Let me begin with a story’ is always a great way to start. So let me begin with a story about an island in the south pacific. The island is called Rapa Nui, Easter Island or Isla Del Pascua, depending on who you think should have naming rights between the locals, the European “discoverers” or the guys who annexed it.
A Dutch fleet sailing in the southern seas in 1722 came across one of the greatest scenes ever witnessed. A row of large stone faces erected on a remote island. It was great because the island looked deserted and the statues seemed like they had come from nowhere, like they had dropped from the sky.
The tiny island had hundreds of stone statues, some which weighed over 80 tonnes. Naturally, and almost reflexively, the European settlers could not believe that such a disease-ridden, emaciated, uncivilised (uncivilised is often a synonym for non-European), dark-skinned people could build such stone statues that were larger and better sculptured than Stonehenge in England. How could such colossal statues stand on such a tiny island on the desolate corner of the southern hemisphere — the wrong hemisphere — stand?
The answer was given by archaeology, which proved just how rich Easter Island had been. It was well watered, had trees, animals and plenty of fauna. The thing that turned this place barren was human activity.
Settlers from Polynesian islands came and settled on Rapa Nui. They grew crops. They even had a tall chicken that laid blue eggs. They kept animals. They had children. Their numbers grew. And they split themselves into two tribes. Then they started a cult, which worshipped stone monuments called Moais. They soon built large altars called ahus for their gods.
With time the competition between the two tribes became great and each outdid the other by building larger statues. The altars were far from where the Moais were made, and to move the statues they needed a lot of rope and timber to roll them to their final resting place.
And so the largest mammal on the island cut down all the trees to make his gods. All was well for a while as they walked along the island under the adoring gaze of their megalithic gods.
Now, Easter Island is a small place, about 160 square kilometres. From the top of Mount Terevaka, it is said you can see the whole island at a glance. It is likely that the person who felled the last tree knew it was the last. Perhaps he went atop the mountain and saw the destruction around him. But he still cut the tree. The fact that it was the last did not bother him.
You would think that a people who practised agriculture would care to save a few seedlings. Or bother with replanting. Or have saplings. They didn’t.
You would assume that as the trees that were the source of wood for fuel, for timber and for ropes became scarce they would be less interested in felling trees to erect stone gods. They didn’t.
You would think that a people who live on so remote an island, a people who depended on fishing, would keep a little wood to build boats. They did not.
The fact that trees were a rarity was a good thing. They now built their Moais on the side of the quarry without bothering to move them. While the movable ones were 30 feet tall, the immobile ones could reach 68 feet tall. So the Moais became even larger and heavier since they no longer needed to be rolled using ropes and logs to far-off altars. At the height of their civilisation they had 10,000 people and 1,000 Moais.
Then as soon as the trees left, the earth followed. By wind and sometimes by water. It all ran downstream into the sea. Growing crops became harder. So they began eating their dogs.
When they run out of dogs they went after the few birds that did not leave with the trees. Then they fought over remaining bits of wood left over.
They soon ran out of wood to build boats. This meant two things. No fish and no escape. Rapa Nui is an isolated island. It is the only patch of dry land for thousands of kilometres in either direction. The nearest neighbour is 1,900 kilometres to the east. The nearest neighbour to the west, Chile (which annexed it in the 19th century), is 3,600 kilometres.
With no wood for the boats, they did the only thing left to do. They ate each other.
Easter Island is a microcosm of our planet. We suffer from unrestricted population growth, profligate resource use and the destruction of the environment. We suffer from an intractable and pathological belief and yearning for ceaseless growth in the future.
We also sit on an island billions of kilometres away from anywhere else habitable. There are no rafts out of here once we have cut down all the wood and want to leave. In fact we do not know if there is an anywhere else habitable.
The world is now simply repeating the Polynesian experiment on a grander scale. Easter Islanders cut down the last tree. They ate the last blue-egg-laying chicken. Man hunted the last mammoth. They are busy shooting at the last elephants and shipping ivory to China. The elephant looks like it may join its cousin the mammoth. Yes, Man has the capacity to turn into an ecological serial killer.
The men in Rapa Nui cut down the last tree. You would think that as you approach a cliff, you would stop yourself. But we are not any better. We still are the basic cave man model, only armed with more dangerous tools.
Perhaps we have lived too long as a species in a savannah with boundless resources, so we do not worry much about the future. We cannot, or have refused to, adapt to limits.
We use millions of plastic bags that spend millennia to break down. Your great grandchildren may never know you, but they will see the plastic waste you left behind. In Kenya we export flowers to the European Union. Flowers are 70 per cent water, yet Kenya is a water-scarce nation. Should we be exporting that much water to Europe?
Meanwhile we are turning Lake Naivasha into a cesspool of Stygian toxicity so that European housewives can get that annual bouquet of roses every February. Horticulture is a disaster that we may never recover from.
Terrorism is a small problem compared to man-made climate change. Yet terrorism gets a larger section of the government budget than the environment. We are at the point where the Easter Islanders remarked to each other that the trees were getting fewer by the day. It will soon come time to decide whether to continue hacking down trees or put our growth ambitions in line with natural limits.
I wrote this piece because the other day on Westlands’ Ring Road, currently being constructed by the Japanese, someone cut down a few trees that were by the side of the road. It was only three trees, which are insignificant in the grand biospherical scheme of things. I liked them for the shade, but they were in the way of progress. They had to go.
Those trees also made me realise that the roads and infrastructure were our Moai. We may be swapping poverty for congestion and air pollution. Every day should be Earth Day. Because we have no other island to live on.
Have you noticed how little the manifestos say on the environment? We are more interested on land, the ICC and whether there is an Android application that can help a president rule the country from the dock. Judging by the manifestos on display, it is a long way down the list.
Yet the environment is all around you. In places where development would come into conflict with the environment, you feel that infrastructure will always come first. We cannot lift our foot off the peddle. We need to accumulate more and consume more. To hell with ecological apocalypse.
But there is hope. David Ngala, a Kenyan and former member of the Kenya Forestry Service, is the Disney Wordwide Conservation Fund’s 2012 ‘Conservation Hero’ for his work on conserving the Arabuko Sokoke forest. In 1997 Ngala led elders and locals in rejecting a move by president Moi to hive off a third of the forest for settlement.
He has also been instrumental in the fight against poachers. At a time when so little is said about the environment, we should fete those who, through their actions, bring the situation back to public awareness.