As discussed in the
previous chapter, growth in itself is a double-edged sword. It has
helped alleviate world problems in the past, but as far as the
future is concerned, it will accelerate the depletion of
non-renewable resources and lower standards of living.
Oil has shown us what
happens to resources when they become scarce: prices increase and
standards of living go down. The world economy has already crashed
twice on account of petroleum politics. We have already left the
era of plenty and begun marching down the road to depletion. Like
oil, other minerals will become the object of speculation,
international politics, and wars.
We may not feel the
pain for a decade or two. But we already live in times of relative
scarcity with respect to oil. In 2008, just before the subprime
mortgage crisis and under very good economic growth conditions, we
experienced high gasoline prices and the fear of food shortages in
recent recession did provide relief in the price of oil (as well as
that of many other minerals), and greenhouse gas emissions decreased
as a result of slower economic activity. It looks like the answer
to our prayers is now the r word: recession.
Throughout the 20th
century, economic expansion was generally synonymous with a
betterment of the human condition. The fact that growth is now
associated with problems and that recessions offer relief, signals
that the world has started on a road of decline, one where
traditional solutions will increasingly become ineffective and new
ones, desperately needed.
How Societies Collapse
In 2005, Jared
Diamond, a professor of Geography at UCLA and award-winning author,
wrote a book titled, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or
Succeed. It describes how different people in the planet's past
and present have knowingly or unknowingly taken actions that have
had disastrous consequences, led to a massive decline, or resulted
in the collapse of their society.
Diamond reviewed over
a dozen cases—including the Maya in Central America, the Anasazi
tribes in southern US states, the Greenland Norse, Easter Island,
and the Rwandan Genocide—and drew conclusions as to the reasons
for their collapses or successful adaptations. He tried to
determine the patterns that led to declines so as to make it
possible for us to not repeat them in the future.
As the reserves of
certain minerals have already passed their peaks and many others are
not far behind, perhaps his work will help provide the answers that
Causes of Social Decline and Collapse
Diamond (2005) lists
eight causes that have contributed to the decline or collapse of
societies in the far and recent past. Three of them have to do with
the depletion of natural resources: deforestation (including habitat
destruction), overhunting, and overfishing. Three are related to
environmental management practices: soil issues (fertility, erosion,
salinization), water supply, and the introduction of non-native
species. Two are human related: population growth and per capita
environmental impact (p. 6).
Below is a review of
each of the causes and concrete examples from both the past and the
Deforestation and Destruction of Habitats
Most of Diamond's
eight causes of decline or collapse are well known issues today, but
they are also old foes. For example, hundreds of years ago the
depletion of natural resources led to the collapse of Easter Island
societies. In this case, massive deforestation, among other things,
resulted in soil erosion and the destruction of habitat for many of
the species on which they depended for food.
Lower crop yields and
reduced animal food sources strained communities and eventually led
to wars pitting one tribe against another as well as people against
their own ruling elites. Tens of thousands died in what is referred
to as an ecocide, a massive number of deaths resulting from
an ecological collapse. This case is looked at in more details in
the next chapter.
is a continuing problem in many countries. India, for example, has
already lost most of its wooded areas. All over the country, trees
were cut down for fuel and other purposes. As a result, most people
have had to switch to oil, which, as we know, is problematic in
with deforestation was even more disastrous as the country's hilly
landscape was stripped of its trees. In addition to losing an
important economic resource, deforestation resulted in an enormous
amount of erosion because the root systems that held the soil on
inclines were destroyed. Consequently, trees could not reestablish
themselves and grow back. A renewable resource was simply wiped out
currently facing the same problem, except that in its case, the
clear cutting of forests has had much more dire consequences. The
deforestation of hillsides prevents the greenery from absorbing the
water from the downpours during the monsoon season. The country,
already prone to flooding, is being hit much more frequently and
severely by floods, resulting in major losses of lives.
The disappearance of
the Amazon forest is in the news on a regular basis. Despite
decades of warning and advocacy by environmentalists, it continues
on unabated. In addition, the Amazon is a huge reserve of biomass.
