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Propaganda: the eco-fable of Easter Island

4 February 2010

Summary: Today we discuss and example of myth-making by the Left, a politically-useful fable. They do it more elegantly than the Right, but not as successfully (in terms of political effect). This was expanded and updated in January 2013.

Stories, better than science

Stories, for many they’re better than science

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Contents

  1. Myth-telling by the Left
  2. A National Geographic special telling the real story
  3. Excerpts and abstracts from the literature
  4. Links to other research
  5. For More Information

(1)  Myth-telling by the Left

In Successful propaganda as a characteristic of 21st century America I said that in general the Right has been more successful than the Left in promulgating its propaganda in America.  There are exceptions to this.

The Left tells some wonderful fables, contradicted by the scientific evidence but told with such confidence and so pleasing that we believe them nonetheless.  Such as the eco-fable of Easter Island.  It’s circulated for decades, but achieved final form in Jared Diamond’s book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2005).  As he says in the opening (page 20):

“Our first case study from the past, the history of Easter Island, is as close as we can get to a “pure” ecological collapse, in this case due to total deforestation that led to war, overthrow of the elite and the famous stone statues, and a massive population die-off. As far as we know, Easter’s Polynesian society remained isolated remained isolated after its inital founding, so that Easter’s trajectory was uninfluenced by either enemies or friends.”

For a summary of his case see “Easter Island Revisited“, Jared Diamond, Science, 21 September 2007 (see an ungated copy here). It’s effective propaganda, but largely contradicts the known evidence showing that the Islanders did not commit eco-suicide (aka ecocide).  They suffered all three devastating blasts of western contact:

  • pandemic disease,
  • followed by depopulating slave raid,
  • followed by conversion to Christianity (eliminating their native culture and erasing their oral history).

Considering how often such things happened during the western exploration of the world, I find the success of the contrary eco-fable astonishing evidence of our willful ignorance.  We’d prefer to use the people of Easter Island as props, lessons for our children, but the bloody truth remains visible to any who look.

(2)  A National Geographic special telling the real story

A National Geographic Special:  “Easter Island Enigma

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Conclusion to the National Geographic summary:

This new National Geographic Special follows Dr Hunt and Dr Lipo as they journey to Easter Island to reveal a different story. Hunt and Lipo challenge the idea that the islanders were the root of the problems on Rapa Nui, saying no archaeological evidence supports the existing history of annihilation by their own hand.

At the same time, they uncover new archaeological clues to one of the most baffling mysteries of all time – how a society without the wheel and without a written language managed to build and move its enigmatic Moai. They will test their theory using experimental archaeology and the help of the native Rapanui.

Also see this article from the July 2012 issue of National Geographic: “If Only They Could Talk“, with a video showing how they moved those giant statues.

(3)  Excerpts from the literature

These are just a sample of the large literature about the actual Easter Island tragedy. Number 2 is the most detailed analysis of both the actual history of Easter Island and the sordid origins of the eco-fable that shifts the blame from the West to the natives (an extreme version of blaming the victim).

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  1. A message for our future? The Rapa Nui (Easter Island) ecodisaster and Pacific island environments“, Paul Rainbird, World Archaeology, 1 February 2002
  2. Recommended:  “From Genocide to Ecocide: The Rape of Rapa Nui“, Benny Peiser (Wikipedia bio), Energy and Environment, volume 16 No. 3&4 2005
  3. Late Colonization of Easter Island“, Terry L. Hunt and Carl P. Lipo, Science, 9 March 2006
  4. Easter Island mystery deepens“, New Scientist, 18 March 2006
  5. Easter Island: A monumental collapse?“, New Scientist, 31 July 2006
  6. Rethinking the Fall of Easter Island“, Terry Hunt (Prof of Anthropology, Uof Hawai’i-Manoa), American Scientist, May 2006
  7. Rethinking Easter Island’s ecological catastrophe“, Terry L. Hunt, Journal of Archaeological Science, March 2007

(1)  A message for our future? The Rapa Nui (Easter Island) ecodisaster and Pacific island environments“, Paul Rainbird (Head of the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology, U of Wales), World Archaeology, 1 February 2002 — Abstract:

