Easter Island : A Case Study in the Response to Resource Depletion

This is a guest post from Ralph Faggotter (also known as fingolfin).

This is a case study in which you are invited to answer the question, “What did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say while he was doing it?”

For a several years, I have been intrigued by this question which Jared Diamond asks us to consider in his book ‘Collapse’.

In fact, the question can be asked more broadly: “What were the thought processes and discussions amongst the inhabitants of Easter Island leading up to the removal of the last remnants of forest?” This could be seen, perhaps, as a hypothetical exploration, rooted in a real historical event, of “the psychology of resource depletion denial.”

I can’t help feeling that this is highly relevant to us today where the world seems shrunk to the size of a small island in the vast ocean of space. How could the islanders so knowingly have destroyed the life-blood of their island and their own future? How do you imagine the Easter Islanders behaved in those last few years before the last tree was felled?

Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/hotumatua/

"When in doubt, carve a bigger stone head" - fleam

For some of the rationalisations, we probably don’t need to look any further than our local talkback radio, the proceedings of the Copenhagen convention or the comments section on any mainstream media opinion piece about Peak Oil or Climate Change, but there would certainly have been powerful idiosyncratic religious beliefs at play too.

Setting the Scene:

Easter Island is a small triangular island of 66 sq miles in the sub-tropical South East Pacific Ocean over 1000 miles from anywhere and consisting of 3 linked extinct volcanoes.

It was first settled by Polynesians who migrated there from the nearest Pacific Islands to the west, sometime between 400 AD and 900 AD.

When they arrived bringing their traditional Polynesian vegetables the island was covered in a variety of large and smaller species of trees and in particular a very large species of palm tree with edible nuts and a wide girth, seals and many species of sea birds which nested there free from predators (incidentally rats which played an important role in the deforestation by eating seeds and nuts).

There were no permanent creeks and the soil and climate were relatively unfavourable compared with many other Pacific Islands for a number of reasons, but at first it must have seemed wonderfully bountiful.

The population grew and 12 tribes became established, with the island divided up like a pizza in the traditional Polynesian way. Most significantly, there was no one supreme chief--instead each tribe vied for status with one other. For the most part, this was probably fairly harmonious with considerable cooperation between the tribes probably mediated by a counsel of the chiefs of the 12 tribes such as we see elsewhere but with intermittent power and territorial struggles (this absence of a single controlling chief may have played a big part in the disasters which followed).

The settlers brought with them their traditional Polynesian religious beliefs regarding deification of ancestors transmogrified into gods of fertility and bounty personified in the shape of stone statues--carved, transported and placed on impressive stone platforms near the beach around the coast in each tribe’s territory. Elsewhere in Polynesia though, the statues tend to be small. Presumably, as the statues represented the power of the chiefs and their link to the supernatural and hence the future prosperity of the tribe, there developed intense competition between the tribes to see who could have the most statues and the largest statues and hence the most prestige and glory. The key village of each tribe was located near to the beach and the statues were arranged in a row between the village and the sea. I had always imagined that they faced outwards towards the sea but recently learned that they actually faced inwards towards the village.

Nearly all of the statues came from one quarry of ideal stone near the middle of the island. The statues had to be carved out of the rock using harder stone tools then transported down to the coast and then somehow erected on the platforms. (The large reddish cylindrical hats which can be seen on some statues came from another quarry.)

This transportation was an extraordinary feat and could only be performed using vast numbers of wooden rollers, sledges and levers, not to mention the incredible number of man hours per statue. The capacity of the island to provide a relatively easy living (what we would call the EROEI) so as to free up so many workers for seemingly non-productive activity must have been considerable.

But over the centuries, this non-productive use of the forests, combined with increased need for timber due to population growth, would have gradually resulted in progressive deforestation, loss of habitat for a variety of edible plants, birds and animals, loss of protection from sun and wind, loss of fire wood and erosion of soil.

Natural reseeding would have been inhibited by a plentiful supply of seed-eating rats which had few natural enemies on the island (probably only humans and birds of prey).

The phenomenon of ‘creeping normalcy’ may have prevented anyone from noticing this decline for a few centuries - especially as the early statues were comparatively small and would have consumed the forests at a relatively modest rate.

But as the forests shrunk in area and the annual percentage rate of depletion steadily increased, at some point, someone must have realised that the situation was not sustainable and said as much. The island is not that big and what was happening at one end would have been common knowledge at the other end.

By around the year 1600, the last tree was chopped down and there were no more until they were reintroduced by Europeans many years later.

Some time before the last tree was cut down- perhaps this was done in a moment of spite, desperation, anger or vengeance - the society collapsed into mass starvation, war and cannibalism.

What might have happened in the lead up?

One can imagine between 1400 and 1500, some of the people muttering about the loss of forest and predicting that “..at the current rate it will all be gone in a generation or two.”

How did the chiefs react to this prediction ? Did they have a ‘Forest Change’ summit? Was it on the agenda of one of their regular meetings and at what percentage of depletion from the original virgin forest did this occur? 50%? 70%? 90%?

Where the first whistleblowers listened to or ridiculed or punished? Perhaps at first they were ridiculed as eccentrics then if they persisted. Perhaps they were seen as a genuine threat to the establishment and eaten as human sacrifice (with the priests getting first pick of the good bits) as was the order of the day. This would have kept the doomsters quiet for a while though many may have continued to secretly harbour fears for the long-term sustainability of the forest.

There would have been powerful forces opposed to the expression of such heretical ideas. The power of the chiefs, the priestly caste and the gods/ancestors was integrated both practically and theologically (as we see in most societies).

There is a kind of unassailable philosophy which says that the hereditary rights and powers of the chiefs are the manifestation on Earth of the Will of the Gods. The ancestors of the chiefs (i.e. dead chiefs) take on god-like powers. The role of the gods is to ensure the ongoing health, fertility and prosperity of the people and the ongoing bountifulness of the land and sea. The priests interpret ‘The Will of the Gods’ which somehow always favours the centralisation of power with the chiefs and the priests.

The statue of the chief becomes one of the key physical manifestations of this power.

This all works very well with the people and the king’s security service remaining loyal and willing to provide tithes of goods and services to the king and his retinue in return for their ongoing guaranteed prosperity.

But this kind of system can easily initiate a competitive positive feedback loop in which each chief attempts to outdo his rival chiefs in creating the biggest and the best statue in his own honour (the gods have confirmed in each case that this is their wish).

Unfortunately the gods can be fickle too and sometimes, in spite of all the standard observances, prayers, ritual, human sacrifices and statue building, the tribes will go through a bad patch in which the fish disappear, the sea birds don’t nest, the rain doesn’t arrive, pests or diseases damage the root crops or other mysterious and inexplicable bad things (like cyclones or tsunami) happen.

When this happens the loyalty of the people and their faith in the system can be sorely tested so that the chief will need to respond to the crisis in some way. One way is to accuse some already unpopular people of witchcraft, blasphemy, giving out bad vibes/negative energy etc to deliberately cause the bad weather events - in other words a scapegoat. These offenders might also coincidentally be the very persons who had been advocating the building of smaller statures in order to avoid cutting down so many trees.

Another response apart from ruthlessly suppressing all dissent is to logically argue that the gods must be displeased because the statues aren’t big enough and a nervous chief, worried about his shrinking powerbase will commission the production of an even bigger statue just to confirm his piety and majesty.

In spite of all this the Establishment themselves must at some point have started to notice the bleeding obvious, namely that the forest was nearly gone and that they would have to discuss how best to avoid losing the remaining bits of forest.

So what happened next? Why didn’t a workable plan emerge and get implemented? If it did what went wrong? Can we blame it all on tribalism and ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’? We know the final outcome, but what was the path to that outcome and are we treading that same path again?

It would have been wonderful to have had a written historical record of the details but in its absence, it what do you imagine happened?

Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/vtveen

Ralph, I get the feeling some historian will be asking the same question about our civilisation in a couple of centuries time.

The OODA (Observe - Orient - Decide - Act)loop seems relevant here. This is what Colonel John Boyd of the US Air Force came up with to describe how come the US air force was so much more successful than their Chinese and NK opponents in the Korean War.

Our observations of the world are based on our cultural biases. Our current cultural biases seem to view growth based on the rapid depletion of our resource base as OK. As a result over time, as we go through iterations of this decision-action cycle our actions become more and more inappropriate to the situation we are facing. In air combat this results in the loser being shot down. For a civilisation, it means collapse. How we change the cultural lens that we see the world through is as a result the key to avoiding such an outcome. Unfortunately this seems to be the biggest challenge that we face.

Well - Boyd may have come up with the name but the Germans came up with the idea.

From http://www.alternet.org/news/145723/us_military%27s_surprising_fascinati... :

The American military’s fascination with German military methods and modes of thinking raises many questions. In retrospect, what disturbs me most is that the military swallowed the Clausewitzian/German notion of war as a dialectical or creative art, one in which well-trained and highly-motivated leaders can impose their will on events.

In this notional construct, war became not destructive, but constructive. It became not the last resort of kings, but the preferred recourse of “creative” warlords who demonstrated their mastery of it by cultivating such qualities as flexibility, adaptability, and quickness. One aimed to get inside the enemy’s “decision cycle,” the so-called OODA loop -- the Air Force’s version of Auftragstaktik -- while at the same time cultivating a “warrior ethos” within a tight-knit professional army that was to stand above, and also separate from, ordinary citizens.

This idolization of the German military was a telling manifestation of a growing militarism within an American society which remained remarkably oblivious to the slow strangulation of its citizen-soldier ideal. At the same time, the American military began to glorify a new generation of warrior-leaders by a selective reading of its past. Old “Blood and Guts” himself, the warrior-leader George S. Patton -- the commander as artist-creator-genius -- was celebrated; Omar N. Bradley -- the bespectacled GI general and reluctant soldier-citizen -- was neglected. Not coincidentally, a new vision of the battlefield emerged in which the U.S. military aimed, without the slightest sense of irony, for “total situational awareness” and “full spectrum dominance,” goals that, if attained, promised commanders the almost god-like ability to master the “storm of steel,” to calm the waves, to command the air.

In the process, any sense of war as thoroughly unpredictable and enormously wasteful was lost. In this infatuation with German military prowess, which the political scientist John Mearsheimer memorably described as “Wehrmacht penis envy,” we celebrated our ability to Blitzkrieg our enemies -- which promised rapid, decisive victories that would be largely bloodless (at least for us). In 1991, a decisively quick victory in the Desert Storm campaign of the first Gulf War was the proof, or so it seemed then, that a successful “revolution in military affairs,” or RMA in military parlance, was underway.

Forgotten, however, was this: the German Blitzkrieg of World War II ended with Germany’s “third empire” thoroughly thrashed by opponents who continued to fight even when the odds seemed longest.

Never say die!
To quote W.S. Churchill...

...I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us.

Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands.

But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.

Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, "This was their finest hour."

My suspicion about Easter Island is that the trees would have been very valuable and therefore venerated...
But therefore, what's the best way to hit your enemy? - Burn down his trees!
All you need is two sides with the old "never say die" attitude and the forests will be toast.
(Then you die!)

"Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization."

Gott Mit Uns, eh?

Only a modest overstatement by Churchill, quite forgivable under the circumstances.

Had Nazi Germany ended the war on their terms, the already wide divide between Christian ethics & ideals and Western Civilization would have become a complete divorce. Might makes right and genocide as state policy, personality cults of truly evil men, and much more would have been ascendant and would have exterminated the rest.

In a few decades, at most, the Nazis would have destroyed themselves by fratricide, but what of civilization in Europe, and the cultural norms influenced by Christianity, would have been left ?


Alan, you say "Only a modest overstatement by Churchill, quite forgivable under the circumstances."

I don't even view it as an overstatement, I think Churchill called it exactly correct. Of course, some have argued that this battle began as early as Roger Bacon (1220-1292). Michael Wood, the British historian quoted Bacon in his steller account of the history of the West (The Western Barbarians) in his PBS series "Legacy" as putting forth the idea that "What is most useful in practice is most correct in virtue (essentially, "Might makes right", an inversion of the original Christian moral idea that "Right makes might". This would lead forward to Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche's "Will To Power" (no need to concern yourself with what the power was to be used for, it was the power that mattered) and of course right into Churchill's lifetime. Churchill was first and foremost a historian. He undersood clearly that a few details could mean everything in the destiny of the Western culture. It is a lesson to be remembered today.

"For the sake of a few distinctions, a thousand cities were lost." Albert Camus in reference to WWII.


I agree, with the caveat that Western civilization in North and South America (perhaps Australia & NZ as well, depending on Japanese success) would have been significantly influenced by the Nazis# but would not have been overwhelmed. In that sense, Churchill overstated his case.

# Had Hitler still dominated Europe in 1953, with his racist ideology, and influencing the USA in a variety of ways, I do not think that the Supreme Court would have ruled on Brown vs. Board of Education as they did.


Besides a few ascetics and monastics, mostly in ancient and medieval times, Christian values have rarely been in evidence in Western Civ. We do no 'consider the lilies...' We plow them under and spend our time calculating how to build our treasure in material terms.

What continued to march forward after WWII was not some deeper commitment to the essentials of Christian ethics, but a firm embrace of consumerism and world domination, more marks of that other guy than of JC.

The ethos of socialism could trace it's roots to Christianity. As could charity, concern for the poor and respect for individual worth.


True, and I would add communism, but not necessarily NAtional soZIalism.

How did you get communism and Nazi-ism into the same sentence? The two are on opposite extremes of the political landscape.