Destroying it not only adds greenhouse gases to the atmosphere but
also decreases the planet's ability to absorb the gas from the air,
worsening global warming problems. Of course, there is also soil
erosion, the destruction of animal habitats, and the permanent loss
of many plant species unique to the area, many of which could have
potential medical uses.
Overfishing and Overhunting
overhunting are contributing factors in many of the cases of
societal collapse studied by Jared Diamond. They sometimes lead
directly to starvation and death. However, most often they do so
indirectly as the result of wars breaking out over diminishing food
supplies and resources. Technically, animal food sources should
last forever as they are renewable, but they do not when they are
For centuries, the
Grand Banks off the eastern coast of Canada was one of the richest
fishing grounds on the planet. Its cod fishery has now practically
been destroyed despite all the modern science and knowledge
available relating to species management.
Canada is one of the
richest countries in the world. Yet, it was unable to prevent the
collapse of one of the most plentiful—and normally fully
renewable—resource on the planet, one that was once believed to be
inexhaustible. A huge asset and source of economic revenue was lost
in but a few decades. If one of the richest countries in the world
is unable to manage a resource that is renewable and should normally
be plentiful forever, what does that spell for the future of the
As the world
population continues to grow, resources will come under even more
pressure than they do today. If we are unable to manage them under
current economic conditions, how will we be able to do so in the
future as the price of many resources increases as a result of
scarcity? Is there any reason to believe that governments will do
Soil and Water Management
Soil, like any other
resource, must be managed to maximize its continued productivity.
Overuse will result in smaller harvests and nutritionally deficient
crops. Chemical fertilizers have made the loss of nutrients less of
a critical issue, but we should remember that they are a depletable
resource also. In fact, fertilizer prices have gone up
significantly in the last decade as a result of increased demand
from continued population growth.
All over the world, erosion is a major cause of loss of arable
land. Deforestation, clearcutting, and certain farming practices
can result in the degradation of cultivable land. Up until the
1970s, the ploughing of fields in the North American prairies often
resulted in a significant amount of soil erosion. Fields were left
exposed to the elements without root systems to hold the soil in
place and prevent it from washing away with every rainfall. The
notorious prairie winds blew away top soil, creating dust storms
reminiscent of Saudi Arabia's.
Today, many prairie
farmers use a number of strategies to prevent their livelihood from
being washed away. These include no-till farming practices, the use
of special seeding drills that disturb only minimal amounts of soil,
and a number of low- or mulch-tillage practices.
Another means by
which arable land can be ruined is salinization. This can occur as
a result of many factors. A major cause of the problem is when
farmers use ground water for irrigation. Unlike rainwater, ground
water contains dissolved salts which can build up in soil and make
it unsuitable for agriculture.
This ties into the
next topic, water management issues. On account of scarcity,
population growth, increased industrial usage, as well as quality
issues, many countries have to closely monitor their water
Recreational use and
both commercial and sport fishing also depend on proper management
of water resources, more specifically their protection. Fertilizers
and contaminants are probably the main threats in this respect. The
large-scale use of chemical nutrients and pesticides in agriculture
has greatly increased food production around the world. However, it
has also created a number of problems, among them, the contamination
of fish from pesticide runoffs and the choking off of rivers and
lakes from excess fertilizer draining into waterways and fostering
the growth of aquatic vegetation which consumes the oxygen in the
water which, in turn, makes it unlivable for fish.
Population growth is
discussed at length in chapter 5. As such, the issue will only be
briefly outlined here. The basic principle is simple: the more we
are on the planet, the more we pollute and the more of its resources
On the one hand,
population growth stresses existing renewable resources—such as
land for food production, forestry, and fisheries. On the other
hand, a higher demand for manufactured goods increases the depletion
rates of non-renewable resources such as metals and shortens the
periods of time for which they will last.
The depletion of both
renewable and non-renewable resources has played an important role
in the decline or collapse of many societies in the past. Little is
gained from increasing the world's population. Yet, the numbers
keep going up.
