Environmental crisis on Easter Island

The same thing happened to me as Jared Diamond says happens to his students, in response to learning of the way deforestation destroyed the livelihood of the Easter Islanders – I began to wonder what situation prevented them from preserving enough trees to at least build boats. Professor Diamond makes a few, somewhat facetious suggestions, any of which could have come from the mouths of pro-logging lobbyists in Tasmania, but I’d like to quickly think through the situation on Easter Island at the time.

Chiefs of rival clans were building ever more grandiose statues and ahu, using more precious wood in the process. The remaining forest was being cut higher and higher up the mountain, and it must have been clear to everyone that the trees were running out fast. The population had reached historic highs, and more and more marginal land – much of it a generation ago would have been forest – was being farmed. There was I’m sure a rather apocalyptic smell in the air, if only because pressures on food production had reduced everyone’s calorie intake. A “bird-man” cult had sprung up, codifying competition between the clans.

Whose interests were being served by cutting down trees to make ahu and statues? The chiefs gained prestige in relation to other chiefs, and their magesty presumably was thought to aid their intercession with the gods. The people gained reflected glory of their leaders, and thought of themselves as gaining the benefits of the chief’s divine favour. There’s definitely the situation, too, that as things get more desperate, extreme measures become more compelling. The details of the bird man cult aren’t clear to me, but it wouldn’t be the last apocalyptic cult to arise in a situation where resources were being stretched thin by population.

I assume, just the same, that a significant proportion of the population were aware that the trees were running out and that it posed a serious threat to everyone’s livelihood. It seems logical that there was therefore considerable discontent, and that the chiefs had to use strong-arm men, religious persuasion, cultural taboos, or some combination of these methods, to keep rebellion from breaking out. Although of course one clan, and especially just the malcontents from one clan, probably had no power to prevent deforestation – it would need to be an island-wide decision.

It would be rare, however, for leaders in a tribal situation to go against the wishes of their people for long periods of time, if only because these are the people they live among and socialise with each day. As Prof Diamond points out that it is also significant that the chiefs would not be able to insulate themselves from the effects of their decisions.

So were the chiefs blind to what was going on? Did they believe that by some extreme effort of faith in the face of reality would change their situation? Were they unable to break free of their short-term needs in order to secure their long-term future? Were they unable to cooperate in a situation where the different clans were competing for scarce resources? This seems more the key to the situation: it was impossible, with the social and political situation on the island, for the clans to put aside rivalry and cooperate to conserve the forest for their long term needs. The result was a period of warfare and cannibalism which reduced the population of the island by four fifths.

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