Omar Bradley was West Point class of 1915, not a "reluctant citizen soldier"

Yes-whoever wrote the piece posted by Big G is a slillful writer out to prove something? what?

That the people who run or ran the American military establishment are or were a bunch of blood thirsty neo nazis? I suspect he or she is someone with a deepseated dislike of the US and American power,and doing his best to pretend to be above such things.

I read a LOT of history, especially twentieth century history prior to the sixties, which I lived myself as a long hair student.

There was absolutely nothing wrong with German military strategy or tactics in principle:nobody ever played the game better, as professional soldiers.They came pretty damn close to taking over the all of Europe, and if they hadn't been under the leadership of a madman who happened to be a political genius but a very very poor totalitarian commander in chief, they probably would have managed to hold onto Europe and maybe even half of Russia.

Of course without that madman being in complete control of Germany, it is rather unlikely that germany would have started WWII anyway-at least not in the thirties or forties;the German military buildup prior to the opening of hostilities was Hitler's doing, and if he had not been in dictatorial control of Germany she would almost certainly not have been in a position to start the war.

All professions change and advance as time moves on.If the American leadership aped the Germans, which they certainly did to some extent, it is because they knew a good thing when they saw it-from a fighting man's pov of course.

The writer's use of the term penis envy says all that is necessary about his objectivity.

...the other issue is that the cult of war far preceded Germany or the United States and is built right into the earliest Germanic/Anglo Saxon and Viking view of existance...how many other cultures have ever come up with a concept such as Valhalla, a land of eternal war where heavenly existance is to fight all day, recover from your wounds in time for banquet that night and then go back onto the battlefield the next day...for eternity! If you want to read war as constructive and profitable art form, read Beowulf:
"His father's warrior were wound round his heart/ With golden rings, bound to their prince/ By his father's treasure. So young men build/ The future, wisely open-handed in peace,/ Protected in war; so warriors earn/ Their fame, and wealth is shaped with a sword."

Neither the Americans nor the modern Germans invented this war as profitable business idea, it goes back to the core of our being.


Good point (and thanks for the Beowulf passage).

In the original Old English that's:

Swa sceal geong guma gode gewyrcean
fromum feohgiftum on faeder bearme
thaet hine on ylde eft gewunigen
wilgelsithas thonne wig cume
leode gelaesten lofdaedum sceal
in maegtha gehwaere man getheon.

By the way, the English words 'better' and 'best' are probably related to the word 'booty' (as in pillage, not shake your____).

Neither the Americans nor the modern Germans invented this war as profitable business idea, it goes back to the core of our being.

I recall a historian saying, "The basis of the economy of the Roman Empire was robbery with violence." The Romans expanded their empire for centuries, funding their armies entirely with the loot taken from the countries they conquered.

Unfortunately for them, they eventually ran out of countries worth conquering, which meant they had no loot to pay their armies with. Then they encountered the Goths, Huns, and Vandals, who were better at the "robbery with violence" concept.

Peak Conquest?!

The Havamal is a great poem if you want to get into the worldview of pre Christian Germanic peoples, their beliefs and ethics.

Easter Islanders used that famous temporal relief and denial mechanism. It has also been heard from optimists falling from tall buildings as they pass each floor on the way to the ground.
"So far, so good"

What you call "lens" I would prefer to call "mind" but either way the key is still the self-imposed limitations on what you can observe. The theory of OODA recognizes this problem but has no cure: Success demands that you observe correctly, but how do you do that? Some people observe correctly and some people don't--more or less by refusing to see.

The Easter Islanders, like us, had a mind that was exploitationist. They saw their environment (resources) as something to be exploited--to be used and used up. They did not view their environment as an on-going system of life that was the essential sustainer of their own on-going life.

Now many other factors of course matter, and the picture we can have from the archaeology is bound to be fairly approximate. Factionalism into competing clans can have an obvious bad effect, and many other things as well. But a unified and centralized government need be no gentler on the environment than a decentralized or factionalized one, as our own 20th century history plainly shows. A centralized government can actually wreck its environment with a greater single-mindedness of purpose than a pluralistic one.

Which is to say, if factionalism was indeed a driver to environmental destruction, it was necessarily secondary and subordinate to the will to exploit. The will to exploit--the refusal to live in harmony (this includes sustainability)--ultimately underlay the thinking of all clans.

We have also an exploitationist mind, and the fate this implies for us is clear. Can we change to a harmonious mind? In theory, yes, but in practice most of us just do not want to, even though it means self-destruction. Which we ultimately choose is the heart of the whole matter.

It may not be the case that Easter Islanders were baldly exploitationist in their view of the land. At least in Hawai'i the land, the 'aina, is very important, and the slice of land a family, or 'ohana, cared for was their kuleana, which is the word for that land division as well as the word for responsibility, as in "Hey, bra, that's not my kuleana." Generally the Polynesians had (some still have) a deep identification with the land, almost to the extent of an identification of the people with the land.

So the destruction of the environment may not so easily be explained. It may in fact be that the land and the forests were highly valued and yet were destroyed anyway, by other drives that overcame the way the land was viewed. Certainly the destruction of the environment had to have created tensions in the face of reverence for the land. I would think that over generations the abandonment of such a strong feeling about the land would have created deep psycho-spiritual turmoil in the people who actually worked the land. Or it may be that the reverence for the land was not as important to the people that settled Easter Island, but it should not be discounted in search of an explanation of what happened.

A change in values over time--as you speculate--is certainly a possibility. Which is why, when I said

"--ultimately underlay the thinking of all clans. "

I made sure to say "ultimately." Exploitationist thought need not have been universal at the outset.

Easter Island was first and foremost a failure of leadership. The people followed their leaders, and their leaders led them all the way into catastrophic collapse and near-extinction. You can blame the followers for their following, but to my way of thinking the greater blame goes to the leaders for their leading. The ordinary people were pretty much powerless; not so their leaders. "For those to whom much has been given, much will be expected."

Moral: Human leaders are not infallible. They can and have led their followers to disaster.

If your leaders are leading you to disaster, then the only possible options are:

1) Just follow them obediently all the way into the pit. Drink the kool aid when it is served up. RIP.

2) Turn your back on them and try to strike off on your own separate path. Pretty hard to do, especially when there are no boats left on the island.

3) Try for a regime change. Good luck. "If you strike at the king, you must kill him." Even if you succeed, you'll probably still be struck down. The number of "saviors" who discovered too late that the people really didn't want their brand of saving would be too numerous to list, if history had even bothered to take note of them.

Pretty dismal options.

I agree that there must have been a serious failure of leadership. This would largely have been due to the fact that no one person was in charge of the island, but rather there were 11 or 12 competing/cooperating tribes. As conditions deteriorated, I suspect that cooperation reduced and competition increased.
One would normally imagine that a single chief would be in charge of such a small island and as such would have been in a position to issue directives to conserve or replant forests, whereas a Council of Chiefs may have squabbled amongst themselves for generations until it was too late (as perhaps we are seeing now with Climate Change and many rare/endangered species).

Furthermore, the position of each chief may have been a little tenuous due to the strength of the priesthood which would have insisted on more and larger statues to shore up their power. Any chief who tried to reduce 'conspicuous consumption' would have lost the support of this powerful group.
"The Easter Island Way of Life is not negotiable."

Yes, it was a difficult situation. A truly great leader might have risen to the challenge and brought about the transformation that had to occur for them to survive. Such leaders have from time to time appeared, but they are pretty few and far between. For a society as small as Easter Island, the chances of their being able to produce such an exceptional leader were vanishingly small - too small, as it happened.

I doubt it was a failure of leadership as you envision it.
Religious beliefs and culture would have prevented change. Radical ideas would and probably did lead to war.
We have the exactly the same problems today.
Blame will be apportioned and goats will be scaped.


11 or 12 competing tribes + failure of leadership?

You mean, sort of like the U.S. Congress?

No, it was first and foremost a failure of procreation. Failure to manage populations at a sustainable level is the common root of resource-driven collapses.

Ding-ding-ding!!! Paleocon wins the prize!

The earth itself is an "island" (closed-loop finite system). Of course rate of consumption also matters, but it's doubtful --aside from their proclivity for erecting stone heads-- consumption was that much of a factor for a stone age society.

The earth itself is an "island"

That is indeed a frightening notion.

Easter Island was not only isolated in a geographic sense but also isolated in a communications / group think sense.

Once a particular meme or framed view of the world took root on Easter Island, there was no external counter thought to oppose it. It became the unopposed dominant way of thinking.

Perhaps it went something like this:

"If we build them (the Moaia Heads) then the Invisible and Benevolent Hand of the Trade Winds God will reach down and save us just as it is told in our history stories that The Invisible Hand Hath done time and again. History repeats itself. We know this because our wise and unquestionably honorable elders say so. No one says otherwise. Therefore we must cut down more trees and fashion more Idol Heads. The non-negotiable life style that is ours demands this and no other course of action."

Now if we scale that notion up to a global market view of the world, it kind of gets scary.

The American Dream model appears to have become the Dominant World Meme and it is opposed essentially by no counter meme. Everyone wants the Good Life as portrayed by Madison Avenue Info-tisements.

One billion Chinese want a car in every driveway and a beef/ox stew simmering in every home.
One billion Indians want a car in every driveway and a, well make that a vegetarian Tofu dish, simmering in every home.

In that sense, the Earth has indeed become one (Easter-like) Island. Scary.

There was plenty of blame to go around.

I know what the man was thinking when he cut down the last tree on Easter Island, “Why are the gods punishing us?”

The mob is the average person. The average person’s intelligence is in the middle of a different bell curve. Add to that mix, mob mentality; fear causes people to think less clearly. Emotion is the enemy of crises.

There were bad leaders, ignorance, people searching for scapegoats, whistle blowers (whistle blowers are generally punished), super natural explanations people selling snake oil, etc. Sometimes bad ideas and practices have momentum.

One day a pointy headed, four eyed intellectual on Easter Island, pulled out his abacus made from coconuts, used a stick on the ground to make some interesting calculations, graphs and models to show the masses what the future holds if they remain on the same path of increasing population and deforestation.

Then some Easter Island politician from either the far right or far left, told the masses they could have their cake and it to. He told them, the answer to all their prayers was to please the gods by making ever larger statues.

In response, the pointy headed intellectual made some more calculations in the dirt and figured out that this move would make things worse. He told other Islanders that they needed to implement new policies to deal with over population and discourage chopping down trees to make larger statues. He told them trees were more important to use for boats to feed people. Unfortunately, few islanders listened. Making statues became a way of life.
The political elite and the talking heads encouraged the masses to ignore the intellectual because he’s too smart and elitist and not like them ….

As conditions continued to deteriorate due to rising populations, larger statues, and less food because boats were no longer as important as pleasing the gods, the political elite tried saving themselves by focusing the mobs attention on breaking the smart guy’s glasses. So they did!

As time goes by, conditions deteriorate at an accelerating rate. Warfare breaks out among the tribes as they fight over remaining resources.

The population crashes. People starve. Cannibalism becomes the new norm. Fortunately for the remaining Easter Islanders, Europeans arrived in the last minute to save the day. Hurray!!!
There’s no one to save us.

The average person’s intelligence is in the middle of a different bell curve.

No wonder no-one listens to your advice, Cassie. Your PR skills are much further down that bell curve than the "average person's intelligence". And FYI there are people with real written SAT scores in the 750++/800 range running heavy machinery and "digging ditches".

What do SAT scores have to do with half the population with an IQ above 100, and the other half with am IQ below 100 and most being 90 to 110?

Maybe you took the whole thing too seriously,
I was just trying to amuse myself.

The people cutting down the last trees probably were not doing so on their own initiative. They were doing what they were told to do. That has usually been the case with manual and menial laborers, worldwide and throughout all time. The people cutting down the last trees may very well have been cursing the idiocy of those above them as they went about their work, but were undoubtedly too fearful of the consequences of disobedience to do anything else.

This is why I lay most of the blame at the feet (or maybe it should be heads) of the people at the top, rather than at the bottom.

And by the way, while I'm not sure I totally understand the belief system of the Easter Islanders, I am pretty sure that the stone heads bear a remarkable similarity - as far as their stone carving skills would allow - to the faces of the "big men" who ruled over them, and that this is no coincidence. This would not be the first time that rulers with oversized egos squandered their society's resources in self-aggrandizement and self-memorialization, to the long-term detriment of their society's survival. It has happened over and over again, and indeed seems to be more of the rule than the exception.

"The population crashes. People starve. Cannibalism becomes the new norm. Fortunately for the remaining Easter Islanders, Europeans arrived in the last minute to save the day. Hurray!!!
There’s no one to save us." LesIsmore

Les, you would not want to be saved in the fashion Europeans "saved" Easter Island.
1. There were at least 2000 and perhaps as many as 4,000 people on the island of Rapa Nui (what you call Easter Island) at contact.
2. As elsewhere Europeans brought disease, exported islanders into slavery and other items of rescue to the islanders resulting in an eventual population descent to 111 as reported by a resident priest. Eventually some slaves and their descendants returned to the island and began to rebuild the population which stands at about 3500 now.
3. Whether the population was still in decline at contact is not really known for sure. There wasn't a very scientific assessment done by the early Euros.

Jared Diamond has been somewhat condemned by a lot of academia due to his writings on Rapa Nui. The theory of an "ecocide", is plausible, yet not holistically a viable explanation for collapse. Rapa Nui did experience environmental degradation; however, not to the extent of population extinction. Diamond leads us to believe that the Rapa Nui people overpopulated, and overconsumed the resources on their small island. As civilization spiraled into decline, tribal wars and famine overran the population. He remarks that by the time European settlers arrived in the 1700s, the island population was nearly extinct.