Both Canada and the
US are actually on a tear to boost their own multitudes in an
attempt to offset the impact of the approaching baby boomer
retirement wave. It is a questionable direction with undesirable
consequences. Russia, whose birthrate has fallen below replacement
level, is currently proposing a range of incentives to boost
The Introduction of Non-Native Species
The introduction of
foreign species into new environments can have major unintended and
destructive consequences. Most of the danger lies in the fact that
many non-native plants and animals do not have natural enemies in a
new environment, making it possible for them to grow or reproduce
out of control, destroying local flora and fauna and creating
billions of dollars in damages.
Many of these
introductions are unintentional and have occurred simply as a result
of the increased trade and traffic between countries over the last
few centuries. For example, the zebra mussel, a freshwater mollusk
that originates from southeast Russia, spread to European countries
in the 1800s and 1900s and has been found in North America—the
Great Lakes—more recently. Its introduction is believed to have
been accidental, probably through foreign ship ballasts.
species has proven to be highly destructive, causing ecosystem
disruption, harm to native unionid mussels, and damage to harbors,
boats, water treatment facilities, and power plants. It is believed
to have already cost billions of dollars to the North American
economy and is spreading from the Great Lakes to, among others, the
Mississippi and Hudson rivers (Zebra mussel, 2006, March 27).
Purple loosestrife is
a plant species that has also probably been introduced accidentally
to North America and that is causing an enormous amount of damage to
the environment. It made the journey from Europe to the east coast
of the continent a few centuries ago and has now succeeded in
crossing all the way to the other side, California.
The plant actually
produces beautiful purple blooms and has been sold as an ornamental
for home gardens. However, it is invasive and quickly populates and
destroys the habitats of wild birds in marsh lands all over North
America. Being non-native, it has very few natural enemies on the
continent and is very difficult to control.
Little can be done
when new animal or plant types are introduced accidentally.
However, some species have been brought into new environments
entirely intentionally. A famous example of this is in the 1800s
when rabbits were introduced in Australia for hunting purposes. The
country's outback turned out to be an ideal environment for them.
They bred—like rabbits—as they were intended to, and soon their
numbers reached epidemic proportions.
The introduction had
unintended consequences. Their burrows undermine farmland, making
it difficult to cultivate and causing soil erosion. They damage
vegetation, among other things by chewing bark rings at the base of
trees and eating seedlings, and outcompete many native species of
small animals for the limited amount of food available—especially
during droughts and after wildfires.
Four Modern Causes of Social Decline or Collapse
In addition to the
eight causes discussed above, Diamond (2005) described four modern
ones that may lead to the decline or collapse of societies: climate
change as a result of human activity, toxic chemical buildup,
shortages of energy, and reaching maximum photosynthetic capacity
With global warming
making news on a regular basis, most of us are already familiar with
climate change issues. Unusual weather patterns, higher tornado
activity, and the many disasters—including the destruction of New
Orleans—that are increasingly being blamed on climate change.
While societies of the past were largely victims of weather
occurrences that had nothing to do with them, the current phase of
climate change is believed to be the result of human activity(anthropogenic
The list of man-made
and other chemical compounds entering our waterways everyday is
endless. Some are highly toxic, others slowly accumulate in the
environment. Some eventually breakdown, a few bioaccumulate in
living organisms and concentrate up the food chain to come back to
haunt us. Mercury, for example, is toxic to the human nervous
system. It evaporates and, for that reason, is found in most lakes,
rivers, and oceans where it metabolizes into organic form and
concentrates in fish.
In North America,
most predatory fish in rivers and lakes contain a certain quantity
of mercury. Over time, the amount will only continue to
increase—along with other chemicals—and eventually destroy the
sport and commercial fisheries of many species. We are already a
long way down that road. Today, most North American states and
provinces have advisories recommending limits on the consumption of
certain types of fish. Tuna made news headlines in 2005. It was
found to contain levels of mercury high enough for governments to
recommend that pregnant women avoid or limit its consumption.
There is still very
little regulation affecting mercury. And, we keep adding a lot of
it to the atmosphere every year through mining activities and the
burning of medical waste and coal, among other things. The problem
will only grow. More fish species will be affected if nothing is
done, and major economic resources on which many communities depend
are going to be lost.