The unique archaeological remains of Rapa Nui (Easter Island) in conjunction with its geographical position have led to a special interest in this place. What has become the orthodox understanding of the material remains, especially the famous large carved stone torsos (moai), is that they represent a physical manifestation of social competition that was a major causative factor in an ecodisaster - the destruction of the indigenous palm forest. This story of human-caused environmental disaster provided a topical warning, as a microcosm of the earth, in the environmentally aware final two decades of the last century. Recent archaeological and palaeoenvironmental work on other Pacific islands, although indicating significant human-induced environmental change, is providing evidence that these were instigated by thoughtful human actors who were capable of manipulating their island homes in order to enhance, or even make, their potential for subsistence and settlement.

Within this scenario the events that led to apparently major environmental change in Rapa Nui is one that is evident in the majority of Pacific islands. In the vast majority of other cases these changes did not lead to the inevitable social competition and population collapse that have been posited for Rapa Nui. In this paper I question whether the Rapa Nui case is really so different and argue that the ecodisaster occurs after and as a consequence of European contact.

(2)  From Genocide to Ecocide: The Rape of Rapa Nui“, Benny Peiser (see Wikipedia bio), Energy and Environment, volume 16 No. 3&4 2005.  Abstract:

The ‘decline and fall’ of Easter Island and its alleged self-destruction has become the poster child of a new environmentalist historiography, a school of thought that goes hand-in-hand with predictions of environmental disaster. Why did this exceptional civilisation crumble? What drove its population to extinction? These are some of the key questions Jared Diamond endeavours to answer in his new book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive. According to Diamond, the people of Easter Island destroyed their forest, degraded the island’s topsoil, wiped out their plants and drove their animals to extinction. As a result of this selfinflicted environmental devastation, its complex society collapsed, descending into civil war, cannibalism and self-destruction.

While his theory of ecocide has become almost paradigmatic in environmental circles, a dark and gory secret hangs over the premise of Easter Island’s self-destruction: an actual genocide terminated Rapa Nui’s indigenous populace and its culture. Diamond, however, ignores and fails to address the true reasons behind Rapa Nui’s collapse. Why has he turned the victims of cultural and physical extermination into the perpetrators of their own demise? This paper is a first attempt to address this disquieting quandary. It describes the foundation of Diamond’s environmental revisionism and explains why it does not hold up to scientific scrutiny.

(3)  Late Colonization of Easter Island“, Terry L. Hunt and Carl P. Lipo, Science, 9 March 2006 — Excerpt:

Smith obtained initial radiocarbon dates from Rapa Nui with the Norwegian expedition of Heyerdahl in the 1950s. His suite of 19 radiocarbon dates included one from a burn horizon at Poike Ditch of 400 A.D. [1570 ± 80 years before the present (yr B.P.), 384 to 664 calibrated (cal) A.D.]. Subsequent researchers cited the early date as consistent with models for historical linguistics in Polynesia. Three dates on lake core sequences also provided, it seemed, evidence for an early colonization. The earliest signs of abrupt and massive vegetation change appeared to occur about 750 A.D., suggesting the arrival of the first Polynesians. This long chronology has formed the basis of many accounts of the region’s prehistory.

… The assemblage of 11 calibrated dates are age probabilitiesthat, when aggregated, estimate a cumulative probability forthe target event of the first human colonization of Rapa Nui(Fig. 2). The distribution shows that a 0.50 confidence, a betterthan chance estimation, is not reached until 1222 cal A.D. forthe date of initial occupation of Rapa Nui. … These dates postdate by 700 to 800 (12) or at least 300 to 400(15) years from the widely accepted human chronologies for EasterIsland. Yet, a date of about 1200 A.D. for the colonizationof Rapa Nui fits well with the evidence that has emerged forcolonization from elsewhere in the southeastern Pacific (4,5), including remote islands such as Mangareva.