Diamond claims the population plateaued at 10,000. Yet archaeological evidence indicate the island never reached a population higher than 3000 (Hunt and Lipo 2009). The islanders had cleared a good amount of the indigenous Jubaea forest for agriculture; however, carbon dating and soil samples tell us the island was not entirely absent of trees at this time. When Roggeveen landed in 1722, he wrote of the island being both barren and fruitful. Diamond omitted the latter from any of his writings. With the landing of the Dutch Explorers spanned the first wave of epidemics. This eradicated a good portion of the Rapa Nui population and strained the fragile ecosystem. The Spanish arrived 48 years later, with them came a second wave of disease; this exponentially furthered population and environmental decline. When Brit James Cook arrived 4 years after the Spanish, he found an island ravished by disease. The genocide of the population continued into the 1800s as slave trading and colonialism took a strong hold on the island.

While Diamond provides a good example of ecosystem fragility. He fails to acknowledge colonialism as a piece to the Rapa Nui puzzle. It is tangible that the remote island population would still be thriving if colonization had discovered Rapa Nui but a few hundred years later.

Ah yes.
Us wicked colonials, again.
Go on, say it.
We are a special breed apart.

Nice to finally see you repent.

"This eradicated a good portion of the Rapa Nui population and strained the fragile ecosystem. The Spanish arrived 48 years later, with them came a second wave of disease; this exponentially furthered population and environmental decline."

This does not make much sense to me. While it is true that the arrival of Europeans had a disastrous effect on the human population, the population reduction could hardly have been a bad thing for the ecosystem!

The ecosystem was inherently somewhat fragile c.f many other inhabited Pacific islands, but made substantially more so due to deforestation and subsequent land over-use and erosion caused by humans.

There is no doubt though that the deforestation was a disaster for the people as they lost the wood which, amongst other things, was so critical to making quality boats for fishing- and this occurred before the arrival of Europeans.

Rapa Nui was not entirely deforested when Jakob Roggeveen made contact with the island. You might think this as Diamond SELECTIVELY quotes from the explorers' journals. The captain of Roggeveen's ship actually wrote of clusters of trees in the background and huts with palm frawn roofs. They write of natives that were not heavily relying on trees for subsistence; but growing bananas, yams, taro, and other crops to survive. Recent archaeological work performed on stratigraphic layers and root sampling coincides with the captain's notes.

I'd say a population that leveled out at 3,000 is a success story. 1.5 million people live in Manhattan (23 sq m), which is barely over a third the size of Rapa Nui (63 sq m). Even without modern technology, 3,000 people did not exceeded carrying capacity. Perhaps we should look at the native Rapanuian population as a GOOD example of living within our means.

I also find it ironic that Diamond was recently involved in a defamation lawsuit on his writings on Papua New Guinea. Something about "misrepresentation and embellishment".

I do believe we live in a fragile and sacred ecosystem. I love to hug the trees, shrubs, scrubs....

I also believe people should go to the researcher that loses sweat, blood, and tears on a remote island performing fieldwork, instead of a storyteller that has gotten really good at omitting the truth to be a top seller. A lot of fine work has been performed on Rapa Nui, perhaps look into it before you reiterate the man that has never carbon dated a single specimen on the island.

Here are a few primary journal articles to start with:

Hunt, T. (2006). Rethinking Easter Island’s Ecological Catastrophe. Journal of Archaeological Science, (34), 485-502.
Hunt, T., Lipo, C. (2006). Late Colonization of Easter Island. Science, 311(5767): 1603-1606.
Hunt, T. (2007). Rethinking Easter Island's ecological catastrophe. Journal of Archaeological Science, 34(3), 485-502.
Langohra R., Louwagiea, G., Stevensonb, C. (2006). The Impact of Moderate to Marginal land Suitability on Prehistoric Agricultural Production and Models of Adaptive Strategies for Easter Island (Rapa Nui, Chile). Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, 25(3), 290-317.Mieth, B., Bork, H. (2010). Humans, climate or introduced rats – which is to blame for the woodland destruction on prehistoric Rapa Nui (Easter Island)?. Journal of Archaeological Science, (37), 417-426.
Mann, D.; Edwards, J.; Chase, J.; Beck, W.; Reanier, R.; Mass, M.; Finney, B.; Loret, J.. (2008). Drought, vegetation change, and human history on Rapa Nui (Isla de Pascua, Easter Island). Quaternary Research, (69): 16-28.
Mieth, B., Bork, H. (2010). Humans, climate or introduced rats – which is to blame for the woodland destruction on prehistoric Rapa Nui (Easter Island)?. Journal of Archaeological Science, (37), 417-426.

Very interesting references, thanks dacey:

The full Hunt paper is here:

He favours rats...

Rapa Nui (Easter Island) has become a paragon for prehistoric human induced ecological catastrophe and cultural collapse. A popular narrative recounts an obsession for monumental statuary that led to the island’s ecological devastation and the collapse of the ancient civilization.

Scholars offer this story as a parable of today’s global environmental problems. In this paper, I review new and emerging Rapa Nui evidence,compare ecological and recently acquired palaeo-environmental data from the Hawaiian and other Pacific Islands, and offer some perspectives for the island’s prehistoric ecological transformation and its consequences. The evidence points to a complex historical ecology for the island;one best explained by a synergy of impacts, particularly the devastating effects of introduced rats (Rattus exulans).

This perspective questions the simplistic notion of reckless over-exploitation by prehistoric Polynesians and points to the need for additional research.

The more recent Meith/Bork paper is against rats:

Humans, climate or introduced rats – which is to blame for the woodland destruction on prehistoric Rapa Nui (Easter Island)? Mieth, Andreas | Bork, Hans-Rudolf. Journal of Archaeological Science, ISSN: 03054403, Vol: 37, Issue: 2, Date: February, 2010, Pages: 417-426

Abstract: When the first Polynesian settlers arrived on Rapa Nui, about 70% of the island was covered with dense woodland in which Jubaea palms dominated. Our investigations of extended soil profiles provide evidence that more than 16 million palm trees grew on the island. Nearly all palms were removed by the 16th century.

Teeth marks on nutshells of the Jubaea palms from the 13th or 14th centuries attest to the activity of Pacific rats (Rattus exulans) on Rapa Nui, which were probably imported there by the first Polynesians settlers. Did the rats perhaps prevent the germination of palm seeds and thus the regeneration of the dense palm woodland of Rapa Nui? The results of our investigations refute this hypothesis and support the assumption that people cut the trees.

Burned relicts of palm stumps and widespread burned soil layers containing charred endocarps of the palms testify to intensive slash and burn activities between 1250AD and 1500AD. However, in one area on Rapa Nui, evidence for regeneration of palm woodland following the first clearing was found. This finding provides evidence against a major rat impact. Furthermore, the Jubaea chilensis woodland in central Chile illustrates that small rodents and Jubaea palms can coexist.

We conclude that people, not rats, were the dominant destroyers of the palm woodland on Rapa Nui.

Rats would have had a strong effect in preventing spontaneous reforestation by eating the palm nuts, but this should not have been an insurmountable problem given good leadership. The Easter Islanders would have been well aware that the rats were eating their future and they could have responded by collecting nuts in rat-proof earthenware containers and then planting them in elevated seeding beds. Imagine plant nurseries hanging from trees or raised on stilts with rat-proofing of the stilts. etc.
These people were inventive engineers who where able to achieve astounding feats of stone-cutting and rock-moving but their behavior was misdirected and their energies spent on the wrong activities. Their system of values was fatally flawed. The religion of every increasing growth in stature numbers and size as a means of sustaining their standard of living is reminiscent of our religion of Growth Economics and our high Priesthood of Economists and financial experts who are constantly reiterating the mantras and liturgies of growth economics through the MSM. Perhaps our thralldom to this religion will lead us to the same sticky end.

"The Easter Islanders would have been well aware that the rats were eating their future and they could have responded by collecting nuts in rat-proof earthenware containers and then planting them in elevated seeding beds. Imagine plant nurseries hanging from trees or raised on stilts with rat-proofing of the stilts. etc.".

I don't know how you can draw such conclusions about them, as neither you nor I were there to observe or interview them. I've heard Terry Hunt give a seminar on this topic of rats and palm trees on Easter Island. It was still unclear to him and other workers at that time, about 2006, whether the polynesian rats were an accidental or deliberate introduction there. In either case, while the islanders "could have" responded as you state, they nevertheless may not have made the connection or seen the threat until it was too late, or never at all. Most polynesians, like the ancestors of those living on Easter Island, have experience with polynesian rats co-exisiting with trees such as coconut palms. The difference may have indeed been these palms, which were originally native to South America, and bear seeds like typical date palms that are more vulnerable to gnawing and consumption by rats.

I like the pictures you posted, but as for the article, it seems to fall into the same intellectual trap that Diamond fell into on Easter, drawing too many false conclusions based upon thin and uncritical research.

I have questioned the "accidental" introduction of rats by Polynesians.

Canoes are not that large (European ships are larger and have more places for rats to hide), rats are not that small, and intra-island voyages give one a lot of free time to look around.


A rat eats either food (limited and crucial to survival of the crew) or the rigging of the sailing canoe. Eating either would be detected and result in the rat being eaten IMHO.

A breeding pair (or a pregnant female) is required to establish a new colony of rats (assume no inbreeding issues). The odds of such accidentally making it ashore after a long voyage seems remote.

IMHO, when loading the canoe, care would have been taken to keep the rats out as well as any spoiled food, bad containers of water, sick or old chickens, etc. The "best of everything" would likely have been packed.

And once underway, at the first sign of a rat (droppings or nibbled food), all stores would have been gone through looking for the parasite. The odds of survival for a breeding pair do not look good.

So I believe that, like chickens, rats were carried as cargo.



[The Polynesian Rat] Rattus Exulans is thought to have been deliberately introduced to many islands by Polynesians who considered it a valuable food source (Spennemann, 1997).

"We conclude that people, not rats, were the dominant destroyers of the palm woodland on Rapa Nui."

I knew that.
"We shudda listened to Cassandra da Rat."

"Burned relicts of palm stumps and widespread burned soil layers containing charred endocarps of the palms testify to intensive slash and burn activities between 1250AD and 1500AD."

I am not arguing this one way or the other, not being an archeologist or expert on Easter Island, but has the possibility of widespread accidental forest fires instead of or in addition to slash and burn been considered? We have recently seen in the wildfires in our national parks and the U.S. west that accidental fires can have catastrophic effects...a person shudders to think about such an event on a small island. The possible effect of some type of blight must be also considered. Recently in KY we had a blight on dogwood trees, and I was amazed at how fast the devastation on that one species spread. This whole thing seems more complicated than some would make it out to be. I have always wondered why a people who had a multi hundred year history of living on islands would suddenly forget how to survive in an island ecosystem.


Interesting. I'd never heard the other side of the story, despite following any Easter Island articles with ardor.

A complex society fails from complexity -- rarely will there be a single cause. Rats, disease, resource depletion -- all likely played a role. It doesn't take huge trees to make a thatched roof, but it does to make a hollowed-out canoe.

One cannot help but wonder what the world would be like if unintentional biological warfare hadn't been such an effective tool for seafaring militaries.

dacey - Thank-you for the great references.

I'd say a population that leveled out at 3,000 is a success story. 1.5 million people live in Manhattan (23 sq m), which is barely over a third the size of Rapa Nui (63 sq m). Even without modern technology, 3,000 people did not exceeded carrying capacity. Perhaps we should look at the native Rapanuian population as a GOOD example of living within our means.

I also believe people should go to the researcher that loses sweat, blood, and tears on a remote island performing fieldwork, instead of a storyteller...omitting the truth.

What comes to mind for me is that if Easter Island wasn't occupied until the 12th century and their maximum population was 3,000 people you have to ask what were the factors that kept this population in check? Birth control and wise resource management. Doubtful. More likely it was starvation, warfare (within the tribes) and good old fashioned cannibalism.

Also the idea of humans devastating a fragile environment in a short time using primitive technology holds even more of a warning rather than an example of "sustainability". If they would have had chain saws and earth movers they might have broken the ecosystem in a single generation (much as modern humans do).

Diamonds bestseller Collapse, wasn't written as an academic research paper but as a metaphor for the collapse of societies due to resource depletion. It is a clear warning to the inhabitants of Earth who in the end might share the fate of the unfortunate Easter Islanders.

Diamond left open the possibility that there were other factors:

I don't know of any case in which a society's collapse can be attributed solely to environmental damage: there are always contributing factors.

Easter's isolation makes it the clearest example of a society that destroyed itself by overexploiting its own resources.

The controversy involves resistance to the idea that past peoples did things that contributed to their own decline. People don't like hearing "racist paleontologists" suggesting that their ancestors were "bad stewards".

His final chapter on Easter Island was titled: Easter as Metaphor. My hats off to all of the steely eyed researchers whose hard work makes our understanding of history possible but you have to admit that Diamond's "trashy" bestseller Collapse has had more impact than a 1,000 well researched academic papers because he is a good storyteller. If that wasn't true we wouldn't be discussing it here and now.


Thumb's up, Joe!

Not many here are able to distinguish a popular narrative intended for the general audience from a research paper;this despite the very high overall level of intelligence and scientific literacy.

And even when the author points out that he does not know the whole story, and that there are doubtless other factors involved beyond those mentioned, such nuances are virtually always lost on this audience.