The slow buildup of
toxic chemicals in the environment is a reality that we have to deal
with. The road we are currently on ultimately leads to the
destruction of many world fisheries and the process has already
started. This is not an extreme scenario; it is very real.
Energy shortages are
old news. We have seen the consequences of scarcity: price hikes,
speculation, economic crashes, the shift of power to unstable parts
of the world, wars fought to secure continued supply, etc.
The shift to
renewable and generally cleaner energies has already started.
However, countries have different abilities to make it happen.
These depend on the local availability of alternative energy
sources, the finances to purchase the technology, etc. As such, for
some of them, energy shortages will remain a possible cause of
As we gradually shift
to renewable supplies, how will economies change? Some types of
energy will have implications for our future. Biofuels (ethanol and
biodiesel) come from the agribusiness sector—desirably or not—and
compete for acreage with food production. We already saw what that
translated into in 2008 with respect to the price of rice.
Most countries only
have a certain amount of arable land. Bioengineering will also come
to the rescue, but science has its own limits. Eventually, the
photosynthetic capacity of the earth (the capacity of plant life to
transform sunlight into vegetal matter) and our ability to derive
energy and food from the land will reach a ceiling: we will no
longer be able to increase production to meet demand. This is
Diamond's fourth threat to modern societies.
Obviously, this is
not going to happen tomorrow and will depend to a large extent on
the size of the world's population. The photosynthetic capacity is
one resource among others. As we deplete it, we will run into
shortages. Competition and conflicts over it will develop as they
do for other resources.
The Combination of Multiple Causes
Most of the causes or
factors discussed above do not occur alone or in isolation. Rarely
is one going to be the single reason for the collapse of a society.
They generally combine, often in unexpected ways.
region may have been able to face a significant amount of
adversity—for example, the loss of an important source of food as
a result of a forest fire—and survive. However, one that was
barely able to make a living off the land would have collapsed under
the same circumstances.
In the same way, as
related by Diamond (2005), a society having significantly depleted
its resources could sustain itself under benign climate conditions,
but collapse when those became less favorable (p. 13). In such a
case, adverse or erratic weather patterns would not be the cause of
disaster but rather the proverbial straw that broke the camel's
Different factors can
combine together and have disastrous consequences. Think, for
example, in the summer of 2008 when economic growth was high, oil
prices were skyrocketing—affecting not only energy but also the
cost of food—and land was being converted to biofuel production.
Many feared widespread famine. Of course, the worst did not happen
but only because a glitch in the system, the subprime mortgage
crisis, saved the day by rapidly cooling off economies around the
Victims of Our Own Successes and Tainted
One could add to
Diamond's arguments that societies are also often the victims of
their own successes and the use of tainted solutions. Without the
Green Revolution which greatly boosted agricultural production in
the developing world in the 1960s and 1970s, food shortages would
have increased and countries would have been forced to address the
issue of population growth. However, scientific advances (chemical
fertilizers and pesticides) resulted in a huge increase in
agricultural output, which decreased the need for addressing it.
The world population
went from three billion in 1960 to almost seven billion in but a few
decades. Now, instead of three billion people with full stomachs
and ample surpluses, there are fears of famine again... despite all
the scientific and technological advances. In many ways, we are
victims of our own successes.
The Green Revolution,
although heralded as a success, failed in many respects. It did not
address the root cause of the problem, population growth, and was
based on a number of tainted solutions:
the dependency on depletable fertilizers, the use of chemical
pesticides, and non-organic farming practices which have resulted in
the loss of arable land, all of which are now coming back to haunt
this point in time, many countries have little choice but to resort
to even more tainted solutions in order to alleviate the hunger
problem, for example, the use of bioengineered crops or products
whose long-term effects are still unknown.
the one thing that has remained intact through the Green Revolution
is population growth. History has shown time and again a pattern of
people in denial and refusing to recognize a new reality. They fail
to properly address problems, but eventually these come to a head.