… Our analysis and dates for Rapa Nui imply that colonists arrivedaround 1200 A.D. The founding Polynesian population then grewrapidly, had immediate, major, and visible impacts on the island’sbiota and physical landscape, and began investing in monumentalarchitecture and statuary within the first century or two ofsettlement. Although still poorly dated, monumental architectureand statuary are known from islands, such as the Societies,Marquesas, and Austral Islands, from perhaps as early as 1200A.D. Nearly immediate building of monuments, carving giant statues,and transporting them to every corner of the island may havebeen cultural investments, homologous to forms elsewhere ineastern Polynesia, that mediated against overpopulation andresource shortfalls in an unpredictable environment. Such amodel would help to explain the success of ancient Polynesianson tiny, remote Rapa Nui (27). Demographic and cultural collapseresulted from European contact beginning in 1722 A.D. with thedevastating consequences of newly introduced Old World diseasesto a nonimmune Polynesian population.

(4)  Easter Island mystery deepens“, New Scientist, 18 March 2006 — Opening:

IN ONE of the most isolated places on Earth, a mysterious people flourished for hundreds of years before their penchant for deforestation triggered an environmental catastrophe and the collapse of their society. So runs the conventional story of Easter Island – which now looks as if it may be completely wrong.

(5)  Easter Island: A monumental collapse?“, New Scientist, 31 July 2006 — Excerpt:

It is a familiar tale of greed, stupidity and self-destruction. For hundreds of years the inhabitants of one of the most remote islands on Earth vied with each other to build ever more impressive statues, pillaging their resources to feed their obsession. Ecological disaster was inevitable. As the island’s last tree was felled, the society collapsed into a holocaust of internecine warfare, starvation and cannibalism. Rival clans toppled each other’s statues. Armed with deadly obsidian-tipped spears, the workers rose up against their rulers. The vanquished were either enslaved or eaten.

This version of events on Easter Island has become not only received wisdom, but a dark warning about a possible fate for our entire planet. “The parallels between Easter Island and the whole modern world are chillingly obvious,” writes Jared Diamond of the University of California, Los Angeles, in Collapse. “Easter’s isolation makes it the clearest example of a society that destroyed itself by overexploiting its own resources.” Here is the perfect illustration of the idea that humanity contains the seeds of its own destruction. But is it true or, in our eagerness to think the worst of our species, have we been seduced by mythologies?

That is the question now being asked. Researchers point to mounting evidence that prehistoric occupants of Rapa Nui, as it is known by locals, made a success of life on the island. What’s more, it seems the theory of self-destruction might conceal an even less palatable truth about what caused the ultimate toppling of this society. At the very least, there is painfully little archaeological evidence for the fundamental claims that underpin the self-destruction theory. “Much of what has been written about Easter Island is little more than speculation,” says Terry Hunt of the University of Hawaii. “When you start to search for the actual evidence for some of these claims, often it just isn’t there.”

(6)  Rethinking the Fall of Easter Island“, Terry Hunt (Prof of Anthropology, Uof Hawai’i-Manoa), American Scientist, May 2006 — “New evidence points to an alternative explanation for a civilization’s collapse.”  Excerpt:

It also appears that the islanders began building moai and ahu soon after reaching the island. The human population probably reached a maximum of about 3,000, perhaps a bit higher, around 1350 A.D. and remained fairly stable until the arrival of Europeans. The environmental limitations of Rapa Nui would have kept the population from growing much larger. By the time Roggeveen arrived in 1722, most of the island’s trees were gone, but deforestation did not trigger societal collapse, as Diamond and others have argued.

There is no reliable evidence that the island’s population ever grew as large as 15,000 or more, and the actual downfall of the Rapanui resulted not from internal strife but from contact with Europeans. When Roggeveen landed on Rapa Nui’s shores in 1722, a few days after Easter (hence the island’s name), he took more than 100 of his men with him, and all were armed with muskets, pistols and cutlasses. Before he had advanced very far, Roggeveen heard shots from the rear of the party. He turned to find 10 or 12 islanders dead and a number of others wounded. His sailors claimed that some of the Rapanui had made threatening gestures. Whatever the provocation, the result did not bode well for the island’s inhabitants.

Newly introduced diseases, conflict with European invaders and enslavement followed over the next century and a half, and these were the chief causes of the collapse. In the early 1860s, more than a thousand Rapanui were taken from the island as slaves, and by the late 1870s the number of native islanders numbered only around 100. In 1888, the island was annexed by Chile. It remains part of that country today.