I have been reading this forum for a year now, and there is an obvious pattern to the comments; if a writer has taken a position consistent with the prevailing orthodoxy, he is seldom criticized, and not severely then.I would say that the criticisms of Diamond here are legit, from a technical pov, but that as a writer of a book intended for a popular audience , he did a remarkably good job.

If a writer does not adhere to the prevailing orthodoxy , he is labelled a heretic in effect by calling him names and questioning his qualifications and motives, which are assumed to be bad ones virtually without exception.

So Ann Rands novels are trashed as if they were blueprints rather than novels-which are only entertainment and social commentary- by people who obviously have read and understood very few novels, and almost certainly none of hers.

Lomborg is trashed here by people who obviously have not read his work-and as the trashing proceeds from one mouth or keyboard to the next, it gets worse, as gossip always does.


Your points are well taken, and we can think of even earlier examples, such as Jonathan Swift's "Gulliver's Travels" obviously not a factual account but more in the form of an entertaining story with a point to make.

This however creates a problem: Which is Diamond, or Ayn Rand...entertainment or important philosophy? Rand has made me think, as does Diamond, and think about deep issues, and for that they are more valuable than most potboiler tales on the book racks, but we would think that some level of scholarship would be involved in Rand or Diamond since they are making very serious assertions and not just spinning a tale. For a comparison in creative writing and creating in my youth a fascination with science, history, archeology and space (how's that for a combination!) I think of Erich von Däniken and his "Chariots of the Gods". However, no adult mistakes his work for serious scholarship, however fascinating his tales were to the adolescent boys of the 1970's. I don't think Diamond (or Rand) fans want to get too free and easy with accepting these writeres as "entertainment".


Hi RC, you are on the money in general, and in particular when you say that Diamond fans , or Rand fans , want thier work to be taken seriously.
I take both seriously myself, but in Rand's case with a large dose of salt.

Both of these authors have transcended entertainment (although I find both to be very readable and entertaining) and are properly known as serious commentators.This is not determined by thier actual WORK, however, as much as it is by thier long term POPULARITY. Other people have plowed the same ground, but thier names are known only to the specialists.

In the case of diamond's work, which is based on actual history, perhaps erronously interpreted,there can be little doubt that he his main narrative thread is on the money.

We don't harshly criticize people here who are predicting ecological or resource problems because they have been proven to be wrong in a few of the lesser important aspects of thier work.

Diamond deserves the same courtesy.

I hope mac was tongue in cheek here if he is presenting Rand (whose first name is Ayn, by the way) something other than "prevailing orthodoxy." The most influential man in the history of the economy was and is Alan Greenspan, a follower of Rand. What could be more of a "prevailing orthodoxy" than that.

One of the most amazing attributes of much of the right is that, no matter how dominant their positions are in society and in the corridors of power, they continually see themselves as struggling, dis-empowered underdogs struggling against overwhelming odds--this even when they were in control of all three branches of government, the military, the corporate world, and much of the religious world.

A simply amazing delusion.

The prevailing orthodoxy I had in mind is that of the typical oildrummer;if yoy don't adhere to certain concepts, theories, and values here, you are a heretic.I believe most of us are smart enough to figure out which ones.incidentaqlly I do argee with nearly all of them , excepting the unspoken and unwritten liberal mantra ( but usually rigidly adhered to nevertheless) that govt is the solution, rather than the problem.

I believe the proper role of govt is to protect us from each other , and to protect the commons.As a thinking conservative, if I had the power to make it so, no single bank would have ever been too big to fail, and the need to protect the commons , broadly interpreted , would have been more than ample justification for the clean water laws and for very tough fuel economy standards, etc.

The constitution would be amended so that advertising products for sale would not be protected by the free speech right, and little kids wouldn't be taught to eat sugar.

But back on topic- yes Ayn R spent her life pushing her philosophy, and her books, in particular Atlas shrugged, were and remain very influential.

But this does not mean that anybody is compelled to accept her way of thinking as some sort of revealed truth- or that they have come to think in a certain way simply because a certain writer advocates that line of thought.

Alan Greenspan despite his failings was no idiot;he knew Rand was only a novelist, somebody out to enjoy her minute in the sun, and the money and status thereby acquired.She did not teach him history or finance or law or economics at university.

Let us be level headed and consider the possibility that Greenspan and his ilk used, and continue to use, Rand, rather than the other way around-in just the same way that the republicans are using many decent people who vote republican because they think the republicans are the party of free enterprise and individual accountability.

They aren't;the modern republican establishment is owned and operated by special interests with very little interest in anybody except the wealthy.. The democrats are in my estimation in about the same situation, with the happy difference that in thier case , the special interests in charge of the party's soul include substantially more people truly interested in the welfare of the lower strata of society.

In any case I do certainly agree that here and there over the long run, a few writers change the course of history.Some of them actually do this by inspiring people to certain courses of action, or by causing them to believe in certain mores and values.I place Rand in the lower ranks of such writers-my opinion is that she is cynically more used and abused than she is an inspiration.There were plenty of big time scumbag anything goes businessmen around centuries before she was born, and the type will be around long after she is forgottemn, if we survive as a species.


I don't think Greenspan was an idiot, but, like many bright people, he early on decided to adopt certain assumptions and set aside others. I give him credit for now recognizing that some of his basic assumptions about how the economy works--that capital markets can self-regulate--was fundamentally wrong.

He obviously had many other influences than Rand, but from everything I have heard, she was acknowledged as the brightest mind in that circle (again, a judgment I would not dispute, but with the caveat above about unquestioned assumptions) and was revered as such.

Best hopes that some of us might be writers that influence the future in more benign ways than did Rand and her ilk.

How's that book going, by the way?

All this talk about Greenspan, Rand and Diamond left me wondering about what major economic treatises Greenspan contributed to modern rational thought on Economics. Where is his version of Smith's Wealth of Nations?

As usual, I went to the trusty Oracle of Wiki for advice:

Alan Greenspan, it turns out, pulled his PhD thesis from public availability. Therefore little is known about his early belief systems.

His only major published work, "The Age of Turbulence" (2007) apparently re-affirms his core belief in Rand-style Objectivism.

Personally, I don't view either of Ayn Rand or Greenspan as original thinkers. They are both believers of deserving exceptionalism. By that I mean they both seem to believe that there is a small minority of human beings (John Galt in Rand's case, American CEO's in Greenspan's version of the objective reality) who are more "deserving" than all others to partake in the life style enhancing outputs of capitalist community. The origins of this belief appear to arise in the eugenic ideologies that were extant during their younger years.

Jared Diamond, on the other hand, seems to reject the "deserving exceptionalism" concept in his Guns Germs and Steel work. According to Diamond, it is not so much the exceptionalism of the individual that is at work but rather the luck of his surroundings. Geography and resource availability or depletion during a person's lifetime are far more indicative of living standard than the question of whether one human being is so much smarter and more able than all his species mates.

We are not all that smarter than the Easter Islanders. Our ancestors just happened to beat their boats against slightly different currents and land their boats on a bigger, more lush and lasting "Island".

Quote from Great Gatsby: "It occurred to me that there was no difference between men, in intelligence or race, so profound as the difference between the sick and the well." - F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, Ch. 7

OFM: I accept your position (people prefer orthodoxy, often to the point of silliness) in general but dispute your use of A. Rand as an example. She was clearly intending to inspire Thatcher and Gingrich in her work, and spent much of the rest of her life promoting same, and IMHO was in no way "adhering to the prevailing orthodoxy".

Lomborg is trashed here by people who obviously have not read his work-and as the trashing proceeds from one mouth or keyboard to the next, it gets worse, as gossip always does.

IMO Lomborg is correctly trashed. There are a number of scientists who have thoroughly debunked his cockeyed reasoning. One need read only some of his work to get its gist and then reading a few debunkings should take care of convincing anyone capable of critical thought.

I heard biologist E.O. Wilson speak about 10 years ago and he lamented how Lomborg's work had taken hold in popular consciousness and cause the scientific community so much grief. Almost as bad as creationism.

[quote]More likely it was starvation, warfare (within the tribes) and good old fashioned cannibalism.[/quote]

Hold on there! Widespread cannibalism is usually the result of sudden widespread starvation as far as I can tell. E.g. Anasazi at their collapse (admittedly I'm going by Jared Diamond's Collapse book on this one) and a couple of years ago there were cases reported in North Korea from during their big famine. It seems more likely to me the cannibalism on Easter island occured after population pressure caused starvation, not necessarily a preventative factor.

Chronic starvation plus competition between the tribes would have created a long-term market for human flesh. Cannibalism in the case of the Easter Islanders would over time become institutionalized.

"Get your red-hots right here! Hey Agnes are you going to the sacrifice tonite?" Easter Island Vendor ;-)

The horror of Easter Island is the unspeakable reality that one could not escape.

stratigraphic layers and root sampling coincides with the captain's notes.

I'd say a population that leveled out at 3,000 is a success story. 1.5 million people live in Manhattan (23 sq m), which is barely over a third the size of Rapa Nui (63 sq m). Even without modern technology, 3,000 people did not exceeded carrying capacity. Perhaps we should look at the native Rapanuian population as a GOOD example of living within our means.

Apples and Oranges.
Manhatten is not producing it's own food. It imprts it from locations that have undergone a green revolution.

Rapa Nui was not entirely deforested when Jakob Roggeveen made contact with the island

Oh, well... OK then! That changes everything --those Easter Islanders were obviously GOOD STEWARDS of their environment. There are still spots in the Amazonian rainforests that haven't been slashed & burned yet, so obviously we must be good stewards too!

Contrarian thinking can often be helpful, such as when one is trying to see the other point of view, or when testing one's own assumptions. However, when taken to an extreme, it can really skew one's perspective and twist reality into some rather strange shapes.

I also believe people should go to the researcher that loses sweat, blood, and tears on a remote island performing fieldwork, instead of a storyteller that has gotten really good at omitting the truth to be a top seller. A lot of fine work has been performed on Rapa Nui, perhaps look into it before you reiterate the man that has never carbon dated a single specimen on the island.

I can see that Cornucopians are not the *only* group capable of engaging in revisionist history to suit their beliefs.

Let me get this straight: Easter Islanders (or the more P.C. "Rapa Nuians") deforested their island, which preceded --and very likely-- precipitated a massive cultural, political, and population crash even *before* European explorers arrived. This doesn't suit the narrative of some apologists who find the "Noble Savage" myth endearing, so they selectively throw out any evidence that contradicts that narrative, and re-assign the blame to those nasty, disease-carrying European colonialists.

Suddenly, one can't have an informed opinion on "Rapa Nui" history unless one has not actually gone there personally to carbon date a specimen --oh, AND agree with the Noble Savage vs. colonialists narrative. Ok then.

So I guess the carrying capacity of a region in the Sahara is the same as the carrying capacity of an equal sized region in south east China.

Stop making ridiculous comparisons with Manhattan.


The debunking has in someways be debunked itself though the simplistic tree felling scenarios may be lacking in depth...

but given all that none of the inhabitants of Easter could read the language or knew the meaning of the statues... the entire cultural layer surrounding their construction had been lost "somehow"

societal collapses elsewhere do not of themselves result in this depth of cultural loss..certain ideas and even institutions carry over... people could still speak and write Latin..the christian church prospered in western europe before and after the fall of the western empire..

on easter island the entire culture was wiped clean..no doubt a product of the islands limited size but still quite dramatic irrespective of whether the Island would have recovered without colonial intervention or not

I suspect broadly speaking the resource/depletion/ecology/population argument is basically correct

The book hit the stores in 2005 IIRC. It's kind of chintzy criticizing work using papers every one of which is dated in your comment is of equal or newer vintage than the book.-I didn't check the dates of the ones w/o dates in the comment.

In works of this sort, the professional experts tend to be rather conservative; only after the contents of any given paper have been examined and digested and confirmed several times over by other workers, does the consensus opinion or position of the profession change.

In the field of psychology for instance, there is STILL a controversy in respect to evolutionary psychology-this after fifty years or more of some of the world's most eminent biologists making the case, and many psychologists of considerable stature writing books about-for example Pinker, who is a professor at MIT- not your typical a fly by night correspondence school.

Even as a raw cow college undergrad I intuitively understood that the evolutionary origins of humanity necssarily included the evolutionary origins of our minds-something never doubted by any biologist who taught any biology class I took, except in high school.I do remember that my high school teacher taught evolution as an established fact in the early sixties, and that there was no public controversy in this hard core Bible Belt community-there seldom is, except when some yahoo true believer discovers how much fun politics can be.

E O Wilson came out around 1972 (?)with his opus Sociobiology, which will eventually ( once all the people with it in for him for professional reasons are dead and /or retired ) will be fully recognized as the earth moving book that it is .

Diamond is a giant in his field because he is not only professionally good at his work; he is an uncommonly talented writer as well.

He succeeded in bringing the issue of societal collapse to the attention of that small, small part of the public that actually reads serious books better than anybody before him, and imo, better than anyone since-after all, most of the writers who dominate the field thse days are partly successful because he made the subjuct respectable and brought it into the real mainstream.Any respectable and decently funded library of average or larger size has Diamond's books.

This forum and the people who inhabit it are not the mainstream.This is of course a very good thing-I can't think of a single mainstream net forum worth my time.

Dacey, I hadn't read down as far as your comments when I posted mine. And I freely admit that I am not up-to-date on the research at this point. But I did a documentary on Rapa Nui in 2001 and in preparation for it attended an academic conference on RN in Hawaii in 2000. I met John Flenley there, author of The Easter Island Catastrophe and a number of his colleagues. John is the paleo-botanist whose work on core samples first alerted the academic world that there had been a forest of palm date trees on RN in their early years.