provides several examples in which a combination of factors,
environmental and otherwise, led to the total collapse of entire
societies, a recent example of this being the 1994 genocide in
Rwanda (see chapter 8). While total collapse or a massive number of
deaths may not be in the cards for most countries, declines can be
very dramatic. Just think of the fall out from the subprime
mortgage crisis and of the teetering of the EU economy on account of
mounting national debts.
generally perceived as having long lives with progressive slowdowns
towards the end. However, Diamond (2005) challenged that idea,
arguing that many of them have actually lived through very rapid
declines after having reached their climaxes and that the experience
must have been dramatic and shocking to them, the worst cases
leading to everybody leaving a community or dying if that was not an
option (p. 6).
are piling up and are starting to combine. The world population has
more than doubled since 1965, pressuring resources. Chemical
fertilizers and oil have gone up in price substantially, increasing
the cost of food. Land continues to be lost to erosion, and
contaminants are degrading food sources like fisheries. Is the
perfect storm brewing? Will the Green Revolution ultimately result
in more people starving? Or, has it already?
What Does the Future Hold?
Diamond (2005) does
not suggest that we are heading for a total collapse of the
contemporary world. In his view, globalization (mutual support),
modern medicine, and technology put us at a significantly lower risk
than societies of the past. However, some of the same
factors—technology in its unintended destructive applications and
globalization in its mutual dependency aspect—as well as others,
such as population growth, simultaneously put us at greater risks
To these, add the
threats posed by arms of mass destruction—whether nuclear,
biological, or other. Mutually assured self-destruction remains a
significant issue despite the progress made in the recent past.
While things are relatively quiet now, they could easily flare up
again as a result of competition for dwindling resources and the
prospect of increased starvation.
Terrorism remains a
significant concern, especially in Afghanistan and Pakistan. As
well, Iran and North Korea stand out for their destabilizing
influence on world peace. Pakistan will likely remain problematic
into the future because of the threat of its nuclear arsenal falling
into the wrong hands.
What is certain at
this point in time is that there will have to be renewed and
continued efforts on the part of governments and societies to
minimize conflicts when they occur, foster stability, and promote
tolerance and diversity.
Diamond (2005) himself
argued that a collapse of modern society is improbable and that a
worst case scenario would likely mean a significant economic
decline, lower standards of living, growing insecurity, the
propagation of diseases worldwide, and the spread of wars from
competition over scarce resources. He also argued that some of our
core values could be undermined as a result of eventual declines (p.
While societies might
not collapse, the reality of declines can still be very unpleasant.
Resource scarcity would lead to price increases, interest rates
would be raised by central banks, consumers would reduce spending,
and governments would cut back services and social programs in order
to prevent deficits from rising, both of which serving to push
The scenario is in
part similar to what happened in the 1980s and 1990s. This time,
however, there would be no light at the end of the tunnel because
not only oil but also a range of other resources would become
scarce. As well, governments' debts are now significantly higher
than they were at that time, and most countries keep adding to them
every year. The world would increasingly become polarized as a
result of competition over dwindling resources. Alliances would
shift, bringing instability to many areas. Regional disputes would
occur here and there, especially in poorer parts of the world.
Scarcity would also put wind in the sails of terror. Larger
conflicts could develop out of it.
The massive and
growing seven-billion-people consumption machine would continue to
plough forward and progressively wipe out the planet's resources.
Although there might be ups for short periods of time, the future
would be one of difficult economics and decreasing prospects for
Some of the above is
already happening on account of oil, which points to us the road we
are currently on unless we change direction. What will happen when
metals become scarce one after the other? Unlike oil, their
depletion is a one-way process. A smooth incline to higher priced
alternatives is not what awaits us at the end of that road: a brick
When we reach that
point in time, world tensions as a result of scarcity and falling
standards of living will peak and create a much more explosive
situation. Will the planet survive a stress level 10 or 20 times
higher than that created by oil scarcity? Will social capital
(tolerance, cooperation, constructiveness, stability, etc.) match
that increase? Could we avoid a collapse even today if we were hit
by another world economic crash? Many systems are stretched to the
The Human Factor
Jared Diamond used a
set of five factors as framework for the analysis of his case
studies. The first two have to do with the physical aspects of a
particular situation: damage to the environment and climate change.
