free html hit counter Peak Oil Debunked: 249. THE ECO-COLLAPSE OF EASTER ISLAND IS A MYTH

Friday, February 24, 2006

249. THE ECO-COLLAPSE OF EASTER ISLAND IS A MYTH

Easter Island plays a key role in peak oil theory as a metaphor for the earth. Its "eco-collapse" is regarded by peak oilers as a moral tale, which shows us what is in store for modern civilization if we don't get our act together and powerdown. Here's a typical description of the peak oiler view by lawnorder at the Daily Kos:
Disaster on Easter Island: When Nature trumps Economy
This is what happened in Easter Island:
Ever more wood and rope were needed to move the effigies, but a growing population, coupled with the drive for bigger and bigger statues, wiped out the trees. ... given the island's extremely fragile ecology, they didn't grow back.

1. For some reason those huge statues were all the rage and every tribal chief wanted more, bigger and better statues.
2. But no matter how much money or prestige was showered into the statue builders, there came a time that there were NO MORE RAW MATERIALS to make them.
3. Importing them from other places was impossible with the islanders' technology at the time, since Easter Island is pretty isolated.
4. And then the economic fueled hunger for raw materials started an ecological disaster: Deforestation, i.e, all trees of the island were cut to cater to the "statue making industry".
5. By cutting all trees, the islanders created an even bigger ecological problem: soil erosion, wildlife migration. Which in turn made the yield of food from harvests and hunting decrease significantly and brought the onslaught of famine...

A deforested island suffered from soil erosion and a lack of food and raw materials. Starvation, a population crash, cannibalism, and social collapse followed. (2)

This story of Easter Island's ecological suicide was popularized by the best-selling environmentalist author Jared Diamond in a book called Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. The book has become one of the "core texts" of peak oil theory because it shows how a complex society can collapse into starvation, warfare and cannibalism due to myopic consumption of a critical resource (wood for the Easter Islanders, oil for us moderns).

As went Easter Island, so will go modern society...

That's what the peak oilers say, and it would all be very scary except for one critical fact: Jared Diamond's theory is a fairy tale. He made the whole thing up for propaganda value.

This fact is demonstrated in an extremely interesting paper called From Genocide to Ecocide: The Rape of Rapa Nui* by Dr. Benny Peiser of the Faculty of Science, John Moores University, Liverpool. By judiciously sifting through original sources and archeological research, Dr. Peiser tracks Jared Diamond to his lair, and shows how Diamond's scholarship is marred by biased gullibility, selective quoting and a deep-seated agenda. Peiser's conclusion is that the complex culture of Rapa Nui (Easter Island) never self-destructed in a late 17th century spasm of starvation, warfare and cannibalism due to the ecological myopia of its native inhabitants.

The facts show, rather, that Rapa Nui's high culture was destroyed by the predations of the Europeans who murdered, raped, enslaved, mass deported, infected and Christianized the island's inhabitants -- well-documented facts which Diamond conveniently fails to mention. In short, Diamond's theories of the collapse of Easter Island are an elaborate, borderline-racist example of deflecting attention from the true perpetrators, and blaming the victim.
-- by JD
-----
*) Energy & Environment, Volume 16, No. 3&4, 2005. Many thanks to Robert Schwartz for this enlightening link.
**) More on this topic here: 260. MORE EVIDENCE DEBUNKING THE ECO-COLLAPSE OF EASTER ISLAND

24 Comments:

At Friday, February 24, 2006 at 8:34:00 PM PST, Blogger Rob said...

And who can talk about Jared Diamond without recalling this golden oldie? I would have liked to gone to the LA Natural History Museum's "Collapse" exhibit and handed out that essay to everyone entering the place.

 
At Friday, February 24, 2006 at 10:25:00 PM PST, Blogger Robert Schwartz said...

you are welcome. You are an articulate exponent of my observation that enviromentalism is the last socially acceptable refuge for racism. Keep up the good work.