John believes from his studies that there were as many as 4000 people on the island at first contact and that this was a drop from about 10,000 at peak. When I was there there were some estimates of a population as high as 20,000 based, if I remember on a count of obsidian blades recovered, as well as other evidence.

It stands to reason there would have been a population bloom on the island as there was considerable abundance on first arrival and no predators.

As for speculation about what happened, for instance calling it a "failure of leadership" that is just that, speculation. Because of the European destruction of so much of their culture there is precious little left to build a record.

Personally I don't give a rat's ass about the argument over the whether it was the rats who destroyed the seeds and thus the forest or the people. But a couple of points:
1. there is a healthy forest of the same type trees in Chile--are there no rats there?
2. more importantly. Those trees had to be cut down and were, i.e. the rats had no effect on the forest of trees the original people found there and Flenley's research showed that it covered the island.

It is not a question of 'blaming' the people there. They did what species, including humans, do they used up their resources. They may have reached a sustainable population by the time of contact or they may have still been in decline. We do no know.

Patz, opinions are like assholes, everyone's got one. Let me add one of mine.

"1. there is a healthy forest of the same type trees in Chile--are there no rats there?"

The trees had evolved some from the original ones in Chile. That may or may not be important. In Hawaii, the Nene is an evolved species of Canadian goose. It can't fly. Therefore, it is more vulnerable to predation than the original species. Sure, there are rats in Chile, but are they polynesian rats, and in the original habitat, do those rats prefer other, more abundant or tastier foods than dates from these palm trees? My point is we are all treading on some pretty profound ecology topics here best left to those specialists.

"2. more importantly. Those trees had to be cut down and were, i.e. the rats had no effect on the forest of trees the original people found there and Flenley's research showed that it covered the island."

Sure they used the palm trees. They may have even been careful stewards, and only cut the old and dying/dead ones, per a speculative comment I recall from Terry Hunt. The more important point is they may have missed that younger palms were not taking the older one's place at anywhere near the needed replacement rate. With competing tribes, there may have been a true "tragedy of the commons" effect.

Here's yet another speculation: what of another vector than rats, who may be falsely accused of eating the future seed stock simply because they left hard evidence of teeth marks on the seeds. It could have been a boring beetle like the ones now devastating trees in North America, or some other disease that could have hitched a ride with the polynesian colonizers. Maybe someone will figure this tree demise out in future work there.

One thing that seems obvious is that those trees allowed the islanders to exploit their coastal fisheries and perhaps even longer distance exploits. Once they were all used up, the size of the native population and their quality of life surely suffered and shrank.

Patz - I am interested in your documentary. Is it available online? What is the name?


Joe, it's called Easter Island: Mystery and Magic (released in the US as Children of the Moai). I don't know if it's available online. You could probably obtain a copy from the production company Insight Film of Vancouver BC if you contact them--http://www.insightfilm.com/documentary.html.

The documentary was an attempt to update the research on Rapa Nui along the lines of the evidence for a population bloom and collapse. John Flenley co-wrote Easter Island, Earth Island pretty much along those lines.

My research for the documentary consisted of months of reading and corresponding with the academics in the field, visits to the island and going to the Pacific 2000 Conference in Hawaii. Quick and general, yes, expert no! Thinking back I would say I still find the evidence for bloom/collapse compelling but much of the detail was, maybe still is, very speculative based on an interpretation of data that may or may not be correct.

However a great deal has been done in many related fields and continues to this day. The latest conference was held in Visby Sweden in 2007 AFAIK. A paper at the conference that was co-authored by Sonia Haoa detailed 3 tsunamis that had hit the island in 1200, 1575 and 1960. Its point was that cultural changes may have been caused by natural events such as these. I wondered if, for instance the toppled moai, which have been accepted as evidence of inter-tribal hostility were actually toppled by the 1575 tsunami.

Another paper also co-authored by Sonia Haoa suggests that the moai were transported around the island by water thus shortening the long hauls to the various sites they're erected at.

One thing seems clear: If the Rapanuians were careless with the trees, they did learn how to live sustainably for the most part as other researchers have shown. That may give some hope for the survival of some as we approach the coming bottleneck.

Decay doesn't understand the value of fishing boats on a tiny island with limited resources.

He just sees disease brought by Europeans.

Obviously, both points can be true, and probably are true.

Of course, European colonial powers never talked down the self governance capabilities of native populations before.

I mean just ask the North American native peoples. Scratch that. Ask the Australian Abori... Um the Kenyans? Maybe the Persians? The Chinese?

Never mind. Scratch all of that. Believe that the Easter Islanders were the only people on earth so stupid as to foul their own nest to their own extinction just like lemmings stampede over cliffs every few years after they have a population boom.

Believe that the Easter Islanders were the only people on earth so stupid as to foul their own nest to their own extinction just like lemmings stampede over cliffs every few years after they have a population boom.

Straw man. No one is saying (or believes) that. Europeans and modern cultures of all stripes have all been doing a bang-up job of systematically "fouling their own nests" (a nice phrase - was it Darwinian's?). None of this changes the fact that dacey's assertion that Easter Islanders did not overpopulate and grossly mismanage their own ecosystem is complete revisionist hogwash.

It's more believable than the official story.

Lots of peoples live hard lives in hard places with scant resources.

They manage.

That the Easter Islanders would be so exceptional as to burn out their island without a push from outside is difficult to believe in that light.

That push may have been climate change, or colonial powers, but it makes a lot more sense that there was one than the romantic notion that they did it to themselves.

"That the Easter Islanders would be so exceptional as to burn out their island without a push from outside is difficult to believe in that light."

Ah, but isn't that kind of the point? If you get anything out of Collapse or from reading Diamond it would seem most important to note the ever present notion that it's not just one thing that tends to take a society down...it's a cascade of failures. If everything else is solid, a single problem tends to be absorbed with little damage. But if the overall health of the system is weakened, then even something simple can deal a death blow - the last straw, if you will.

Believe that the Easter Islanders were the only people on earth so stupid as to foul their own nest to their own extinction just like lemmings stampede over cliffs every few years after they have a population boom.

I feel I need to defend lemmings. The assertion that lemmings commit any form of mass suicide is a total myth created by Hollywood.


OK, now assume that I knew that and reread my post, also assume that I thought it was common knowledge by now.

Disney was a jerk.

The lemmings wont commit mass suicide?
Ever heard of those limmings following Jim Jones?

That was largely mass murder enforced by the few of Jones' armed bodygauard.

Transition did say "population boom".

While lemmings do not intentionally throw themselves over a cliff or into a river, once a lemming population has overshot its local resources (for example, "they over burrowed" beyond their local means --their tunnels "de-faulted" and are no longer securitized and credit worthy, heh heh) they do tend to go on mass migrations and as with any such herd like stampedes, a few do fall over the edge of the ledge or drown while trying to cross a wide river.

Thanks for the interesting links and references. The Jared Diamond story always seemed too simplistic considering the evidence of much communication between islands of the Polynesians. There has been much research into how this might have been possible and I recently listened to a lecture on the subject by Wade Davis. Anthropologist who wrote "The Serpent and the Rainbow" a non-fiction text loosely adapted to the horror movie of the same name.

The lecture can be listened to for free here;


or purchased on iTunes. Which is a bummer as all 5 lectures were posted for free for a short time. They are all excellent.

Hey, if it wasn't for simplistic narratives we'd have no culture at all.

The metaphor of Easter Island is a useful one because it captures one sort of collective human dysfunction. That dysfunction is clearly real enough, regardless of what actually transpired on a given island.

Historic narrative in general does a poor job of capturing the fine-grained state of a system in the past or attributing causality, although it can move in that direction. But we think in simplistic narratives; it's the coin of the realm.

The expression on the stone statues...Where have I seen it before?

Ah Yes.. On the faces of the stone brained people that I talk to about resource depletion.

The look says it all.
The sweet irony.
They thought they were being portrayed as noble and strong, but I can see that they were just mind-numbingly stupid.

I imagine that there were a minor number who tried to nurture and protect the trees. They lost.

Perhaps this time Mr Darwin will oblige us by getting it right?

(a re-post from yesterday:)

A communications primer.

Trying to communicate your concern about PO to others?

Check out this video:

Although it is entitled The Story of Stuff, it is really a how-to about how to communicate with people who are not as advanced into the jargon and topic as you are.

The Story of Stuff is horribly propagandistic, with loads of strawmen. I hope that isn't how we need to communicate.

According to historic legend the person who cut down the last Easter Island tree was not in the least concerned (despite noisy protest from the PT crowd) because:

1. He had read an article that included a quote from EIBARE (Easter Island Bureau of Agriculture and Resource Economics) that there were at least 100 years of trees left based on the the R/P ratio.

2. EI parliamentarian Nick Grinchen told every one on TV that the supply of trees is anyway a function of price and that people who said there weren't enough trees are "silly" and they do not understand how tree production works

3. The chief economist, Peter Devious of the EI's biggest tree producing company EIT said "There is no resource or reserve shortage," and if any one knows he should

4. Mr Krudd, PM, has apologised to everyone for everything and he didn't say sorry about the trees once, even to the island's Chancellor (responsible also for head development), Mr Wine Swon who was questioned at length by that horrible Eric Allbetzareoff about why the head production budget had blown out after the price of trees mysteriously doubled in only a year. Mr Swon's evidence referred at length to tree speculators and included a pointed jibe about the Islands main opposition party, the Creationists and their leader My Bony FlatButt.

Very enjoyable!

What did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say while he was doing it?”

'Sh@t, now where am I going to get toothpicks to get your mother's flesh out from between my teeth'.

Morbid humor.

I wasn't planning on any comments for this subject (not enough tech for this geek) but the phrase "psychology of resource depletion denial” caught my eye. So I'll toss out an insider view regarding various press releases from the past and future by the energy companies. I've seen this denial attitude from management since my earliest days 35 years ago. My first mentor in 1975 slapped me upside the head with the "reserve replacement issue " (i.e. PO). But I've watched various management teams fight tooth and nail against accepting the increasing difficulty in finding new reserves. Often it appeared to be just a matter of preserving their position: "I know we have little chance of success with our current program but if I tell the board they'll replace me" was common. No surprisingly most of the denial was situated at the top of the pyramid: the grunts (who were tasked with the daily effort) commonly accepted the fact. Of course, it was also common for the staff folks to play along with the illusion to preserve their salaries. An example: I was once directed to drill a well in S Texas by upper management. The well had virtually no tech merit so I refused to drill it. So they transferred the project to another manager and he drilled this obscenely expensive drill hole. Only later, as the company was closing its doors, did I understand why they pushed this deal: they had a $100 million bond coming due and didn't have $1 to pay back. Thus it was drill and pray for a miracle or shut the doors that day. If they had been upfront and explained the situation I would have offered another high risk project that did have tech merit that might just have worked. But it was a "corporate secret" on a need-to-know basis. Granted there were managers incapable of understand the technical side of the issue but that wasn't typical. The rush to the shale gas plays had much of the same motivation behind it IMHO: public companies have a constant pressure from Wall Street to replace production y-o-y. The SG plays had the outward appearance of doing so. But that bubble bust and now once viable and talented companies like Devon may completely disappear as a result.

I've have no direction connection to our politicians but it's easy to imagine the same denial mechanics at work there. My conclusion, based on watching the mechanism for more than 3 decades, is that society's "management" will do all it can to preserve the illusions of the populace to the point where even viable options will have expired. It makes me wonder what stories the Easter Island management laid out to their folks as the end drew nearer.

...."An example: I was once directed to drill a well in S Texas by upper management. The well had virtually no tech merit so I refused to drill it. So they transferred the project to another manager and he drilled this obscenely expensive drill hole. Only later, as the company was closing its doors, did I understand why they pushed this deal: they had a $100 million bond coming due and didn't have $1 to pay back. Thus it was drill and pray for a miracle or shut the doors that day. "

In other words, the management directed the rig operators to "carve another stone head" in the hope that the gods would put oil where the drill rig was.

Many managers know how to manage, but they don't have analytical thinking process to go with it.

This is largely the same mentality being used to push shale oil, coal to liquids, hydrogen fuel, etc.

Worse then that mb: didn't even leave a stone head in the middle of that corn field. Just a bare spot of ground that filled up with weeds until the next planting.

As I've pointed out before I think few folks realize just how strong Wall Street demands push companies to follow less then logical business plans. I once worked for a very small public company and it wasn't subtle: our market maker told us exactly what we were to drill. If we didn't they would stop pushing our stock. And then we would be worth $0.

great story Rockman.

A lot of human silliness may ultimately derive from the general proposition "if they don't do this, I'm screwed."

One can imagine a group of people confronting the Rapa Nui witchdoctor or what-had-they, noting that if his plan didn't work he'd be killed. In that case, a plan that took a REALLY long time to complete would have covered his or her arse, since the only way to falsify it is to try. And if so, it probably worked - isn't there a partially-completed utterly monstrous statue in the quarry there?

To whom it may concern: These people around you are almost
all the survivors on San Lorenzo of the winds that followed the
freezing of the sea. These people made a captive of the spurious
holy man named Bokonon. They brought him here, placed him at
their centre, and commanded him to tell them exactly what God
Almighty was up to and what they should now do. The mountebank
told them that God was surely trying to kill them, possibly because
He was through with them, and that they should have the good
manners to die. This, as you can see, they did. - Bokonon

Many managers know how to manage, but they don't have analytical thinking process to go with it.