In the 1930s, French ethnographer Alfred Metraux visited the island. He later described the demise of Rapa Nui as “one of the most hideous atrocities committed by white men in the South Seas.” It was genocide, not ecocide, that caused the demise of the Rapanui. An ecological catastrophe did occur on Rapa Nui, but it was the result of a number of factors, not just human short-sightedness.

(7)  Rethinking Easter Island’s ecological catastrophe“, Terry L. Hunt, Journal of Archaeological Science, March 2007 — Abstract:

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.

(4) Links to more research

(5)  For more information from the FM site

To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar:  Information & disinformation, the new media & the old

Propaganda about climate change:

  1. The media doing what it does best these days, feeding us disinformation, 11 February 2008
  2. More attempts to control the climate science debate using smears and swarming, 19 October 2009
  3. The facts about the 1970′s Global Cooling scare, 7 December 2009 — Misrepresented by climate skpetics.
  4. Quote of the day – hidden history for people who rely on the mainstream media for information, 12 February 2010
  5. Lies told under the influence of the Green religion to save the world, 30 July 2010
  6. We see the world in terms of facts (mostly numbers). Our world changes rapidly, including the past’s numbers, 2 August 2010
  7. A new video about global warming, a Leftists’ wet dream pretending to be humor, 1 October 2010

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24 Comments leave one →
  1. 4 February 2010 10:26 am

    FM–

    You have my thanks for posting this! I have seen the Easter Island example pulled out a thousand times in debates over ecology and history, and have always assumed that the narrative of ecological collapse was true. I am glad to be corrected.

  2. everson permalink
    4 February 2010 5:02 pm

    Thanks FM! This is a stunning revelation (to me at least). I had always assumed that Diamond’s account was complete and correct. Just goes to show you that you have to always dig a bit deeper to get to the bottom of ‘conventional’ wisdom — even when it comes from expert sources.

  3. Jennifer permalink
    6 February 2010 6:23 am

    What a sickening “whitewash” of actual historical events. It’s particularly amazing that this false parable of ecocide took hold at all, considering that as far as Native Americans are assumed to have lived in total sustainability and harmony with nature. I guess the Easter Islanders aren’t considered native peoples.

  4. phageghost permalink
    6 February 2010 7:51 pm

    Indeed, thanks for the mythbusting. I had read the conventional account several times, but never dug deep enough to realize the evidence for it was so poor.

    In the immortal words of the Firesign Theater: “Everything you know is wrong”

  5. "Don't Blame the Natives - It was a rat that caused the sudden collapse of Easter Island's civilization" permalink
    5 November 2011 11:22 pm

    Don’t Blame the Natives – It was a rat that caused the sudden collapse of Easter Island’s civilization“, Charles C. Mann, Wall Street Journal, 30 July 2011:

    Easter Island was first an enigma, then a parable. The world’s most isolated inhabited place, 1,500 miles from the next populated island in the Pacific, it was discovered by Europeans on Easter Sunday, 1722. Those first visitors—an expedition led by the Dutch lawyer Jakob Roggeveen—came upon an almost treeless expanse with perhaps 3,000 occupants,

    … Much more broadly embraced is Mr. Diamond’s claim: Rapa Nui once was much more rich and populous. Roggeveen had remarked on the island’s lack of trees and speculated that it formerly had been heavily forested. As the island’s population rose, the popular theory goes, its people cut down all the trees for slash-and-burn farming and as rollers to transport statues. With the forest gone, Rapa Nui’s soil degraded; unable to feed themselves, Mr. Diamond argued in his best-selling “Collapse” (2005), Easter Islanders faced “starvation, a population crash, and a descent into cannibalism.” The fall was abrupt and overwhelming; scores of giant statues were abandoned, half-finished. Roggeveen had discovered a ruin—and a powerful eco-parable.

