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Easter's Story

With summaries and excerpts (edited and non-edited) from Jared Diamond's "Easter's End" published in Discover Magazine, Aug 1995  and his book "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed"

As edited by Elaine de Neef presented at Palomar Unitarian Universalist Fellowship

"Easter Island is the most isolated piece of inhabited land in the world - a speck of volcanic rock only about twice the size of Manhattan"1 - and whose closest neighbor is Pitcairn Island 1400 miles away. Archeological evidence shows that when the first Polynesian settlers arrived around 400 AD, Easter was an island full of trees, giant palms and other plants, as well as land birds and rich seabird nesting colonies. The large quantities of bones of porpoises (which could not be caught from shore) found in early garbage heaps, testify that they were an important part of the early islanders' diet. Scientists give a range of peak population between 7,000 and 20,000 inhabitants.

And yet…when the Dutch "discovered" Easter Island in 1722 (on Easter Day - hence the name) they described it such, "…its wasted appearance could give no other impression than of a singular poverty and barrenness." There were no trees or bushes taller than 10 feet, no native animals larger than insects - no lizards, land birds, or even bats. The islanders had rats and chickens - both of which arrived in the first settlers' canoes. In 1722 only three or four small canoes were observed on the entire island - and these were described as "bad and frail" and leaky.

Easter Island is famous for its enormous stone statues some of which are as tall as 33 feet and weighing as much as 82 tons. More than 200 of these once stood along the coast and at least 700 more have been found abandoned in the quarries and along roads. The Dutch explorers were greatly puzzled by these statues that obviously had been transported to the coast. They could not comprehend how the islanders could have moved and erected the statues, for they lacked heavy thick timber, strong ropes, wheels, draft animals, or any other source of power other than their own muscles.

What in the world happened to these people? They had been a great sea-faring society with an abundance of plants and animals. By the time of European visitation, their numbers had dwindled to about 2,000 and the landscape was very sparse. It turns out that those giant statues have a story to tell.

The first Polynesian colonists found themselves on an island with all the prerequisites for comfortable living. They prospered and multiplied."

After a few centuries, they began erecting stone statues on platforms. With passing years, the statues and platforms became larger and larger, and the statues began sporting ten-ton red crowns-probably in an escalating spiral of one-upmanship, as rival clans tried to surpass each other with shows of wealth and power."

Eventually Easter's growing population was cutting the forest more rapidly than the forest was regenerating. As forest disappeared, the islanders ran out of timber and rope to transport and erect their statues. People also found it harder to fill their stomachs." Crop yields declined, since deforestation allowed the soil to be eroded and degraded. Land birds and many seabirds disappeared. Since timber for building seagoing canoes vanished, fish catches declined and porpoises disappeared from the table. In place of these meat supplies, the Easter Islanders intensified their production of chickens, which had been only an occasional food item. They also turned to the largest remaining meat source available: Humans, whose bones became common in late Easter Island garbage heaps. Preserved statuettes with sunken cheeks and visible ribs suggest that people were starving.

The overall picture is among the most extreme examples of forest destruction anywhere in the world: the whole forest gone, and most of its tree species extinct. The destruction of the island's animals was as extreme as that of the forest: without exception, every species of native land bird became extinct

With the disappearance of food surpluses, Easter Island could no longer feed those who had kept a complex society running. Local chaos replaced centralized government and a warrior class took over from the hereditary chiefs. The population began to crash. Around 1770 rival clans started to topple each other's statues, breaking the heads off. By 1864 the last statue had been thrown down and desecrated.

As we try to imagine the decline of Easter's civilization, we ask ourselves, "Why didn't they look around, realize what they were doing, and stop before it was too late? What were they thinking when they cut down the last palm tree?"

We suspect, though, that the disaster happened not with a bang but with a whimper. The forest didn't simply disappear one day-it vanished slowly, over decades. The changes in forest cover from year to year would have been hard to detect.

Gradually trees became fewer, smaller, and less important. By the time the last fruit-bearing adult palm tree was cut, palms had long since ceased to be of economic significance. No one would have noticed the felling of the last small palm.

Today, on a worldwide scale, a rising population confronts shrinking resources. If we continue to follow our present course, we shall have exhausted the world's major fisheries, tropical rain forests, fossil fuels, and much of our soil in a few generations. Each year there are just somewhat more people, and somewhat fewer resources.

If mere thousands of Easter Islanders with only stone tools and their own muscle power sufficed to destroy their society, how can billions of people with metal tools and machine power fail to do worse? But there is one crucial difference. The Easter Islanders had no books and no histories of other doomed societies. Unlike the Easter Islanders, we have histories of the past. We may now choose to learn from the fates of societies like Easter's.

It is amazing how people, communities, nations can accomplish seemingly impossible things when they band together to work toward a goal, toward a solution. Take for example the Montreal Protocol, which effectively banned chemicals that were causing problems with our ozone layer. The hole in the Ozone layer has not enlarged since 1998, and it is expected that by 2075 it should be back to pre-1980 levels.

What can we do? We can become better informed. Buy recycled items to close the recycling loop. Minimize our energy usage. Question our purchasing decisions before walking up to the register (Do I really need this?). Take our own reusable bags to the market. There are so many things we can do to start making a difference today. But one of the most important things we can do is to share with others the knowledge that we obtain.

1 Peter Tyson, PBS' Out of House and Home


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