 
At Friday, February 24, 2006 at 11:21:00 PM PST, Blogger Roland said...

I went to a talk by Jared Diamond last year, and he was really impressive. However he is a bit obsessed with Easter Island and his famous statement that agriculture was "the greatest mistake in human history" is incredibily dumb. As I understand it though the other think about easter island was their dependence on a single species of slow-growing tree, whereas the globe is a much more diverse place.

 
At Saturday, February 25, 2006 at 12:44:00 AM PST, Blogger JD said...

Roland,
What makes you think the Easter Islanders were dependent on the palm?

And what makes you think they didn't have at least some palm trees when they first encountered Europeans? This bit from Peiser's paper got me wondering:

"Diamond's assertion that Easter's discoverers encountered an island devoid of trees is also contradicted by Carl Friedrich Behrens, Roggeveen's officer. According to Behrens' description of the island and its inhabitants, the natives presented "palm branches as peace offerings." Their houses were "set up on wooden stakes, daubed over with luting and covered with palm leaves" (Behrens, 1903:134/135; his account was originally published in 1737).
Behrens concluded his remarkably cheerful description of Easter Island and its natural environment on a high note: "This island is a suitable and convenient place at which to obtain refreshment, as all the country is under cultivation and we saw in the distance whole tracts of woodland [ganze Wälder]” (Behrens, 1903:137).
(P. 518)

 
At Saturday, February 25, 2006 at 1:03:00 AM PST, Blogger Chris Vernon said...

Dr. Benny Peiser... where have I heard that name before... oh yeah he's the guy who doesn't think the scientific community subscribes to the theory of anthropogenic climate change. Sorry, he holds little credibility with me.

 
At Saturday, February 25, 2006 at 3:43:00 AM PST, Blogger Roland said...

What makes you think the Easter Islanders were dependent on the palm? And what makes you think they didn't have at least some palm trees when they first encountered Europeans?

Nothing. I don't know much about Easter Island at aall, I just remember reading that somewhere. So you're probably more right than me.

So what is Easter Island an analogy for? An alien invasion? That's much more fun than eco-collapse.

 
At Saturday, February 25, 2006 at 6:34:00 AM PST, Blogger Khebab said...

Benny Peiser is the Michael Lynch of Anthropology. His main point seems to be that Eco-collpase is always the most fashionable explanation among hundreds of other theories.

 
At Saturday, February 25, 2006 at 10:15:00 AM PST, Blogger half said...

The aliens will consume the last of Earths Copper for reproduction purposes, bringing about an end to both Earth and Sylvesterus III. Obvious yet still sad.

 
At Saturday, February 25, 2006 at 5:59:00 PM PST, Blogger Novus said...

To beleive that the collapse of Easter Island is a Myth one must believe the culture of Easter Island is a thriving civilization to this day. To believe that peak oil is somehow debunked or that our civilization cannot suffer a similar eco collapse is to beleive that dinosaurs still walk the earth.

 
At Saturday, February 25, 2006 at 9:23:00 PM PST, Blogger Omnitir said...

I think a good way to look at Easter Island is that it is an incomplete story. Sure, the demise of Easter Island is undeniable, and we know from anthropological studies that wide scale deforestation did ultimately lead to their demise. However we also know that what happened was a complex serries of events that we simply do not fully understand. To say they died out simply because they depleted their resources is a far too simplistic analysis.

Deforestation seemed to ultimately be responsible, but not because the islanders selfishly consumed all available resources without regard for the future, as doomers would like us to believe.