The other three are human in nature.
In difficult times,
neighboring communities can play either a hostile or amicable role
in a developing crisis, potentially speeding up or averting
disaster. Current world crises provide many examples of the two
factors. For instance, many Muslim countries have supported the
fight against Islamism and terrorism. Conversely, Pakistan was
blamed on several occasions by both Afghanistan and the US for
providing safe haven to Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters.
The third human
factor, and probably the most important, in analyzing how societies
fail or succeed is the way they face problems. A lot can be done to
avert disasters. Many of the cases of decline and collapse studied
by Diamond were not caused solely by environmental factors.
Certainly, these exacerbated and aggravated existing conditions but
were only a part of the story. Many of the problems were initially
caused by people themselves or could have been handled successfully
had appropriate and timely action been taken.
Diamond (2005) did
not only showcase declines and collapses but also showed examples of
societies that have successfully adapted to unfavorable changes in
their environment. For example, he compared the success of the
Dominican Republic to the failure of Haiti, both countries being
halves of the same island but having seen very different outcomes in
terms of social and economic development.
He also studied and
compared Norse Greenland—a society that totally collapsed through
a complex set of factors, some of which environmental, others human,
cultural, economic, and political—to the Inuit societies that
survived in the same environment. That one collapsed and the other
did not suggests that there is a definite human factor in the fate
of societies, and declines or collapses are not entirely
The fact that the
success or failure of a society is not exclusively a factor of
outside conditions implies that they could be averted through
appropriate action and intervention. That was the whole point of
Diamond's work: studying the mistakes of other societies in order to
not repeat them ourselves and find out what has worked in the past
and could be used in building the future.
The next chapter will
take a close look at two of the cases studied by Diamond. The
first, Easter Island, occurred centuries ago but is a perfect
example of a society that depleted all of its resources and
eventually collapsed into wars and overthrew its elites. The
second, the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, is a very contemporary and
poignant example. It is generally perceived as a racial and
tribal-based conflict. However, there was much more to it than what
came through the mass media, and many important lessons can be drawn
for the future from that horrific occurrence.
4. The Easter Island Road
Easter Island is
probably better known for the mysterious, alien-looking, massive
statues called moai carved out of its volcanic rock and once
erected all over its landscape.
Another part of the
mystery of Easter Island is that out of a total of slightly less
than 900 statues, almost half were found left unfinished in the
inner walls of the Rano Raraku volcano crater where they were
sculpted. Much research has been done since the first European
contact, and what may have happened is now better understood.
Easter Island as Discovered by Europeans
Easter Island belongs
to Chile but is located at the eastern edge of the Polynesian group
of islands and lies in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean. Its
size is relatively small, about 63 square miles, and the island is
believed to have been first inhabited around A.D. 300-400 by
Polynesians who migrated from other islands in the west in search of
new land to inhabit.
current total population is slightly below 4,000 people (Easter
Island, 2006, May 11). Jared Diamond's book, Collapse: How
Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed
(2005), is one of the better sources of historical
information on it for those who may want to get more details. The
following reviews some of his work and conclusions on the subject.
In 1722, Jakob
Roggeveen was the first European to land in that strange and
enigmatic place. Some 500 moai dotted a landscape that was bare of
any large tree capable of providing the timber or ropes necessary to
transport or erect the massive statues. Only saplings and small
trees were found. They did not exceed 10 feet in height and were
dispersed around the island.
The withered and
scorched vegetation was initially mistaken for sand by Roggeveen and
gave the island an air of desolation and aridity (Diamond, 2005, p.
81). It is estimated that the local population numbered between
2000 and 3000 at the time. There was no timber for construction or
the making of sea-going canoes. There were no wild land birds and
few, if any, animals to hunt to supply the islanders' diet. Chicken
was the only species of domestic animals.
canoes, the tuna fish and porpoises available in the area could not
supplement the islanders' diet as they did in other Polynesian
islands. As a result, people subsisted mainly on “sweet potatoes,
yams, taro, bananas, and sugarcane” (Diamond, 2005, p. 90) in
addition to the chickens they raised and some fish and shellfish.
