History repeats itself as the story of the Easter Island's Downfall begins to unfold globally
A millennia-old, self-destructive belief is, once again, picking up speed.
Every organism that devours more resources than can be restored eventually starves one day. This, of course, is equally true for our human society as a whole. The sooner we understand and accept this, the better it will be for the few of us who listen and pay attention.
Rapa Nui, better known as the Easter Island, holds the key to an understanding of civilized humans’ behavior that is now more important than ever. The story of Rapa Nui is remarkable in many ways. It basically served as a simulation of our global civilization on a small scale, and there are important lessons for us to be learned.
The Easter Island, remote and isolated from the rest of the world, is like a miniature world itself, surrounded by the vast Pacific Ocean. Today there is no vegetation higher than a few meters, and most of the land surface consists of a bristly grass cover littered with rocks and giant toppled stone heads.
Prior to human settlement, Rapa Nui was a wonderful little ecosystem of astonishing beauty, with many plant and animal species only found on this small patch of land. Dense jungle coated the island, with palm trees that grew 15 m and higher thriving in the rich volcanic soil. Small streams ran down the slopes of Rapa Nui’s highest elevation, a 500-m-high former volcano in the very middle of the land, and through the forest into the ocean. The sea surrounding it was rich in seals, fish, turtles, and porpoises, and various seabirds nested on the cliffs along the coast.
When settlers from Oceania first reached this small paradise in the seventh century, they brought their favorite crops and livestock in the large catamarans they were travelling in: bananas, sugar cane, sweet potatoes, mulberry, chickens, dogs, and edible rats. They spread across the island, clearing the areas with the best soil to plant their crops, and built several villages, one for each family clan, each with strong wooden houses on stone footings. Like all agrarian societies, their culture categorized people into hierarchical ranks — aristocrats, priests, commoners, and, later on, warriors. In only six centuries they are believed to have reached an estimated population of 10,000 people — quite a lot for an area spanning only 160 km2.
Similar to other Polynesian cultures, they began worshipping their ancestors with stone images hewn from volcanic tuff. Those stone heads were set up on platforms along the shore, overlooking the land.
As time passed, this cult became increasingly competitive and excessive. Every new image, called moai, had to be bigger, and its construction and erection therefore required more wood, rope and manpower. The islanders felled more and more trees every year, so fast that they couldn’t regrow in time. This problem was accelerated by the highly invasive rats that the settlers had brought with them, who ate the seeds and destroyed young seedlings.
In the middle of the 16th century, suddenly all tree pollen vanishes from the archaeological record. The forest that once spanned the entire island, up until the very last tree, had been cut down entirely.
What is remarkable is that the island can be easily overlooked from anywhere close to its highest point, so it is certain the people of Rapa Nui knew exactly what they were doing. They could see that the trees got less and less, until there were only a few left, then one, and then, ultimately, none at all.
They all knew with certainty that it was the very last tree, and they felled it anyway.
We might assume that, as the forests shrank, they must have taken measures to protect the trees, slow down or otherwise regulate the production of new moai, or made efforts to reforest parts of the island — but studies of pollen in the annual layers of sediment in a crater lake suggest that they didn’t. There might have been a few speaking up, but even in the face of this catastrophic loss of biodiversity their voices were not heard, or at least not acknowledged by the masses.
The chaos must have been immense. Deforestation led to the drying up of springs and massive top soil erosion. The result was that agriculture got increasingly difficult and unproductive, which in turn meant famine for the population. Furthermore, without wood no houses or boats could be built or even repaired. As housing conditions worsened, fewer boats were seaworthy to ensure the steady supply of seafood — and without boats there was no way to escape the island. The people were trapped and increasingly hungry. They ate all the dogs and birds, which only worsened the strangling silence that slowly crept over the land. Now all that was left were the people and their beloved moai — no tree to spend shadow in the scorching midday heat, no spring to take a refreshing bath, no dogs howling at the moon at night, and no bird to sing in the morning.
Moai could no longer be transported and erected, but this did not stop the people of Rapa Nui from hewing more and more of them into the walls of the quarries. As all other sounds vanished, the desperate hammering grew louder. Hundreds of new stone heads were carved out of the volcanic stone, even bigger now that transport was impossible anyway. The biggest stone head ever set up is ten meters tall and about eighty tons heavy; the biggest ever carved is over twenty meters long and weights an unbelievable two hundred tons.