One recently published theory suggests that Rats and European traders are responsible : introduced Polynesian rats may have caused the deforestation of the island's 16 million palm trees which were key to sustaining Easter's human population.
[…]
Polynesian rats severely reduced the palm's capacity to reproduce by eating its seeds. Ancient garbage piles reveal that porpoise bones declined sharply. The islanders, no longer with the palm wood needed for canoe building, could no longer make journeys out to sea. Consequently, the consumption of land birds, migratory birds, and mollusks increased. Soon land birds went extinct and migratory bird numbers were severely reduced, thus spelling an end for Easter Island's forests. Already under intense pressure by the human population for firewood and building material, the forests lost their animal pollinators and seed dispersers with the disappearance of the birds. Today, only one of the original 22 species of seabird still nests on Easter Island.


The bottom line is that there is in fact an important lesson to learn from Easter Island: the importance of the natural environment to sustain human populations and culture.

However the doomer mantra about Easter Island being an example of what will happen to modern civilisation with continued large-scale resource consumption is garbage. Society on Easter Island didn’t collapse because they were consumers of resources. It collapsed, apparently, because they allowed the natural environment to be irreparably damaged.

This may sound like a doomer philosophy, but it’s not. If the islanders learnt to sustain their environment, if they understood the cause and effects of introduced species on their environment, they could have learnt to sustain their resource base allowing continued consumption.

This is the important lesson to learn from Easter Island. Not that modern society should stop consuming resource like the islanders should have, but rather that modern society should seek to understand and control the natural environmental, like the islanders should have.

 
At Saturday, February 25, 2006 at 9:36:00 PM PST, Blogger merper said...

To beleive that the collapse of Easter Island is a Myth one must believe the culture of Easter Island is a thriving civilization to this day. To believe that peak oil is somehow debunked or that our civilization cannot suffer a similar eco collapse is to beleive that dinosaurs still walk the earth.

No one ever said Easter Island never collapsed. And dinosaurs suffered eco collapse? If you want to call a meteor eco-collapse, sure. Or if you want to call naturally occuring global climate change eco-collapse, then again sure.

 
At Saturday, February 25, 2006 at 10:50:00 PM PST, Blogger Roland said...

Novus, you haven't read the post properly. One reason why the Easter Island civilization isn't thriving today is because of the contact with Europeans. The question is: would their civilization have continued to thrive if Europeans had not come. I don't know what the answer is, but if it's yes, then Easter Island proves nothing about eco-collapse - it's more like an alien invasion, which is quite silly.

But whatever the truth is, you can't use a single island to prove or debunk theories about peak oil, I agree. Take a look at the rest of the site for that.

 
At Saturday, February 25, 2006 at 11:54:00 PM PST, Blogger JD said...

So what is Easter Island an analogy for? An alien invasion?

LOL. That's pretty true.

chris, I couldn't help but notice that you provide no rebuttal whatsoever to the actual content of Peiser's paper.

Silly me. I actually read the paper (twice) before forming an opinion of it. ;-)

 
At Sunday, February 26, 2006 at 12:11:00 AM PST, Blogger Roland said...

I don't know what to think about the paper, but I don't think Easter Island is a good metaphor for the Planet either so it's a bit of a moot point for me.

 
At Sunday, February 26, 2006 at 12:17:00 AM PST, Blogger JD said...

The sentence in Peiser's paper which really resonated in my mind was this:

"The striking lack of research into actual European atrocities contrasts noticeably with the fixation of most researchers on hypothesised ecological 'suicide' which is squarely blamed on the self-destructive actions of the natives themselves."

That is very true, and very sad. Diamond is just the latest European to exploit the natives for his own purposes. If he wants to talk about the brutal, barbaric collapse of Easter Island, why not focus on the one we know happened, for a fact.

 
At Sunday, February 26, 2006 at 2:32:00 AM PST, Blogger Wag the Dog said...

BBC Horizon did a programme on Easter Island in 2003. They include both the deforestation/civil war theory and the fact that Europeans bringing their diseases and slave trade to the island which dealt a final crippling blow. The Peiser paper claims no archeological evidence of starvation or cannibalism, however there is evidence of violent war and the abandonment of statue erection. What is disputable was the cause: Deforestation? Climate-induced extinction of the palm? Or a simple clash of ideologies leading to the overthrow of the statue-erecting elites?

