Easter Island: A Metaphor?
The following article was published in edited form as an Op-Ed piece in Greenwich Time, a newspaper serving Greenwich, CT.
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Easter Island, which lies 2300 miles west of Chile, is the most remote habitable land in the world. It is a small island, with an area about a third larger than Greenwich, and is best known for its giant stone statues. It was colonized about 1100 years ago as part of the Polynesian settlement of the islands of the South Pacific. At that time, the island had a diverse forest with trees up to 100’ in height and was probably the richest bird breeding site in all of Polynesia. The colonists were farmers and brought with them sweet potatoes, taro, bananas, sugarcane and chickens. They also brought rats.
The Easter Islanders developed a hierarchical society of chiefs, priests and commoners organized around approximately 12 clans, each holding its own territory. The clans competed with each other to build statues, which had religious significance, and ceremonial platforms to support them. As the population increased and sources of wild food declined due to over-exploitation and predation by rats, agriculture moved inland from the lowlands near the coast. The island’s forests were progressively cut down not only to clear land for crops but also for use as fuel and in moving and erecting statues.
The deforestation resulted in massive soil erosion by wind and rain and soil degradation due to desiccation and nutrient leaching. Agricultural productivity declined. Many wild fruits were no longer available. Large seaworthy canoes could no longer be built which limited fishing to species that could be caught close to shore. The habitat of bird species that had formerly been hunted was gone. The loss of food sources led to civil war and ultimately to starvation, a population crash and cannibalism. Easter Island’s was a society that destroyed the natural environment on which it depended, with the result that the society itself collapsed.
In his recent book Collapse (New York: Viking, 2005), Jared Diamond suggests that Easter Island may be a metaphor, a worst-case scenario, for what may lie ahead for the world as a whole in an age of globalization. Earth is isolated in space just as Easter Island was isolated in its remote corner of the South Pacific. And like the Easter Islanders, we are destroying the natural environment on which we depend. There is debate on the rate at which that destruction is proceeding, but there is no disagreement that the destruction is occurring, that directly or indirectly we are causing it and that it is not sustainable.
Easter Island is an extreme example of deforestation, but more than half of the world’s original forestlands have been converted to other uses. An even larger fraction of the world’s original wetlands have been destroyed, damaged or converted. The destruction of habitats has been exacerbated by the spread of non-native species and the over-exploitation of wild foods, particularly fish. One result has been the loss of biodiversity, not just the extinction of many species but the loss of genetic diversity.
We are using up our environmental capital in other ways ─ fossil fuels, of course, but also soil (worldwide, soil erosion is occurring at rates many times the rate of soil formation), water (throughout the world, underground aquifers are being depleted faster than they are being replenished) and photosynthetic capacity (i.e., the capacity of plant photosynthesis to fix solar energy, which is declining). Moreover, we are degrading air, soil and water by the use or release of pollutants, including toxic chemicals such as insecticides, pesticides and herbicides, oxides emitted from burning fossil fuels which cause acid rain and a wider range of so-called “greenhouse gases” emitted from burning fossil fuels, waste management (e.g., landfills) and agriculture which contribute to global warming. Meanwhile, the world’s human population continues to grow.
How the world deals with this environmental time bomb, as it must, will ultimately depend on the efforts of all of its constituent parts. Are we doing our share?
Unlike Easter Island, which is dry and windy, Greenwich is blessed by abundant rainfall and a climate both favorable to plant growth and having the capability to buffer or absorb many pollutants. We have a wealthy, sophisticated populace, well educated and knowledgeable on environmental problems. But our lifestyle both masks the environmental problems we face and contributes to them.
Perhaps the best known and most serious environmental problem facing us is invisible. Greenwich is a “severe non-attainment area” under federal air quality standards. While much of the bad air we breathe is produced upwind of us (in New York, New Jersey and points west), emissions from motor vehicles operated to, from and within Greenwich are a major factor. Connecticut is particularly dependent on the single-occupant automobile and trucks, and we travel long distances to work, shop and recreate, despite apparently incurable traffic congestion.
Like all urban areas, Greenwich contributes to the planet’s loss of photosynthetic capacity both by development that creates impervious surfaces (buildings, roads, parking lots, swimming pools, even artificial turf), where nothing grows, and by conversion of woodlands to grasslands at golf courses, parks and playing fields, around homes and along roads. Impervious surfaces also impede the recharge of ground water, which contributes to the town’s streams and lakes and thus to aquatic life and the town’s water supply. We use 50% per capita more water than the state average, much of it for lawn watering.
Greenwich exports many of the environmental consequences of its lifestyle. For example, each of us generates about a ton of trash annually. Formerly our trash was dumped at what was known as the Town Dump. Now it is delivered to the same site, somewhat misleadingly renamed the Holly Hill Resource Recovery Station, from whence it is moved out of Greenwich (even biodegradable waste). Some of it is recycled, but much of it is incinerated and/or finds itself in landfills.
The environmental consequences of the production of much that we consume also occur outside of Greenwich. The lumber that is going into the houses under construction around town does not come from trees felled in Greenwich, and few of the environmental problems associated with the logging industry occur here. Nor do many of the environmental problems of the energy industry.
The number of residents of Greenwich has been relatively stable for the last 35 years (at around 60,000), but we nonetheless contribute to the continuing growth of the world’s human population ─ and its consequences. Far fewer people who work in Greenwich live here than formerly, because they can’t afford to. Many live in new developments in lower Fairfield County that have replaced forest and farmland and created the worst sprawl in the Northeast. But our non-resident workforce increases the number of people who are here during the workday, commuting mostly by single-occupant automobile and thereby contributing to our highway congestion and poor air quality.
Many of those who work here are illegal immigrants, seeking to escape conditions (including environmental problems) in their homelands. None of us would deny the aspiration of these people to the higher living standards we enjoy. But the impact on the world’s environment ─ in resources consumed and waste generated ─ if the inhabitants of and émigrés from the Third World achieved a lifestyle like ours would far exceed the impact simply of continued growth of the world’s population, which is disproportionately in the Third World.
To judge from the market acceptance of organic foods (produced without pesticides) and fuel-efficient hybrid automobiles, many of us are prepared to pay more for products that minimize our impact on the natural environment. But to judge from the market acceptance of gas-guzzling SUVs and oversized homes that require more energy and water and create more impervious surfaces, many of us are not. In Greenwich, the balance seems decidedly in favor of consumption of resources.
Those of us who make choices favorable to preservation of the natural environment individually can have only a small impact. But they may be worthwhile, if we and enough others want to pass on to our children and grandchildren something like the lifestyle we have enjoyed. That is something the Easter Islanders failed to do ─ including their chiefs.