    Books and articles by the hundred have pointed to Rapa Nui as the inevitable result of uncontrolled population growth, squandered resources and human fecklessness. “The person who felled the last tree could see it was the last tree,” wrote Paul G. Bahn and John Flenley in “Easter Island, Earth Island” (1992). “But he (or she) still felled it.” “The parallels between Easter Island and the whole modern world are chillingly obvious,” Mr. Diamond proclaimed. “The clearest example of a society that destroyed itself by overexploiting its own resources,” he said, Rapa Nui epitomizes “ecocide,” presenting a stark image of “what may lie ahead of us in our own future.”

    No, it doesn’t, write archaeologists Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo in “The Statues That Walked,” a fascinating entry in the pop-science genre of Everything You Know Is Wrong. Messrs. Hunt and Lipo had no intention of challenging Mr. Diamond when they began research on Rapa Nui. But in their fourth year of field work, they obtained radiocarbon dates from Anakena Beach, thought to be the island’s oldest settlement. The dates strongly indicated that the first settlers appeared around A.D. 1200 — eight centuries later than Heyerdahl and other researchers had thought.

    Wait a minute, the authors in effect said. Rapa Nui is so remote that researchers believe it must have been settled by a small group of adventurers — a few dozen people, brave or crazy, in boats. The new evidence suggested that their arrival had precipitated catastrophic deforestation “on the scale of decades, not centuries.” The island then probably had only a few hundred inhabitants. Some ecologists estimate that the island originally had 16 million palm trees. How could so few people have cut down so much so fast?

    Puzzle piled upon puzzle. Why was there no evidence of “large-scale prehistoric farming”? Other Polynesian societies covered their land with miles of terraces. Easter Islanders, by contrast, “seemed to be underutilizing the island” — a contrast that “was all the more perplexing given the enormous amount of effort they had apparently put into making their massive statues and stone [plinths].” Rapa Nui’s forest had been mainly composed of giant palms, which have soft, fibrous wood. Used as rollers, they would have been crushed by the load. No farming, no statue-schlepping — why would the islanders have removed the forest?

    The real culprit, according to “The Statues That Walked,” was the Polynesian rat (Rattus exulans), which stowed away on the boats of the first Polynesian settlers. In laboratory settings, Polynesian rat populations can double in 47 days. Throw a breeding pair into an island with no predators and abundant food and arithmetic suggests the result: ratpocalypse. If the animals multiplied as they did in Hawaii, the authors calculate, Rapa Nui would quickly have housed between two and three million. Among the favorite food sources of R. exulans are tree seeds and tree sprouts. Humans surely cleared some of the forest, but the real damage would have come from the rats that prevented new growth.

    “Rather than a case of abject failure,” the authors argue, “Rapa Nui is an unlikely story of success.” The islanders had migrated, perhaps accidentally, to a place with little water and “fundamentally unproductive” soil with “uniformly low” levels of phosphorus, an essential mineral for plant growth. To avoid the wind’s dehydrating effects, the newcomers circled their gardens with stone walls known as manavai. Today, the researchers discovered, abandoned manavai occupy about 6.4 square miles, a tenth of the island’s total surface.

    More impressive still, about half of the island is covered by “lithic mulching,” in which the islanders scattered broken stone over the fields. The uneven surface creates more turbulent airflow, reducing daytime surface temperatures and warming fields at night. And shattering the rocks exposes “fresh, unweathered surfaces, thus releasing mineral nutrients held within the rock.” Only lithic mulching produced enough nutrients—just barely—to make Rapa Nui’s terrible soil cultivable. Breaking and moving vast amounts of stone, the islanders had engineered an entirely new, more productive landscape.

    Their success was short-lived. As Messrs. Hunt and Lipo point out, the 18th and 19th centuries were terrible times to reside in a small, almost defenseless Pacific nation. Rapa Nui was repeatedly ravaged by Peruvian slaving parties and nonnative diseases. Its population fell to 110 in the 1870s, a time when a French sheep rancher, a megalomaniac out of Conrad, was trying to make Rapa Nui into his private fiefdom/bordello. By 1900 the few surviving inhabitants were living in walled, prison-like compounds. Meanwhile, thousands of sheep roamed freely, wiping out much of the remaining vegetation and eroding the little remaining topsoil. Easter Island’s people did not destroy themselves, the authors say. They were destroyed.