What Really Happened on Easter Island?
Diamond (2005) writes
that a number of researchers tried to estimate the highest
population level that Easter Island had ever been able to reach at
any one point in time. The numbers they came up with were somewhere
between 6,000 and 30,000 people.
The huge discrepancy
comes from the fact that no official record exists in that respect.
The estimates had to be calculated from other sources, for example,
by looking at the number of house foundations over the island or the
area of land under cultivation.
population estimates in the higher part of the range for a number of
reasons, among them evidence of intensive agricultural practices (p.
91). The overall picture suggests that Easter Island had been able
to support a much larger population than it did when Europeans first
The massive stone
works—finished and in progress—also pointed to the same
conclusion as well as at a fairly bountiful land rather than a
desolate barrenness. In addition to the massive statues, the island
also featured large numbers of ahu or huge stone bases on
which moai were often erected.
Neither ahu nor moai
were essential for survival. This indicated that Easter Islanders
were able to produce significant surpluses from the land, enough to
provide for basic needs as well as for the large number of people
involved in the stoneworks. In other words, everything pointed to
an island that was not the poorly populated wasteland Roggeveen had
found upon his arrival.
One of the major
puzzles with respect to the island was how the gigantic statues
dotting its landscape had been transported. According to Diamond
(2005), the most plausible way involved a traditional method called
canoe ladders. Those were essentially two rails of heavy
timber connected together with wooden rungs. They were laid flat on
the ground, and trees, canoes, or any other heavy piece needing to
be transported was simply dragged along it.
The theory was tested
and proved that moai attached to wooden sleds and hauled on canoe
ladders could be transported this way over long distances (Diamond,
2005, p. 100-101). With sloping ramps and leveraging techniques
that were already part of the local tradition, a demonstration
carried out by islanders themselves proved that erecting the heavy
statues could be done without modern technology.
The theory above
leaves us with one problem: the absence on the island of the large
trees needed to produce the heavy timber for this type of operation.
Because of the massive weights involved, a large number of sturdy
and heavy pieces of lumber would have been needed to build all of
the ladders on which statues were dragged as well as the wooden
sleds to which they were attached.
research helps us answer many of our questions.
of bones found on Easter Island explain many of its mysteries. The
small land mass in the middle of the Pacific had apparently featured
six native species of birds, two of them resembling chickens. Their
bones having been found in the domestic garbage of early settlements
indicated that they were a significant part of the islanders' diet.
The research also
showed that another 25 species of seabirds nested on the island and
contributed to the locals' food sources, “making it formerly the
richest breeding site in all of Polynesia and probably in the whole
Pacific” (Diamond, 2005, p. 104).
That abundance is
explained in part by the absence of predators on the island prior to
its being settled, at which point humans and rats entered the
picture with disastrous consequences. Today, 24 of these species
have vanished from Easter Island.
In addition, over 30%
of the bones studied were found to be of Common Dolphins, which are
a relatively large species (up to 165 pounds or 75 kilograms) and
usually live away from the coast, requiring to be fished or hunted
with sea-going vessels. This, in turn, implied that Easter Island
had once featured the large trees necessary to make them (Diamond,
2005, p. 105). What happened to them?
The study of pollen
grains found in core samples drilled in swamps on Easter Island
revealed other things. Individual geological layers were examined
in order to identify the species of trees and vegetation that had
existed in the past. According to Diamond (2005), studies found
palm pollen grains to be plentiful in the samples collected.
in solidified lava revealed palm nuts and a fossilized palm trunk
surpassing seven feet in diameter. Today, the biggest tree in the
species—the Chilean wine palm—reaches only three feet across and
65 feet in height. None of those giant trees are left on the island
Palm trees would have
been valuable not only for their timber but also for a number of
other things as well. For example, the nuts of the Chilean species
are edible. The sap of the tree can be collected and fermented into
a drink or concentrated into sweet products. Its fronds can be used
for many purposes, including roof thatching and the weaving of
household goods such as baskets (p. 103).
