Green Capitalism - Waves of the Future

Climate Change, Non-Renewable Resources, Energy, Contaminants, Carbon Pricing...

The Depletion Wall

3. Causes of the Collapse of Societies

4. The Easter Island Road

Deforestation, Forest Management

Managing Renewable and Depletable Resources is important for the Future: Lack of it has resulted in the economic collapse of societies in the past. Conservation is part of the solution...

Renewable Energy & Resource Management

Overview  Reviews

See also Book I of the Waves of the Future Series




3. Causes of the Collapse of Societies

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 many countries.

Ironically, the 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 we need.

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 present.

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.

Today, deforestation 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 itself.

Nepal's experience 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 for good.

Bangladesh is 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
Overfishing and 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 overexploited.

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 planet?

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 better tomorrow?

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 resources.

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
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 we consume.

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 natality.

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.

The non-native 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 (p. 7).

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 climate change).

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 decline.

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.

A resource-rich 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 back.

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 world?

Victims of Our Own Successes and Tainted Solutions
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 us.

At 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.

Ironically, 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.

Diamond (2005) 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.

Societies are 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).

Problems 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 (p. 8).

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. 7).

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 unemployment up.

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 world peace.

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 wall is.

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 breaking point.

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 environmentally determined.

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.

Easter Island's 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.

Without sturdy 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.

Diamond favors 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 arrived.

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.

Archaeological research helps us answer many of our questions.

Bone Studies
Archaeological studies 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?

Pollen Studies
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.

Further discoveries 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 today.

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).

Charcoal Studies
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.

Research also 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 suggests.

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 themselves dwindling.

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. 106-107).

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%.

The population 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 them.

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. 438).

Where do we fit in that list?

Copyright Waves of the Future, ©2012

More information: WWF Earth Day Network