But the Easter Island story was always a poor fit for the current peak oil doomer scenario. Tree-driven economies can actually be sustainable since trees can be grown within a human's lifetime. One cannot say the same of one barrel of light sweet crude -- depletion started when the first productive well was drilled.

 
At Monday, February 27, 2006 at 8:58:00 AM PST, Blogger DC said...

I think EnergySpin started a thread on this on peakoil.com sometime last Fall. Specifically, it was about a similar argument posited by Dennis Avery. He initiated the thread in the Hall of Flames forum cuz' he knew where it was headed from the beginning...

Anyhow, I have no problems with the use of Easter Island as an important tale of resource (mis)management, but as other have already noted, I don't think a simple extrapolation to a global context is valid.

 
At Monday, February 27, 2006 at 10:30:00 AM PST, Blogger Robert Schwartz said...

"To believe that the collapse of Easter Island is a Myth one must believe the culture of Easter Island is a thriving civilization to this day."

No, that does not logically follow. Peiser's claim is that Easter Island did not commit suicide, it was murdered. I don't know whether Peiser or Diamond is correct. However, I do know that other Native American societies, such as the Tiano were wiped out by disease and slavery. Eco-suicide would be a unique explanation. Murder, is unfortunately common, which makes it more likely.

 
At Wednesday, March 1, 2006 at 4:19:00 PM PST, Blogger JD said...

A good discussion on this topic at sci.archaeology is located here.

 
At Thursday, March 9, 2006 at 5:51:00 PM PST, Blogger popmonkey said...

here's another new data point about easter island that further blows the eco-collapse theory out of the water.

it looks like humans weren't even on the island until 1200A.D.!

 
At Thursday, October 12, 2006 at 5:11:00 PM PDT, Blogger lawnorder said...

I am forced to agree, my diary at kos does present a very simplistic explanation of Easter Island demise.

I also have to agree that the truth is more on Peiser side. Most likely European conquerors did more damage than the ecological disaster.

I don't really subscribe to the doom and gloom sect of peak oilers. But the threat is very real and will bring at the least a sizable recession. It is just simple math. When distribution costs grow 2X of what they are, our goods will be a lot more expensive. Ergo, will sell less. Ergo factories will close.

Hopefully that will be all that we will see, and an alternative will present itself. But we are running out of time.

And that was the main point of my flawed diary at kos. No matter how much money you throw at a problem, some things can't be resolved immediately. We need time to convert our distribution of food, parts, etc from oil to something else. Our agriculture has to be converted as well from using oil based fertilizer and pesticides.

So if we have an alternative to oil we best start conversion NOW. I don't see any viable alternative to oil now, do you ?

 
At Thursday, October 11, 2007 at 8:14:00 PM PDT, Blogger candace gossen said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

 
At Thursday, October 11, 2007 at 8:19:00 PM PDT, Blogger iorana said...

You guys are all wet so to say, NONE of you are working or have done any work on the island. Its laughable to read your comments. jacob Rogeveen was on the island for 1 day, and in his quotes "there are no trees taller than 10' tall" Learn your facts.
I am doing the palynology in Rano Kao, want to really know what the island was like? and what humans caused? read the Rapa Nui Journal any science and study is printed there.

 
At Wednesday, November 7, 2007 at 1:39:00 PM PST, Blogger skintax era said...

"I am doing the palynology in Rano Kao, want to really know what the island was like? and what humans caused? read the Rapa Nui Journal any science and study is printed there."

Yes I do want to know, goddamit, it's fascinating! This may come as a shock to you iorana, but I haven't got a copy of the Rapa Nui Journal lying around. Any chance of a quick run down of the latest thinking on"what the island was like and what humans caused"? JD has taken one man's essay as proof that all other theories of Easter Island's history are racist nonsense, which seems premature to say the least. Why don't you give us a more balanced overview?

 

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