required logs. Lots and lots of logs. Fortunately the island was fairly well-equipped with trees. This religion didn’t require moving one stone head, though; it required the moving of many, many stone heads. Many trees were cut down. More were cut down. In fact, all the trees, eventually, were cut down.

So somebody must have realized, cutting down the last tree: this is the last tree. The island was not insurmountably gigantic. It would have been difficult to trick yourself into thinking that there were more trees. But the last tree was cut down, despite trees’ vital role to the society.

And what happened?

Society collapsed. Regressed. Population crashed. It became a feudal-warlike society of primitive tribes. Language crumbled. People moved from living in huts and other structures to living in caves, eking out a very borderline existence.

The cautionary tale usually pulled out of all this is, use your resources wisely, because they’re so important to the functions of society.

Recently, however, I’ve heard it put in a different light. “Consider it,” the person said (I’m paraphrasing here), “a case study of a worse-case outcome for society continuing to use resources unsustainably.”

Okay, nothing so surprising so far.

“An important thing to note, though, is that the people did not disappear. They didn’t die off. When explorers came to the island, they found a group of people vastly more primitive than the original Easter Islanders would have been; but they didn’t find an empty island. Their society survived, even if the culture suffered greatly.”

Lesson: if society continues to use resources irresponsibly, until it’s too late, humans won’t die off. They’ll pay a very dear price, but they won’t become extinct.

Which simultaneously says something about human adaptability and human stupidity. It seems a pretty logical conclusion to draw, but it’s not really one I considered before, not really. I’d always considered a more binary “people will survive in their current form or die off”. Which is monstrously simplistic, but somehow believable.

But this re-framing of Easter Island makes me think.

The context for this post was a talk given by Dr. James P. Hamilton, “Is Sustainability Impossible or Inevitable,” at Shippensburg University on March 10, 2004.

You can find out more about the Easter Island story at the Easter Island Home Page, which fairly comprehensively (yet concisely) re-tells the story, but with more details and also with more links. I honestly can’t recall what books (or other mediums) I’ve seen this story cited in, but if any come to mind, I’ll mention them as well.