Blind, fanatic belief trumped rational thought. The trust in the infallibility of the moai remained unshaken, their omnipotence undoubted. As long as people just continued to worship and honor them, they believed, the moai would take care of them; no matter what trials and tribulations the future held, their ancestors’ promises of plenty were not questioned. Lifeless artifacts were believed to magically feed, clothe and shelter the people who loved them so fervently, even more so now that there was nothing else left to love.
When the first Westerners, a Dutch fleet, sighted the island in 1722, they were astonished to find an island so devoid of vegetation that they at first mistook its bleak hills of short dry grass for dunes. What surprised them even more were the hundreds of moai lining the coast, some of which were up to ten meters high, since they could not comprehend how the few pitiful inhabitants could have possibly first hauled them there and then put them into place without the help of thick timber or strong ropes.
Captain Cook, visiting the island briefly in 1774, found some of the statues toppled and the surviving islanders in miserable condition.
Another expedition, passing the island about fifty years after Cook, reported that all but a few statues were knocked over in what must have been a merciless war between rivaling clans.
What had happened was that the warrior clans had taken over, and the island was engulfed in blood-soaked madness. Groups hoarded large amounts of obsidian blades formerly used for toolmaking in preparation for any incoming attacks. Villages were burned to the ground during battles of unimaginable brutality, followed by cannibal feasts held by the few survivors.
Around ten thousand people died in the century before the Dutch first discovered Rapa Nui on Easter Sunday in 1722, and many thousand more died in the century after, leaving little more than one hundred survivors by the middle of the 19th century.
In the time between the discovery of the island by the Dutch and Captain Cooks visit fifty years later, the islanders continued to wage war — but now, for the first time, they attacked the stone images of their ancestors as well. What might have started as the ultimate humiliation of an enemy clan soon dwindled into blank, ruthless destruction of everything held dear by the enemy. Cook found moai that had been pushed from their platforms, beheaded and shattered, surrounded by human bones.
The war lasted for more than a century. Each ship passing Rapa Nui found fewer statues standing upright, until not even one single moai was left standing. The thoroughness of this annihilation makes it obvious that this was much more than regular intertribal warfare — this was a revolt against their own forefathers and everything they believed in and stood for.
Only after they had lost everything and when it was far too late, the people started to realize to some extend what they did. They then symbolically punished their fraudulent ancestors, who had not lived up to their promises of plenty, and slaughtered each other in staggering numbers and with unimaginable brutality, until there was virtually nothing left of the once thriving ecosystem.
The questions this all leaves us with are best expressed in the epilogue to the book Easter Island, Earth Island, written by the archaeologists John Flenley and Paul Bahn,
“[The islanders] carried out for us the experiment of permitting unrestricted population growth, profligate the use of resources, destruction of the environment and boundless confidence in their religion to take care of the future. The result was an ecological disaster leading to a population crash. […] Do we have to repeat the experiment on a grand scale? […] Is the human personality always the same as that of the person who felled the last tree?”
This question can be answered in terms of human nature — or, better, human psychology. We are simply not made for rationally thinking about the long-term consequences of our actions, but instead value short-term benefits higher. Our brains are essentially the same as they were two hundred thousand years ago, when there was little need to be concerned about the future. This is why perfectly reasonable people with a good environmental consciousness still go on living in and working for the system that destroys the world around them.
The people of Rapa Nui could see clearly that they razed all trees from their small island, they could easily comprehend what that meant for the continuation of human life, yet this didn’t stop them from enacting a strategy based on nothing but short-term benefit and belief in magical relief in the future.
There is little need to point out the obvious similarities to our present-day global civilization. We all are scattered on islands surrounded by sea, even though those islands are considerably bigger — therefore supporting more people and yielding more resources. Nonetheless, our resources, too, are limited and finite. We, too, are separated by ranks of status and power. We, too, have a rivalrous cult of building ever more extravagant totems that require an increasing amount of resources and energy. We call the objects of worship technology, the underlying episteme supporting and justifying it science, and the cult itself progress.