I think ROCKMAN put it well, when he said it was about keeping their positions. The managers are acting completely rationally in doing what is in their self interest. However it is not in the interest of the shareholder.

As I've oftened heard in the corporate hallway Monkey: "Screw the shareholders. As long as my options pay off, of course".

You may like this by William Catton. People have the ability to deny a great deal, he gives the example of anosognosia.
Personally my denial strength is dependent on the embarrassment factor on how wrong I am or whether it’s clearly not a future I can imagine!?

Hasn't the idea that the Easter Island civilisation died out because they ran out of resources been thoroughly debunked already?

Sure, but it's just too metaphorically rich to let the idea die.

We can all point to the modern equivalent of the stone heads, vastly wasteful monuments to egotism erected at great expense to a culture on the verge of collapse.

We see our selves all to clearly in the picture, even if the picture itself if flawed.

"We can all point to the modern equivalent of the stone heads, vastly wasteful monuments to egotism erected at great expense to a culture on the verge of collapse."

Like spending $1 trillion per year by the US on two wars and a bloated defense budget that build lots of stone heads: buying weapons that are not needed for current or likely threats, hundreds of unnecessary military installations worldwide, and research that produces nothing.
Real threats to the existance of US in its current form is peak oil/resource depleation/environmental degradation, national debt/government's unfunded obligations, and AGW.

Real threats to the existance of US in its current form is peak oil/resource depleation/environmental degradation, national debt/government's unfunded obligations, and AGW.

There are plenty of options if we we think outside the box. This was sent to me today by the Brazilian Bamboo Forum I'm a member of. Here's a house that anyone should be able to afford. Not a banker or a mortgage in sight...


Not to denigrate bamboo -- it is a remarkable grass when used properly. Longevity when unprotected isn't a high point.

In the early 1980s I was the construction manager building a hotel in the St. Vincent Grenadines. Stories there, but one anecdotal: The walls and roof of the first structure before I arrived were all bamboo --- interesting to hear the ants gnawing day and night;-) The Purpleheart and Greenheart floors will outlast the bamboo by centuries.

Longevity when unprotected isn't a high point.

Yep! That's very true. The Brazilian Bamboo forum has many discussions on that very topic, ants included.

crobar -- As we say in Texas: don't let the facts stand in the way of a good story. If we did westexas wouldn't get any of his wildcats drilled.

Hasn't the idea that the Easter Island civilisation died out because they ran out of resources been thoroughly debunked already?

Yes, I'm sure 18th century Easter Island, denuded of trees, and with the few remaining inhabitants practising cannibalism, was a Noble Savage PARADISE before those nasty old Europeans showed up. Methinks someone's been spending a tad too much time listening to Berkeley "intellectuals" ascribing every ancient and modern ill to Western Civilization.

If something goes up on this site that is known to be false, or at least a misrepresentation of the full story, it erodes the reputation of the site. People here who are serious about getting the peak oil message out should bear this in mind.

Wow, just Wow.

It's a good thing that peak oil is being promoted clear-eyed unbiased rationalists like yourself.

Thank you! I'm sure you meant that compliment literally, without a trace of irony. ;-)

Just for the record, I don't think Western Civilization is one great march of progress, and that every conflict is always about superior Western reason & technology bravely combating primitive savages and pestilence. There is plenty of ugly, immoral crap Western powers have been responsible for --and are continuing to be responsible for. Nonetheless, to complely absolve Easter Islanders of any responsibility for what happened to their island is ridiculous and an insult to history.

No offense, but when I look for information I generally give more weight to people who are considered experts in the field I'm interested in than to random angry dudes on the internet.

If I didn't follow this policy I'd be neck-deep in male enhancement 'supplements'.

Heck, this attitude is what brought me to this site to begin with.

Also, by "experts" I mean people who have done direct research, gathered data, and published their findings in peer reviewed journals. All of which the authors of the articles cited above did.

Also, I don't quite get why you think this research somehow 'absolves' the Easter Islanders and blames the Europeans; as the central points of these articles are: a) Easter Island was settled later than originally thought (1200 instead of 800); b) there were never more than 3000 inhabitants on the island at any given time; and finally c) that rats (introduced by the Polynesians)AS WELL AS human activity contributed to the observed deforestation. And from what I've read here, NO ONE disputes that there were around 3000 people living on Easter Islanders when it was first discovered by Europeans, so the collapse would have to have happened before that.

Finally, I share your disdain for the idea of the "Noble Savage", as it has done far more harm than good. But please note that in your acceptance of Diamond's interpretation of events, you are essentially saying that that the Easter Islanders lived in PERFECT NO IMPACT HARMONY with the environment for 400 years (800-1200) before things went bad. In contrast, the timeline presented by Hunt and the rest basically states that the new colonists started trashing the island right after they got there in 1200.

So I guess you must have gone to Berkeley then? I hear they have a great law program.

Ok, I'll grant Berkeley has a fine law school, and that was a cheap jab. Sometimes I just get a little tired of the "Western Civ = root of all the world's problems" meme. It's not like stupidity, greed, bigotry, atrocities or bad stewardship of resources is the exclusive domain of Europeans. Dacey seemed to accept this as prima facie truth and being beyond debate.

I'll also concede that recent evidence indicates Diamond's original colonization estimate was wrong. Even so, he's not the only historian to suggest (with plenty of supporting evidence) that their society's collapse was largely a result of the natives' own actions.

There- I'll trade it for a case of Budweiser, a half tank of gas for the 4X4, and two NASCAR tickets.

I noticed the quote above from fleam:

"When in doubt, carve a bigger stone head" - fleam

I wonder how fleam is doing. Anyone heard from him?

He's a She and her web log is down.

Sorry for the gender bender. I knew that, but it's been a while. She seemed to be living on the edge. I see more folks getting to that point every day.

I wonder if it was like that on EI or if they all went down together.

Just a quick comment on complexity.

The most egregious aspect of complexity that I have observed is the fact that it allows otherwise intelligent people to maintain denial by simply stating the three words that I have come to despise;

"We can't know"

and of course if you can't know, you can't act can you?


"We can't know"

My Grandmother was the consumate Southern Belle. When challenged with subjects complex and disturbing her famous reply was usually:
"Well......I just don't want to know about that right now".

Many can know but don't want to know. They've become comfortably numb and prefer to stay that way. At times, I envy their ability to do this. But, "when I was a child I caught a fleeting glimpse", and it keeps coming back.

"When I was a child
I caught a fleeting glimpse
Out of the corner of my eye.
I turned to look but it was gone
I cannot put my finger on it now
The child is grown,
The dream is gone.
I have become comfortably numb."
Pink Floyd's "The Wall"

Lucky you!

Perhaps your mortar is cracking...

I don't need no arms around me
And I don't need no drugs to calm me.
I have seen the writing on the wall.
Don't think I need anything at all.
No! Don't think I'll need anything at all.
All in all it was all just bricks in the wall.
All in all you were all just bricks in the wall.
Pink Floyd's "Another Brick In The Wall"

What was it with Pink Floyd and walls anyway?

and while we are quoting 70s Prog Rock bands, how about this from King Crimson:

"..Between the iron gates of fate,
The seeds of time were sown,
And watered by the deeds of those
Who know and who are known;
Knowledge is a deadly friend
When no one sets the rules.
The fate of all mankind I see
Is in the hands of fools.

Confusion will be my epitaph.
As I crawl a cracked and broken path
If we make it we can all sit back
And laugh.
But I fear tomorrow I'll be crying,
Yes I fear tomorrow I'll be crying."

Could almost have been written for TOD!

I could have sworn that Diamond answered this question later in "Collapse": there was no "last" tree, not in the sense that someone cut down a large tree, as in the "Lorax". Every generation cut large trees, but they had no way of knowing how large the trees had been generations ago, so had no idea that they were cutting younger and younger trees, or removing formerly larger species. In the end, the Easter Islander who killed the last tree said "damn weed" and pulled it out of his/her garden.

Imagine if we had no records of oil field size or production. Every year we find and develop 100 fields. We would look back on our record 100 years from now and say "Look, we develop 100 fields every year. It has always been so. How could people 100 years ago use this trickle to power cars and airplanes? It makes no sense. These tiny little fields produce so little we can't even use the oil to run the tractors anymore. It's only good for lubricating." By then, they are no longer finding Ghawars, and have no way of knowing how huge the fields were in the past.

It was 1000 years between the initial colonization and the last "tree". If we had 1000 years with no written records, oral legend that said there were once plants that grew higher than the statues would be taken as myth from the "time of the Gods", and not taken literally. No one had seen a plant taller than a man for generations.

Ummm... yes, exactly, but until you read Diamond's answer, it's such a nifty, convenient narrative. See page 426 of Collapse. Also see note downthread.

Maybe the Easter Island history isn't as far-fetched as we might think.

Take for example the many deforested areas of Haiti, the British Isles or the Mediterranean:
The null-arbor landscapes there are probably a result of
- people getting used to the slowly deteriorated situation, especially as they were locked to the island and couldn't compare with other regions (shifting baselines)
- not knowing the ecological causes and consequences and perhaps blaming others (e.g. other tribes, gods)
- the lack of known & established alternative scenarios (TINA policy)

So people simply died off without being aware of it. It simply happened.

What did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say while he was doing it?

Houston, we have here a failure to read the literature. We discussed this once before. Simply put: it never happened that way, according to Diamond himself. To repeat: it never happened that way. The money quote is on page 426 of Collapse:

We unconsciously imagine a sudden change: one year, the island still covered with a forest of tall palm trees being used to produce wine, fruit, and timber to transport and erect statues; the next year, just a single tree left, which an islander proceeds to fell in an act of incredibly self-damaging stupidity. Much more likely, though, the changes in forest cover from year to year would have been almost undetectable: yes, this year we cut down a few trees over there, but saplings are starting to grow back again here on this abandoned garden site. Only the oldest islanders, thinking back to their childhoods decades earlier, could have recognized a difference. Their children could no more have comprehended their parents' tales of a tall forest than my 17-year-old sons today can comprehend my wife's and my tales of what Los Angeles used to be like 40 years ago. Gradually, Easter Island's trees became fewer, smaller, and less important. At the time that the last fruit-bearing adult palm tree was cut, the species had long ago ceased to be of any economic significance. That left only smaller and smaller palm saplings to clear each year, along with other bushes and treelets. No one would have noticed the falling of the last little palm sapling. By then, the memory of the valuable palm forest of centuries earlier had succumbed to landscape amnesia.

So the last-tree question provides a hook on which would-be social engineers can hang an unending array of moralizing narratives advancing their preconceived agendas, but when it's framed that way it's a load of hooey.

I do keep wondering if anyone ever actually reads books like Collapse, or whether most purchasers just place them on the coffee table as cult totems - as mini stone heads, so to speak.

Thanks Paul. I never have my copy of a book handy when this kind of question comes up. Of course most people buy the book and never get through it. It's such a good book though, and so on-topic for TOD discussions, that I do get surprised when other people don't immediately point out the answer.

And absolutely no offense meant to Ralph, but anyone else catch the irony of a person writing a post about wood depletion who has a family name that means collector of wood?

If we had 1000 years with no written records, oral legend that said there were once plants that grew higher than the statues would be taken as myth from the "time of the Gods", and not taken literally. No one had seen a plant taller than a man for generations.

Only the oldest islanders, thinking back to their childhoods decades earlier, could have recognized a difference

It's called "generational amnesia". If you are born onto a once fully forested island that is now 50% deforested you think that is "normal". Your great great grandchildren think that 20% forest cover is "normal" There's nothing wrong!

Their children could no more have comprehended their parents' tales of a tall forest than my 17-year-old sons today can comprehend my wife's and my tales of what Los Angeles used to be like 40 years ago

Therefore mall rat culture, schoolyard shootings, "prison culture" suburbs, warm winters, $3 gas, no manufacturing jobs, no jobs at all outside of fast food, easy drugs etc, etc are all now "normal". There's nothing wrong!

You remember LA 40 years ago. Many of us remember it 60 years ago. We are the "old easter islanders". Listen to us. Our culture is dying.

Which raises an interesting question "When was Peak LA"? (or New York or London or Mexico City or Sydney) I suspect somewhere about 40 or 50 years ago. It has been downhill for most cities since then.

Therefore mall rat culture, schoolyard shootings, "prison culture" suburbs, warm winters, $3 gas, no manufacturing jobs, no jobs at all outside of fast food, easy drugs etc, etc are all now "normal". There's nothing wrong!

Exactly. Consider a nondescript patch of dirt somewhere on the edge of town that's got caught up in "preservationism". The folks who would remember it as forest are all dead. The oldest folks remember when it was still a farm, so they yammer on at the hearing about how it has to be a farm forever. The older Boomers remember it as a 50s diner, so it has to be a 50s diner forever. And the young folks, well, it's now a parking lot and they know nothing different, and many of them are bewildered by the fuss because their own propensity to resist any and all change hasn't come to the fore yet.

$3/gallon gas,
no manufacturing jobs,
no jobs at all outside of fast food, easy drugs etc, etc
all of above now "normal".
There's nothing wrong!

Excellent point.
We quickly adapt to the new normal.

Trashed Earth is the new Eden now.

How many of you have heard "chestnuts roasting on an open fire" and been asked by a kid "What are chestnuts?". They were once one of the most common trees in a America, with prolific uses of their wood and nuts.

Add Dutch Elm and bark beetles, and you have an ecosystem-changing bio-event in one lifetime.