    Not everything in “The Statues That Walked” is as closely argued. The authors claim that “it would be difficult to explain” how Roggeveen’s visit would not have transmitted new diseases to the island and that the “population likely soon collapsed to just a few hundred survivors, perhaps in only a few years” afterward. They adduce no evidence that this occurred. Indeed, smallpox and other killers tend to burn themselves out on long voyages, because they run out of people to infect; Roggeveen had been at sea for nearly eight months.

    … Oral tradition said that the statues walked into their places. Oral tradition was correct, the authors say. By shaping the huge statues just right, the islanders were able to rock them from side to side, moving them forward in a style familiar to anyone who has had to move a refrigerator. Walking the statues, the authors show in experiments, needed only 15 or 20 people.

    In a 2007 article in Science, Mr. Diamond estimated that hundreds of laborers were needed to move the statues, suggesting that the eastern settlements of the island alone had to have “a population of thousands”—which in turn was proof of the island’s destructive overpopulation. By showing that the statues could have been moved by much fewer people, Messrs. Hunt and Lipo have removed one of the main supports of the ecocide theory and the parable about humankind it tells.

    People have done lots of environmentally destructive things, heaven knows. But there are surprisingly few cases in which societies have permanently laid waste to their own subsistence. The history of Easter Island suggests that humans generally do have a long-term capacity to work with natural systems, even in extreme cases. The exceptions (which certainly exist) tend to be in highly modified environments that require extensive human manipulation to maintain. The Petén, homeland of the classic Maya, is a leading example; Rapa Nui may be another. When wars or epidemics cause a political meltdown, it ruins the intricate network of custom and regulation that maintain these systems. Alas, an ever-increasing portion of the world is highly engineered in the way that Easter Island was. …

  6. Brendan Zielinski permalink
    2 December 2011 4:10 pm

    The idea that Fabius Maximus believes about Easter Island is very interesting. I believe that the impact of Western contact could have effected them including diseases and slave raids. It seemed that Diamond didn’t think the people of Easter Island had any contact with outside people but they could have. It happened to America when people from Europe first settled there. many of the Indians died due to disease as well as the new Europeans because of starvation.

    I don’t think Diamonds view is false though. It makes sense they in order for all of those huge statues to be built, they need to use the trees and tree products to make rope. They had to have deforested a lot of the Island which would have made a large impact in soil and the animal population. No trees means no good soil to grow plants, and no plants means no food for the animals. Without plants and animals the people on the Island have nothing to eat and have no way of replenishing their land. They trapped themselves into downfall.
    Maximus poses a good point with western impact but diamonds view seems to make sense and is clear to see why and how their society collapsed.

    • 3 December 2011 1:55 am

      It’s nice that you thinnk Diamond’s view is correct, although it is almost without factual foundation — and has massive physical evidence contradicting it. But people love simple morality tales that re-enforce our beliefs. Even if false.

      This is one reason America steers such a fixed course towards the rocks, and is one of the primary themes on the FM website.

    • Buzz Killington permalink
      6 January 2014 5:27 pm

      It does make sens intuitively, and that’s exactly why it’s commonly believed. I can’t recommend the book Thinking, Fast and Slow strongly enough.

  7. guest permalink
    5 January 2014 1:54 am

    From the references I read here and elsewhere, I gathered that the ecological alteration of the Easter Island was somewhat more complex than the traditional story — but mankind was ultimately the cause for the devastation.

    1) There was not just one kind of native tree, but at least two major sorts.

    2) Palm trees disappeared before the arrival of Western seafarers. Deforestation was one cause, but evidence has been mounting that rats were the major culprits: without any natural predator keeping their population in check, they devoured palm nuts and thus prevented the regrowth of palm trees.

    3) The toromiro tree survived colonization till the end of the 19th century, when the island was turned into a giant sheep farm. Sheep gnawed on the toromiro trees and saplings, and caused their extinction in the wild. Few toromiro trees survive in botanical gardens, grown from a handful of seeds saved in the nick of time by Thor Heyerdahl from the very last, stark damaged toromiro exemplar in Easter Island during the 1950s.

    To recap: ecological disaster caused by invasive species introduced by man. One cannot overestimate the similar damage caused in the past and _today_ by all kinds of insects, rodents, fungi and other organisms introduced willfully or negligently via human activities throughout the world. The topic would be worth an entire series of postings.