We, too, put all our faith into this worship: we desperately hope and frantically believe that it will solve the problems of the present and particularly the future — although this belief is the very reason those problems came into existence the first place. We, too, dismiss the imminent shortages of essential resources such as oil, gas, coal, phosphorus, uranium, gold, copper, cobalt, indium, tantalum, titanium, antimony, neodymium, sand, timber, farmland and fresh water as minor obstacles that our object of worship, technology, will easily deal with in the future. We, too, witness the destruction of entire ecosystems, but still happily participate in the same murderous system.
The exact same fanaticism employed by the inhabitants of Rapa Nui is seen among today’s techno-optimists, transhumanists, Silicon Valley hipsters and technocratic thinkers (Ray Kurzweil, Peter Kareiva, Kevin Kelly, Elon Musk, Stewart Brand, Mark Zuckerberg, Stephen Hawking and Steve Jobs, just to name a few individuals of considerable influence and power), to whom every problem has a technological solution, and it is only a question of time, resources, money and manpower to invent and build those dazzling new gadgets and machines. No thought is given to any unintended consequences or naturally imposed limits of what can be achieved. Rationality is no longer the key aspect — it is fanatic religious belief, with all its inherent naivety and credulity.
The “Technium”, as Kevin Kelly lovingly calls it, will save us, and all those seeking salvation have to devote themselves to serve, worship, and honor it. Dead matter, ripped from mountainsides or from deep under the Earth’s core, melted and molded into humming and beeping machines, is to replace the natural.
This technocentric religion is of course, like its predecessor from Rapa Nui, utterly anthropocentric — and it slowly creeps into our consciousness that our world, and in fact the entire universe, doesn’t work like that. If you take a good look at the bigger picture, what you’ll see is that we humans don’t matter. We might go extinct, but the world keeps spinning, life keeps evolving, stars keep on dying and being reborn, and the universe keeps expanding, just like it always did and always will. All the importance we ascribe to ourselves with overwhelming pride is based on nothing but deeply biased, wishful imagination.
We are not the ‘end product’ or the ‘final result’ of evolution, since evolution obviously didn’t halt after humans came into existence. There is no ‘pyramid’ or ‘chain of being’ outside of our own arrogant imagination, and if there would be, humans wouldn’t be on top.
Humans are not the “best” species, and it is erroneous to even think that there might be something like a best species. After all, we are not separated from the rest of living and non-living matter. We humans are only as good as the air we breathe, since it would be impossible for us to exist without it. We are only as good as the water we drink to avoid dying from thirst, for without this water, there would be no life. We are only as good as the food we eat, since without the myriad organisms that make up our diet we wouldn’t be here today. We are not better than the forests surrounding us, since without them there wouldn’t be any air to breathe or rain to water our crops. We are not better than the bees who pollinate those crops. We are not even better than the multitude of microorganisms in our own digestive tract, since without them the digestive process would become so ineffective that it couldn’t supply our bodies’ energy requirements.
We are neither the best at smelling, nor seeing, hearing, or even thinking. We are not remarkably strong, fast, or persevering. From an objective point of view, we might not even be good-looking.
What we arguably excel at is manipulating our environment. The one thing it all boils down to is that humans are the best at using their eyes to coordinate their hands to shape their environments to best fit their “needs”, whatever that means. That’s it. That’s all the magic of human uniqueness.
Evolution is not ‘survival of the strongest’ — how would you explain the continuing existence of ‘weak’ and transient bacteria, fungi or insects? — otherwise that would mean that life is an endless interspecies war at whose end stands one single winner. We think this is how evolution works (at least that’s what our culture tell us), and so we intuitively work towards doing exactly this: eliminating as much as one species per hour (!) in a total war on everything and everyone that has no direct use to us humans.
Nevertheless, modern humans, especially the 'techies', regularly boast themselves as being “better” than other animals — and in some ways we are, to say the least, peculiar. For us, and only for us, ideology can have a higher priority than the actual physical world surrounding us. Only we can see and participate in the destruction of vital life-enhancing planetary systems going on around us, and still continue to destroy because our ideology tells us it is necessary for our ‘survival’. For technology’s sake we dam up rivers, cut down forests and strip-mine the Earth’s surface. The machines are hungry for vast amounts of fossil fuels and electricity, and there ought to be more machines every day, so modern humans devote their lives to blindly follow an ideology that compels them to destroy their environment in order to stay alive.
Anthropologists call this an “ideological pathology”.