Another way that
researchers approached the issue of plant species on Easter Island
was through the study of coal fragments in core samples drilled into
the middens and ovens that had once been on the island.
Their study showed
another 16 species of plants having vanished from Easter Island
since its early human occupation, many of which were believed to
have had significant value for the islanders, for example, for
making sturdy ropes and cloth, for their edible fruits, for
construction material or combustible, etc. (Diamond, 2005, p. 104).
Research showed that
the island had a diverse forest capable of sustaining a variety of
species—of which almost all have now disappeared. It supplied the
rope and timber for the statue-making industry as well as the food
surpluses needed to support the large class of people (carvers,
infrastructure builders, etc.) involved in the stoneworks.
The Easter Island Road
What happened exactly
on Easter Island? Obviously, there is no absolute answer to that
question because of the lack of written records. However, a lot can
be ascertained or inferred with a fair degree of accuracy from the
research that was done.
As coal fragments of
the tree species discussed in the previous section were found in
core samples from ancient ovens and garbage heaps, it can be
concluded that one of their uses was for firewood. In addition,
during a certain period of their history, Easter Islanders cremated
the bodies of their dead as evidenced by the presence of crematoria
and the human remains in them. A large quantity of wood would have
been required as fuel for that purpose alone.
suggests that many of the trees on the island had been cleared to
make way for a number of crops. Larger ones would have been cut
down to make the ropes and canoe ladders to support the stoneworks.
They would also have been used in the fabrication of sea-going
canoes as the abundance of porpoises in the islanders' diet
Over time, the heavy
consumption of the resource and land clearing combined to bring
about the extinction of many kinds of trees and of all the large
ones in particular. Diamond (2005) qualified what happened on
Easter Island as the “most extreme example of forest destruction
in the Pacific” (p. 107).
With the devastation
of their habitat, combined with overhunting and rats (introduced by
newcomers to the island), some animal species disappeared. Others
were greatly weakened. Overhunting and rats probably finished many
of them off. All native land birds on Easter simply disappeared,
while 24 out of the 25 seabird species having once nested on the
island became extinct.
Without large trees
to make sea-going canoes, more food sources were lost simply for
their being out of reach. The deforestation also led to erosion and
a decrease in soil fertility, both of which contributing to a
reduction in crop yields at a time when other food resources were
Most of the above is
thought to have occurred roughly between A.D. 900 and 1722, when
Roggeveen landed to find a sparsely populated land that was barren
and desolate. More specifically, evidence places the extinction of
the giant palms beginning around 1400 in the areas believed to have
been deforested first and concluding by 1500. Most trees had
vanished by 1640 as their disappearance—and subsequent replacement
by grasses—in oven core samples indicates (Diamond, 2005, p.
From the housing
densities in several digs, it was determined that Easter Island's
population would have peaked some time between 1400 and 1600. In
the following 300 years, a pretty dramatic scenario would have
unfolded, the total number of people on the island dropping by 70%.
presumably became increasingly faced with starvation from the loss
of food resources and eventually turned to cannibalism. Domestic
garbage piles in that period frequently featured human bones having
been cracked very likely to extract the marrow. Oral tradition also
supports that turn of events.
It is believed that
around 1680—only four decades after the completion of the
deforestation—people finally revolted against their own leaders,
and the whole island descended into chaos and civil wars. The
statues that had hitherto been the pride of individual clans stopped
being carved and erected. As the gods had failed to deliver the
bounty that had come to be expected, people toppled their idols,
placing slabs of stone at strategic weak points so that they would
break in their fall (Diamond, 2005, p. 109-110).
In but a few
centuries, the people of Easter Island simply self-destructed, not
from their failure to settle the land but from their success at
it—as testified by earlier high population levels and the
development of luxury industries like the statue stoneworks—and
the subsequent depletion of the natural resources that supported
The Road to Self-Destruction
Diamond (2005) lists a
number of causes for the collapse of the societies he studied,
“failure to anticipate a problem, failure to perceive it once it
has arisen, failure to attempt to solve it after it has been
perceived, and failure to succeed in attempts to solve it” (p.