    • 5 January 2014 2:25 am

      guest,

      These articles cover a period with the science in transition. Hunt’s theory was radical in the 2004-2006 period, but has slowly gained acceptance. As shown by Thomas Kuhn and research afterwards, scientists give up their paradigms only slowly — doubly so when the paradigm supports their political views. This is a good example of how that process works.

      Note the last article — a literature survey published December 2013. The details are still in motion, as research continues. But it is clear that…

      • few aspects of the ecocide fable are accurate (i.e., they didn’t do it to themselves)
      • the ecology of the island gradually changed over time (no eco-disaster), for complex reasons not yet clear,
      • the arrival of the West led to serial holocausts of types found elsewhere but ignored in the eco-fable.
  8. guest permalink
    5 January 2014 3:03 pm

    I read Collapse, Jared conclusion was, if I remember correctly, that the modern world was in little danger of ecological collapse leading to social decline due to in built resilience and the power of the modern scientific method to provide solutions. Which was a bit of a let down after his series of dire warnings from the past.

    His conclusions about the Easter Island collapse are also interesting in light of his previous book Guns, Germs and Steel, which was all about the effects of disease, invasive species and the effects of western intervention in less advanced societies. You would have thought the Guns Germs and Steel narrative a better fit for Easter Island.

    • 5 January 2014 7:42 pm

      Guest,

      I too have wondered about that.

      My guess (a wild guess) is that the Left’s hostile reaction to Guns, Germs & Steel trashed Diamond’s reputation in academia. He wrote Collapse, with its pleasing tale of ecocide, to return him to a state of grace.

  9. doug p permalink
    5 January 2014 4:36 pm

    It does not seem important to me , whether Hunt’s version is accurate or Diamond’s version is accurate. Or something entirely different or some of each.

    What does seem important is that either version could have happened, and similar things could happen elsewhere in the future. I seem to recall a similar problem with rabbits in Australia.

    The important thing is that we have people constantly asking what might be the unexpected consequences of our actions, both as a society and as individuals. These questions are then the impetus for scientific research.
    Successful businesses are constantly asking what can go wrong, and how will we handle it when it does. Those that are most successful, in those brainstorming sessions are the businesses the prosper and survive.

    Same is true for most sports competitions, as well as war making.

    We learn from history, but we also learn from fiction. Think DaVinci, Jules Verne, HG Wells, and Huxley among others.

    The only way to be prepared for future problems is to be able to imagine them. And then to engage in crafting future responses, or preventive measures.

    • 5 January 2014 5:21 pm

      Doug,

      “It does not seem important to me , whether Hunt’s version is accurate or Diamond’s version is accurate.”

      That’s America in a nutshell, a perfect example of why we have such difficulty seeing the world clearly — and learning. People lie to us and we lap it up if we like the message. Truth is unimportant. We learn of the lies, eventually. Sometimes we mark our beiefs to the new information, sometimes not. In neither case does the reputation of the myth-makers suffer, and we regard their next story with equal credulity.

      As a result both Left and Right have learned the value of lies to us, and their stories are like TV advertisements playing upon our emotions. Such a state is incompatible with effective policy-making, or even self-government. Problems multiple, our responses are inadequate or dysfunctional.

      A broken OODA loop is perhaps our most serious problem, as it makes effective problem recognition and solving horrendously difficult.

    • doug p permalink
      6 January 2014 12:33 am

      Fabius,

      I suspect you did not read past the first sentence of my remark. The fact is we will never know the complete truth as to what happened or when on Easter Island. We can infer various things from the evidence, We can perhaps disprove certain hypotheses. But we probably can never know exactly what happened.

      As a practical matter just how important is it to know exactly what happened in the past? Is that “truth” really usable? and how can we use that information.

      If the people of Easter Island had really cut down all the trees, how would that affect our decision making going forward?

      I think it should make no difference at all. Either it is a good idea to kill all the forests or it is not. Whether some one has done it on some island 400 years ago does not change that.

      If indeed the rats ate all the seeds, How does that change our decision making going forward.