Go to any national forest, like redwood forests or semi-trop rainforest, and see how many dead, huge trees you see. Far more than natural replacement rates would support. Timber cutting just makes it worse.

There are none so blind as those who refuse to see.

Drive along the highways of Oregon and you will see wonderful stands of Douglas Fir (the state tree of Oregon). Fly over the same areas in a helicopter and you will see that these trees are a Potemkin village of a forest, as behind the trees lining the highway are large tracts of clear-cut remains. Not a forest, a wasteland. The point is that while the Rapanuians may have been unaware of what they were doing to their forests; we are not.

Paul S,
In response to your comment asking if anyone actually reads the writers they trash, I can make only one response.Obviously not.

The biggest fallacy in the thinking of the educated and mostly liberal elite is that everyone else knows what they know.

Fact is, they don't even know on average half as much as they think they do, and futherrmore it ain't what you don't know that takes you down-it's what you know that ain't so.

I have lived in all sorts of cultures within this country, excepting among the rich.

Even professors don't read very many books, except those directly related to thier generally narrow fields of interest.

Among the dozen or so English teachers I have known well enough to discuss books, which are and have always been my primary passion,the entire dozen did not read on the average one serious new book a year, excepting a few blockbusters of the political stripe. They read classics poetry or novels and they read popular novels, and Newsweek or Harpers or the new Yorker.

The average man or woman on the street never again reads a serious new book once he or she leaves school, unless reading it is necessary to thier livelihood.

More likely Easter Islanders were brought down by continuous warfare, than deforestation.

Did deforestation destroy England or Iceland?

As one of the sagas says: "At that time, Iceland was covered with woods, between the mountains and the shore."

how much part does deforestation have in arming and creating these wars?

My suspicion is that the last trees were not cut down but rather died after the ecosystem had been permanently damaged and could no longer support trees, in which case all the islanders could do is watch in horror and saddness.

Rather like us and global warming. By the time we do anything significant about it, it will be too late.

Considering for every $ spent on carbon reduction projects, 30% goes to the actual project and 70% is "overhead" - why should I embrace 30% to the project and 30% to the bankers who 'financed' the deal?

If anyone is interested in cost effective and very long term carbon capture/reforestation, I can direct contributions to the Hekla Skogar in Iceland. A large (thousands km2) deforested area that they are starting to replant with native birch and lodge pole pine. Plantings are arranged for natural seeding of additional land when the trees reach sexual maturity and conditions are right.

So a tree planted today will have barren areas nearby to seed in several decades.

ATM, Icelandic labor is cheaper than it was, so contributions go further.

Best Hopes for Icelandic Forests,


I like Iceland too, Alan, but don't be silly.
Icelandic trees grow very slowly as they are so far north. They are about as tall as Xmas trees and just can't capture very much carbon.

Many plants grow much faster in the far north. They get the same number of hours of sunlight. It just comes during longer summer days. Alaska grows some of the largest vegetables because of the number of hours of daylight during their short growing season. I'm not sure if this applies to trees in Iceland, but I suspect that soil, rainfall and avg. temp are more important.

Reykjavík is at latitude 64.4, about 2 degrees north of Anchorage (62.3). Plenty of trees there.

from Forestry in a Treeless Land by my good friend Þröstur Eysteinsson


The trees are growing well too, with current annual increments for larch, spruce, pine and poplar often ranging between 10 and 20 m3/ha/year on good sites.

The major species used in forestry are, in addition to the native Betula pubescens, Larix sukaczewii, Picea sitchensis, Pinus contorta and Populus trichocarpa. They have all reached at least 20 m in height and show mean annual increments ranging from 5 to 15 m3/ha/yr. The tallest tree in Iceland is a 24.5 m Populus trichocarpa (at left), followed closely by Picea sitchensis at 23 m and Larix sukaczewii at 22 m. Based on growth curves, Larix sukaczewii and Pinus contorta will certainly reach 25 m height on good sites by age 100 years and Picea sitchensis and Populus trichocarpa at least 30m.

Best Hopes for Icelandic Forests (reforesting Iceland can offset over 1 year of global carbon emissions),


Don't discount Alan's plan, it's a good one to get fast-growing forests going where there are no trees now.

Didn't Iceland just opt to not pay off the bankers who conned them?

We have hope the Easter Islanders didn't have, and it's this hope that means we are even more surely doomed. We have "They", as in "They" will develop a new technology to replace our disappearing resources. I actually know educated adults who believe the technology exists to run cars on water. We're freaking doomed. Doomed by the fact that the average human doesn't have the good sense god gave a goose.

I wrote this some time ago, without submitting it anywhere and it seems apposite to post in this thread.

Heads of Stone

by Julian Jackson

A Proclamation from the Government of Easter Island:

Good and Loyal Citizens of Rapa Nui: we face arduous times. We are all in this together. In the past both our increasing population - many bonny little kids - and the growth of our system (one foot per tree per year) was entirely due to the competent way we - your hardworking government - managed our booming economy.

Now that Global Conditions have turned adverse, it is clear that it is not our fault, we are facing a downturn that affects the rest of the planet (wherever that is...we're not entirely sure).

The Easter Island Way of Life is non-negotiable. It is imperative that all citizens continue to cut down trees. To alter our way of life now would be disastrous. Every tree must be chopped down so we can build more stone statues.

Do not worry. Stone Head production is up 137%. This year's stone heads are bigger and better than last year's! We have started making a stone-guzzling super statue bigger than all the rest! At Rano Raraku quarry we have embarked on building one 70ft long and 270 tons in weight. That shows how confident we are of a bounteous future. The Gods must be very pleased with us, or they would have obviously shown their displeasure by smiting us with a calamity. A temporary shortage of stonemasons has been rectified by retraining fishermen - who aren't catching any fish any more now - as stone carvers. Fortunately we also have the bonus of being able to break up their canoes to supply extra timber for moving and erecting our new, improved, bigger statues.

Economics is on our side. Demand for these superior, de luxe stone statues is up 152%. Every tribe wants them. As you, good citizens - have felled almost all the trees, demand for wood exceeds supply massively. This is a good thing. Soon the invisible hand of the market will rectify the problem. OPEC - the Organisation of Piss Extracting Citizens have promised to open their...er...taps and the resulting nitrogen-rich liquid will cause lots more trees to spring up to replace those we have already produced. We are also confident that many new trees will be found in unexplored areas of our island.

Our annual expedition sending our young men to swim across the cold, dangerous, shark-infested waters to Motu Iti - Tern Island - has been immensely successful. We will be shortly having a ceremony to crown the new Birdman of the Year as he has returned with a single egg in triumph: thus entertaining the whole of our people with a magnificent spectacle of heroic futility. Those who have lost their lives in those treacherous waters can rest content that their noble sacrifice is worthwhile to preserve the Easter Island Way of Life for the next Thousand Years. We extend every sympathy to their families, they have paid the ultimate price, but have achieved something of lasting value for our society. Rumours that injured swimmers are having difficulty in obtaining compensation are entirely unfounded, though there have been some regrettable bureaucratic delays.

Unfortunately a few traitors have attempted to fill some of the remaining ocean-going canoes with provisions and tried to leave our island paradise. They have been executed, then rendered, and they were pretty tasty, we can tell you. The last tosser we tossed off a cliff, shouted, "Build boats with the remaining wood, you fools!" as he fell, which shows what warped priorities these traitors have. As if anyone would want to leave a place that the Gods look on so favourably.
We thank citizens for their patience during the current food shortages. These are only temporary. There is no need to start eating each other. We must remind everybody that cannibalism is only to be considered as an absolute last resort. It is particularly important for health reasons that persons should be fully cooked-through, not consumed rare. Grandmothers can also stick annoyingly between your teeth unless well-marinaded first.

Any rioting will be dealt with by the miscreants being summarily executed. And eaten by loyal government servants.

That is all. Under our benificent guidance Easter Island is assured of a happy, prosperous and tree infested future.

Let us all derive comfort in these difficult times from our Island Motto: Two Stone Heads are Better than One.

Bravo fearless leader..., you have my support.


Two stones turned way up for that story.
I'd go see the movie. Where is it playing?

Very nice.

This is very much the future, all talk aside, that we are actually trying for.

An engaging subject to read while trying to wake up, and I look forward to checking back when conscious.

Though I'll offer one slightly tongue-in-cheek suggestion while sleepy, since I have to do actual productive stuff once I get functional: That any isolated population of humans might tend to have a future-scenario distribution in what I might call the "monkey with a hand grenade" class of outcomes.

As in, if you have a room with a monkey and a hand grenade in it, as time goes on you will have a proportionally growing wedge of probabilistic outcomes in which "monkey smithereens" figure prominently. Speculations on what exactly the monkey might have been thinking in the last few seconds are unnecessary; it simply decided to do it.

Maybe there was only a 14.2% chance that Easter Island would go this way in this amount of time or maybe it was 72%, but we have no way of determining that retroactively; we just see the outcome that occurred.

And indeed, our chances of having made it through the cold war without a full-on nuclear exchange may have only been 8.1%; yet we don't worry about what didn't happen.... unless we choose to think of things in a probabilistic way.

If one looks at humans from a bit of a nonhuman overview perspective, as critters which have evolved to rationalize doing any dang thing they are mentally and physically capable of doing, then it comes down to the "stable states" of the human-environment system and the odds of avoiding the really nasty ones.


Fleam ?

I noted the quote from fleam, but I have not seen a post by fleam in quite a few months ?

Best Hopes for one of my favorite posters.


This may or may not be relevant, but I was recently a guest at a dinner party, and I ended up sitting on the terrace next to a guy who owns a commercial bank. He seemed amiable enough, full of energy, articulate, positive, he had drive, was extremely self-centered and sure of himself, and perhaps most importantly, what he believed in. His "God" was something he kept refering to as the "free market", and his primary concern was that it wasn't "free" enough, if only it was really "free" almost everything would be better for the greatest number of people.

I expressed the view, that in my opinion, the market system had never really been "free", it wasn't "free" now, and arguably never would be "free." That unfreeness was an integral part of its success, take that away and it would probably collapse faster than it is now. This was my "heretic, get thee gone villain!" moment for the evening. I decided to refrain from making anymore comments, and just listen.

The banker had an extraorinary faith in free markets, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that they aren't "free", which is what he was complaining about in the first place. I was tempeted to mention the collosal 5 trillion transfer of wealth from the state to the American financial institutions, but thought the better of it.

He also had a cast iron belief that "growth" was the solution to all our problems, without growth, society would grind to a halt, and that would affect the poor worst of all, as wealth would stop being created. Without growth we won't have the resources to deal with our problems and pay for the technological solutions and massive investment that's required by society.

He told me that he wanted to see everyone "free" and with a high standard of living, with poverty, hunger, desease... banished, and this could only occure through economic growth, technology, and free markets.

I felt, as I left the terrace and headed back towards the lavish buffet and more smoked salmon and champange, that I'd been in the company of a religious zealot, a person full of faith and superstition, a true believer.

I ended up getting very, very, drunk.

I felt, as I left the terrace and headed back towards the lavish buffet and more smoked salmon and champange, that I'd been in the company of a religious zealot, a person full of faith and superstition, a true believer.


I ended up getting very, very, drunk.

Good thing you didn't watch Alan Greenspan defending himself at, The Federal Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, before you started drinking...

FMagyar said,
"Good thing you didn't watch Alan Greenspan defending himself at, The Federal Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, before you started drinking..."

OH, I DIFFER! I think everyone, especially the young, should watch the tape of Greenspan's testimony, it was absolutley fascinating, historical, an apologia, an attempt to come to grips with the failure of a worldview. It was like watching Napoleon at Elba attempting to reconcile his whole life, his whole mission in life and having to do it right in front of the camaras. It was a warning to all who would fall so in love with a theory that no matter what happens they cannot turn loose of it until it collapses around them...it is having to say "I was just wrong" about your whole life's work...what philosophical position can you then take late in life, what has your life's work been worth? EVERYONE should watch Greenspan's testimony, it is such a life lesson, such a lesson about the best laid plans...a moment in history.


Any link to a transcript or video ?



Thank you so much for the link...it was on C-Span where I first watched the testimony of Greenspan the day it was given. Fascinating stuff, I hope they leave it on the web for a long time, this is important historical stuff.


You've identified God by the looks, but what is the holy trinity. My guess its Economic Growth, Consumerism and Globalisation.
How about alchemy? The belief that Free Market can turn anything into anything, by substitution - lead into gold. The alchemical catalyst? Supply and demand.

[ Call me Nick. I'm never one to judge another man but ...] I was recently a guest at a dinner party, and I ended up sitting on the terrace next to a guy who [ as I would later learn was Mr. Gatsby himself ]. He seemed amiable enough, full of energy, articulate, positive, he had drive, was extremely self-centered and sure of himself, and perhaps most importantly, of what he believed in.

Did you perhaps notice him stretching earnestly towards the shining green light coming from across the Sound?

Did he mention Daisy, or maybe something about a Rosebud?

Hopefully you enjoyed the many other guests at the lavish party.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter- tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…And one fine morning-
The Great Gatsby
Chapter 9.

It is clear to me that every resource will eventually be run down to zero. Why? Because humans can't cooperate. Competition is instinctive.

Imagine that last palm tree standing. Everyone probably raced to be the one to get it first. As the population saw the resource becoming scare, the drive to hoard it would have become stronger and stronger. If you doubt that can happen in our "civilized" society, just think about what happens at Walmart on xmas eve.

Why? Because humans can't cooperate. Competition is instinctive.

You're forgetting one thing: cooperation is a competitive strategy, so yes, humans can cooperate. It shows in everything we have achieved so far, which isn't exactly nothing.