The lesson that the moai teach us is not how to avert collapse, since this is impossible. The lesson is that humans will continue to follow whatever belief system they personally favor, until their very last breath.
You and I might have an adequately clear understanding of what’s going on in this world, but in the end, we are but a small minority, miniscule in the face of the mad masses blindly following the call of the 'Technium' — wherever it will lead them.
Maybe Nature allowed us strange, naked primates a little too much control over our own destiny when we started replacing biological with cultural evolution. And maybe we’re about to pay for this mistake with our own blood.
Maybe in the end we even eliminate ourselves for good.
But this shouldn’t be too much of a reason to grieve — life continues nonetheless. The world would be fine without us, and the same atoms and molecules that now make up our bodies would be recycled back into the giant eternal transformation that is this universe, forming new plants, animals, clouds, soils, sediments, rocks, continents, planets, and stars.
On the other hand, all this doesn’t necessarily mean that humans inevitably go extinct. After all, the people of Rapa Nui are not extinct. Some descendants of the few survivors of the collapse, who dwelled in caves and lived on little more than what their leftover chicken provided them, live on up until this day. Their numbers were greatly reduced, and they went through unbelievable pain and suffering, but a few made it. The ecology of their little world was altered for thousands of years to come, but they found a way — mostly by staying within the carrying capacity and minimizing their ecological footprint (it is important to note that both of these strategies were not adopted by choice but by force).
Some humans still are well adapted to their environment and live by its limits. Thousands of primitive tribal people are still living a sustainable life in tune with the ecosystem that keeps them alive. They have survived worse, and adapted. They survived the ice ages and several bottleneck events that killed all but a few hundred or thousand individual humans, so it is likely that they will continue to thrive after our culture’s self-destruction.
But modern, industrial, city-dwelling humans, with their pathetic perceived dependence on technology and fossil fuels, will die like flies once the lights go out for the last time. And maybe, in a strange way, this is justice being served, time-displaced, for exploiting and killing off entire ecosystems and their inhabitants. I can’t shed the notion that the story of Rapa Nui somehow seems fair and well-deserved, so why, in retrospect, would our story be different?
Of course it seems unfair to punish us for sins that our great-great-grandparents committed, but yet we are clearly living a life of privilege and material wealth that we owe directly to the crimes against Nature committed by your ancestors, contemporaries and by ourselves. Everyone born into this culture is to some extend guilty, whether we like this fact or not.
Since we now know that it is futile to try to change the course our culture is taking, what is there left to do? Is there any hope to survive the collapse that slowly unfolds all around us?
We cannot save our culture or our civilization, and any attempt to do so would be nothing but a waste of time and energy. We can’t even save most of humanity. But we can save ourselves, and the ones close to us, by spreading the word and by acting directly and immediately. We can withdraw, retreat, move to the countryside, plant trees, cultivate and forage for food, create refuges and communities, learn long-forgotten skills, rediscover an Earth-based spirituality that arises concomitantly with this kind of lifestyle, and live lives within the borders and laws dictated by our land base. This may sound odd, naïve or unrealistic, but it’s by far the best chance we have.
We can’t stop the inevitable, but we can learn from the mistakes of the past and recover the only truly sustainable lifestyle: a simple, egalitarian, small-scale, low-tech, subsistence farming and/or foraging community that will have considerably better chances to survive whatever the next few decades hold.
We can remember and retell the story of Rapa Nui, so that — after the looming population bottleneck — our children may live to be a little more sapient and responsible than we have been.
Further reading/Works cited:
Joel Mokyr: Progress Isn’t Natural (The Atlantic, 2016)
Kevin Kelly: What Technology Wants (Viking Press, 2010)
Paul G. Bahn; John Flenley: Easter Island, Earth Island (Thames & Hudson, 1992)
Ronald Wright: A Short History of Progress (House of Anansi Press, 2004)
Theodore J. Kazcynski: Anti-Tech Revolution — Why and How (Fitch & Madison, 2016)
This article was first published on feunfoo.org.
About the author:
Dave is applying the lessons that the moai teach us on a small permacultural jungle refuge in Eastern Thailand, planting trees, creating a community, rediscovering connectedness, and contemplating past, present and future.
If you appreciate the deep historical perspective and his storytelling, please consider supporting his project on Patreon — every single dollar counts!