      If the Wright brothers had been guided entirely by the truth that no one had ever engaged in self powered flight would they have decided to pursue that dream.

      Is your position that because the eco suicide theory re: Easter Island is false, that mankind could never commit eco suicide?

    • 6 January 2014 2:27 am

      Doug,

      “As a practical matter just how important is it to know exactly what happened in the past? Is that “truth” really usable? and how can we use that information. ”

      Like so many aspects of epistemology, there is no single answer to this question. These things are investigated and valued by many people because we consider them useful guides to assessing the range and probability of scenarios for the future.

      You might be correct. There is no way to decide.

  10. gilsr permalink
    5 January 2014 11:48 pm

    I consider myself in the group “not the right” and I thought “Guns, Germs & Steel” was believable and did not offend me politically at all.

    I am afraid to ask the next question because I fear that I am terribly naive.

    But here goes. What makes the fable of ecocide leftist? Or is the point that it is a fable and the left clung to it, along with everyone else. I remember reading about some archaeology done years back that supported the earlier incorrect theory. But I don’t see why someone from the left would cling to the old and incorrect reason for the fall of the culture of Easter Island when the introduction of European diseases and slavery could be blamed.

    • 6 January 2014 12:35 am

      Gilsr,

      Consider all the folks worried about an ecological holocaust. How many are conservatives?

      Look at the incidence of articles about it in a National Review and Mother Jones (both have similar circulations)?

      As for why, we can only guess. The Left considers the prospect of ecological damage as (like climate change) a reason for a massive increase in government power, perhaps even a restructuring of the economy and society.

  11. gilsr permalink
    6 January 2014 2:07 am

    You doubled down. I assume you are not saying that a writer for Mother Jones came up with the ecocide theory. Or that something resembling the present day Left brought it forward to today. Or that present day leftist writers know of the new theories and are denying them.

    I would not have commented if the title of the article was “Long used ecocide story no longer supports leftist view” or something like that.

    • 6 January 2014 2:32 am

      Gilsr,

      I do not understand any of your comment. You asked :

      “What makes the fable of ecocide leftist?”

      I gave an answer (I doubt if there is a definitive answer).

      The fable of ecocide was not Diamond’s invention, not even its specific application to Easter Island. Both are old. The current Left’s fascination with ecocide dates to the 1960s.

  12. gilsr permalink
    6 January 2014 6:25 am

    You say;
    “The fable of ecocide was not Diamond’s invention, not even its specific application to Easter Island. Both are old. The current Left’s fascination with ecocide dates to the 1960s.”

    There is the answer to my question. “It couldn’t be a leftist fable, the old story of Easter Island predates the lefts interest in ecocide.” he said in a falsetto voice.

    It may seem like hairsplitting to you but the article talks about lies and propaganda from both left and right and then goes on to call the Easter Island story leftist propaganda. And that is what I disagree with. It was the generally accepted story of what happened on Easter Island. If you asked someone left or right, what they knew about Easter Island, they would repeat the story of tribal intrigue and ecological collapse

    You can say that the left appropriated the story and have used it recently and the recent evidence disproves their claims and they are poo poo heads. I have no argument with that. But the fable is not leftist. That implies a deception. And I am not saying the left does not deceive. Just not in this case.

    I am old enough to remember waiting for Thor Heyerdahl’s voyage in the reed boat. Anticipating the KonTiki. I was a conservative then and I bought all of his BS. About red headed whites visiting North America and moving south and sailing to Easter Island. I also remember being disappointed when contradicting evidence proved him wrong about almost all of his theories. Just saying.

    Feel free to say, Whatever. I still appreciate the thought provoking articles.

    • 6 January 2014 6:32 am

      gilsr,

      Yep, that’s a big whatever. “Leftist fable” implies that they use it. Not that they created it. That’s a weird interpretation. If I say that’s Joe’s car, I don’t imply that he built it.

      Very few stories are original. Almost everything — literature, science, history, philosophy, etc — has been said before in some form.

  13. 12 January 2014 9:08 pm

    My grandson has a new course this semester–AP Human Geography. His professor warned them already that Diamond’s book “Guns, Germs, and Steel” is required reading.

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