To humans of the highest-competitive-fitness cultures, the near future is "real" and the rest of the future is "unreal".

That was the problem then, that is the problem now, and it will ultimately play out much the same.

Do you think the Easter Islanders knew that the trees are what created the rain? If rains slowed down as the island became deforested, would they have been able to put two-and-two together? The trees were used to transport and erect the statues. They might have felt the need to erect more statues to appease their Gods to bring more rain, exacerbating the problem. Diamond's question may be anachronistic then. Today we know the results of deforestation, and we are aware of environmental connections. We have a consciousness enlightened by experience they did not have.

Even our own environmental awareness is very recent. I remember looking through a 1915 National Geographic Magazine a few years ago that showed a picture of two farmers standing in front of a big tree that had no leaves and mangled branches. All around them were dead birds. Thousands of them. The two farmers were smiling for the cameras. The caption said, "Farmer so-and-so from Loiusville discovered a brilliant way to rid his fields of the pesky such-and-such bird, by lining his holly tree with explosives." Not a hint of irony. This was not only a totally acceptable solution 100 years ago, but it was considered progressive and innovative.


"In spite of all this the Establishment themselves must at some point have started to notice the bleeding obvious, namely that the forest was nearly gone"

It is nice to see people with faifh in humanity. Too bad I don't share that feeling that they noticed something.

While the Easter Island collapse is fascinating from an anthropological standpoint, I do think it has by now become a bit overworked as a 'model' for our current predicament. Everybody who writes about it tries to put their own spin on what probably happened and how it is a warning for the modern world.

The trouble is that no one really knows exactly what happened. Whether it was A, B, or C, or some combination of various proportions of each is largely speculation. Nothing wrong with speculating, as long as you don't forget that that's what you are doing.

The other problem I have in using Easter Island as a metaphor of how we will end up is that as far as human habitation is concerned, the place wasn't all that great, had a rather fragile ecosystem lacking in robust diversity, and was almost totally cut off from any external inputs. In other words, an almost closed system. Maybe not quite as bad as being on a space station, but probably not too far off either.

My hunch is that if the Easter Islanders were much closer to coastal areas of human habitation, perhaps some sort of trade and other beneficial interaction would have developed that might have eased the stress placed on this highly isolated ecosystem.

Perhaps this is nothing more than an early expression of that old real estate adage: Location, location, location!

Good point. History does teach us a few things but we should never get boxed in a corner by studying a situation that may not apply.

Studying Easter Island seems at best an exercise in forensics with very little data available except for charred and buried remains.

If the Easter Islanders were much closer to coastal areas of human habitation, perhaps some sort of trade and other beneficial interaction would have developed that might have eased the stress placed on this highly isolated ecosystem.

Jared Diamond picked Easter exactly for the reason that it was an isolated, closed system and thus analysis would not require consideration of complicating factors, like external inputs and outputs.

Easter Island is no more over played then our repeated consideration of the Garden of Eden and the notion of Paradise Lost.

Think of the human species as a gang of teenagers.
Think of pre-human Earth as a sort of pristine house hold.
The teenagers invade.
They trash the pristine, well organized house.

Then they look around and can't remember what the house used to look like.

My hunch is that if the Easter Islanders were much closer to coastal areas of human habitation, perhaps some sort of trade and other beneficial interaction would have developed that might have eased the stress placed on this highly isolated ecosystem.

Perhaps this is nothing more than an early expression of that old real estate adage: Location, location, location!

This was the problem I had with Diamond's book: All the examples he gave were of isolated communities that were not in the mainstream of trade. If you are in the mainstream of trade, then your problems are quite different. The main problem you have is that someone will outcompete you for resources.

"If I don't cut this tree, someone else will".

Just to continue the story even though this is not what JD says later in the book. But it is a good story to tell (and good story to knock down as we see above).

"If I don't cut this tree, someone else will".


Plus "I'm hungry. The old canoe has had it and we need more fish. We'll look after that seedling over there. Where's the axe?"

The exact same philosophy why the last barrel of (obtainable) oil and the last block of coal will be burnt.

If there was a chiefs meeting on protecting the resource base on Easter Island it went just like our chiefs (politicians) meetings in congresses & parliaments as well as the UN. No consensus, no agreements, protect special interests at all costs.

Easter Island? Easter Earth!

A couple of possibilities, for what that cutter of the last tree said:

"Chop, Baby, Chop"


"Yes, sir!"

As for the metaphorical comparison between Easter Islanders' fate and ours, I cannot help but think it doesn't have to be this way. But then I remember that we are human, and realize, yeah, I guess it does. There are better outcomes, but we have and shall resist them for all we are worth. So it goes.

Another possibility for what that cutter of the last tree said: "I've got some tea, would you like to party?"

Since this topic is all about trees and the elimination of diversity, here are some thoughts on the topic. Ecologists use a concept called Species Area Relationships (SAR) to figure out diversity and richness in a plot of land. What an ecologist usually does is to parcel up a few hectares of land into plots and start cumulatively counting the number of unique species that appear on each subarea of land.

Lots of research is still being done on this topic mainly because everyone wants to figure out a good technique for deriving SAR. Well, after working out some simple probability equations the last few nights, I came up with a very good solution.

The following plot are the tree Species Area curves for 5 different tropical forested island or nature reserve regions. Note that each one of these curves has a single parameter that describes the dispersion/area cross-section for a specific region's diversity. The black curves are data and the markers are my solution (the red region is the classic power-law region that has historically been used to describe the SAR)

Parameter Max Species
Lambir, Malaysia 1.1 1174
Barro Colorado Island, Panama 2.55 300
Huai Khae Khaeng, Thailand 1.15 231
Mudumalai, India 0.9 71
Pasoh, Malaysia 1.5 817

This was actually pretty easy to do because I used the exact same mathematics that I derived for Dispersive Discovery of oil as for counting trees on plots of land. The only difference is that of area versus volume. Don't forget that this is a log-log plot so that the agreement is over several orders of magnitude. Astounding!

I am no ecologist, but these kinds of problems are ridiculously easy to solve, yet when you look at the ecology literature, the models all seem way too complicated.

Isn't this way cooler than anything that Jared Diamond writes about?

Web, you forgot to plot "Granny gristle" ;-)

I guess that is a bit of inside snark that I don't quite follow.

We don't know all that much.

We know it took a long time, from 650AD (±250) to a collapse somewhere between 1250 and 1600. 30 to 50 generations plus or minus a few.
We know it starts with abundance. Abundance gives us the confidence to over-populate, abundant population is needed to create stone heads.
Fishing will have continued until the wood for boats was lacking. Little by little, woods were cleared and converted to gardens or farms. Hunting for birds will have decreased along with the woodland. The seals that weren't eaten probably decided the island wasn't safe.

We don't know what their reason was, for erecting these statues, nor why they got bigger. Competition may have been a factor. Tradition certainly was. We don't know what that tradition was, even though it must have been compelling.

We don't know exactly when the last trees were cut. It is possible that most people were still doing reasonably well at that time, if ever there was such a time.

Even for such a small universe in a terrarium as Easter Island seems to be, we will always have a very difficult time grasping what exactly transpired, because there are too many variables : population, rats, ecology, climate, politics, agriculture. We know very little about all of these things,and about their interactions.

Keeping in mind the unfinished statue, it seems probable that something must have snapped. People don't suddenly stop doing something they've been doing for ages for no good reason.
It could have been politics, it could have been food, it could have been both. Some survived to see the westerners arrive.

However many trees were found by the first western captain to land on these shores, he did not find the paradise the Easter Islanders found. He did not a find a people lazily plucking fruit and birds from a (sub)tropical forest, enjoying an occasional snack of seal blubber.

Even if you add in all the known facts, and then strip away all the conjecture, Easter Island remains a stark reminder of our capacity to shoot ourselves in the feet.

Beware, beware, for the end of days is nigh! (grin)

You probably meant to say:

"to overshoot ourselves in our feet".

So the author believes that Eastern Island is an appropriate analogy to out current situation.
It's really an analogy for how doomers view the world. Well, not an analogy, but actually how doomers view the world. But in reality we have thousands of option where the mythological Eastern Islander's may have had none.

Those stone statues would make good avatars for some here.

You youngins here (under 30) don't fall for this crap. Go kiss a girl (or a boy) and live as a good example respecting the environment.

"Go kiss a girl"

Is this supposed to be the doomer equivalent of the William Shatner "get a life" skit?

but young'uns - don't have any more than two offspring between you, or the doomer story revalidates.

Actually young'uns, there are 3 times too many of you, so for the next generation, all you're allowed to do is kiss.


Two things about Easter Island.

1) It was so DISTANT from the rest of the Polynesian Islands that it no doubt had limited communications with them. I mean, like, 2000 miles east of the rest of Polynesia. Boats were for fishing, and once they were there on Rapa Nui, I would guess that they stayed put.

2) The idea of burning down enemy tribe's trees sure makes sense to me. In a bitter conflict, think one move ahead, and don't even look at what happens next -- ie, YOUR forests get burned down, too.

There's reason to believe Rapanui faced a supplementary ecological stress that decompensated its social structure, an El Nino event (see http://www.jeanhervedaude.com/Easter%20Island%20Lost%20Forest.htm, http://www.jeanhervedaude.com/Empreinte%2029.htm).

"It is inconceivable that disaster can befall us, therefore it won't happen."

The analog between trees and barrels of oil was to me so striking when reading Collapse that when Jared Diamond was visiting Washington D.C. (a book signing at Politics and Prose in 2006 or 2007), I asked him about this recurring theme in his book. Here is a transcript of that question and his answer (it's verbatim--I even filmed it):

DG: "In Collapse, how valuable do you think this metaphor is of chopping down the last tree like on Easter Island or any of those islands, where they did, they chopped down the last tree. Because someone else, if I was living there, I wouldn't have been the one to chop down the last tree; someone else would've done it. I know that someone else would have done it. Similarly, now, we're just about at Hubbert's Peak, and we're going to start running out of cheap oil. And the U.S., even if we did all we could to make our lifestyles sustainable, there's always going to be China. What incentivizes them to cooperate with the rest of the world?"

JD: "A key question. This is what's known as the 'Tragedy of the Commons'. This tragedy of the Commons operates on many scales. It's a tragedy that arises all too often when you have a group of consumers consuming and competing for a shared resource, a resource that is not privatized. And often, it proves impossible, or it doesn't happen that the consumers agree on sensible rates of resource exploitation. Instead, they reason that 'if I don't chop down that tree or if I don't catch that fish, somebody else will, and therefore I might as well be the one to do it'. Yes, it is difficult to solve 'Tragedy of the Commons' dilemmas but it happens; there are societies that have successfully solved 'Tragedy of the Commons' dilemmas. There are particular conditions under which the solution is more likely. For example, if the group is homogeneous, if they expect to pass on their rights [to the resource] to the next generation, if the resource is one that can be delineated, etc.. But as far as the question is concerned: 'what good does it do the United States to, say, reign in our production of greenhouse gases when we are going to be overwhelmed by China?' The fact is that our example has a strong influence, an overwhelming influence, on China and the rest of the world. And if we reigned in our rampant consumption, that would be an example to encourage other countries to reign in their rampant consumption. But conversely, if the United States goes on squandering, we are in no position to tell other countries not to squander. So I feel, and in fact, I've seen, lots of cases where we offer a good example instead of a bad example."

I personally think he's being naive about China's response, but thought people here might enjoy what came straight from the horse's mouth on what I thought was the most relevant question to TOD.

I will be warm tonight. With a little luck I will find a virgin maiden that will share the warmth.

I recall that Australian author Sheila Newman has studied and written on the subject of Polynesian population issues. If I recall correctly, some or many of the Polynesian island cultures recognized their vulnerability to overpopulation and acted to limit the size of their populations. It may be that Easter Island was an exception. Can't find the links I need, most from ancient energyresources postings.

What happens when we are down to the last tree?

If you are a dog, you gotta stand in line.

The last tree

While there is a gamut of opinions here about what happened to Rapa Nui/Easter Island historically, in the present they are undergoing an unsustainable expansion which looks to end about as badly as the first go round.

I spent time on the island in 2000 preparing a documentary. I stayed at the O'Tai Hotel in Hanga Roa whose owners were wonderfully hospitable. Although is was in a beautiful setting and had a very basic swimming pool, it could be compared to a Motel 6 in style, layout, room quality and taste. At the time it was one of two hotels, other accommodation being of the bed and breakfast type.

We interviewed the mayor, Petero Edmonds, who had some grandiose plans for the island which included making it a world destination for conferences, tourism and education. He has realized some of the worst of his ideas, although mercifully plans for a destination casino were thwarted. Tourism has been the main engine of development in the last decade and that in turn has brought an influx of new residents. In 2000 the population of the island was about 3500 residents, it's now close to 4800 with a daily population of 10,000 including tourists. This has strained the local infrastructure to the breaking point and is destroying the unique character and archeology of the island.

Now there are 20 hotels ranging from the exquisitely exotic Hotel Explora at $700/night down to ones that reviewers have dubbed "the Hell hole of Easter Island." Cruise ships now regularly offload their human cargo for a days sightseeing and tramping over the island. "We did Easter Island on Wednesday!" They cause the maximum damage for a minimum return to the island's economy.

To make a long story short; in the age of fossil fuel depletion Rapa Nui is being set up for another big crash.

-“What did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say while he was doing it?”-

Probably : Better get this quick, before the others take it.

Palm tree stumps and empty store shelves, oh my.