At this rate, we are soon going to eat each other
Posted Monday, February 25 2013 at 02:00
- We are ravaging forests at an alarming rate, and it will soon come time to decide whether to continue hacking down trees or put our growth ambitions in line with natural limits
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.