The Mirror of our Fate

by Jared Diamond
Spring 2005

Easter Island, with an area of 66 square miles, is the most remote habitable scrap of land in the world. The Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen spotted the island on Easter Day in 1722. His first impression? A wasteland with not a single tree or bush over ten feet tall. It had no native land animals larger than insects, and no domestic animals except chickens.

The Easter Islanders who came out to Roggeveen’s ship swam or paddled in small and leaky canoes, that Roggeveen described as “bad and frail.” As a sailor who had just spent 17 days crossing the Pacific from Chile in three large European ships without any sight of land, Roggeveen asked himself: How had the Polynesians greeting him reached such a remote island?

What puzzled him more were Easter’s huge stone statues. “The stone images at first caused us to be struck with astonishment,” Roggeveen wrote, “because we could not comprehend how it was possible that these people, who are devoid of heavy thick timber for making any machines, as well as strong ropes, nevertheless had been able to erect such images.” The statues’ sheer number and size suggest a population much larger than the estimated one of just a few thousand people encountered by Roggeveen. What happened to the former large population?

The fate of Easter Island is related to that of the Maya in Central America. The population of Central Peten at the peak of the Classic Maya period is variously estimated at between 3 million and 14 million people, but when Cortés and his Spanish army passed through the area in 1524 and 1525, they nearly starved because they encountered so few villages from which to acquire corn. Cortés passed within only a few miles of the ruins of the great Classic cities of Tikal and Palenque, but they heard or saw nothing of them. How did such a huge population of millions of people disappear? As the archaeologist David Webster succinctly puts it, “Too many farmers grew too many crops on too much of the landscape.” Compounding the mismatch between population and resources was the effect of deforestation and hillside erosion which caused a decrease in usable farmland at a time when more rather than less farmland was needed. More and more people fought over fewer resources.

Bringing matters to a head was climate change. The drought at the time of the Classic collapse was not the first drought that the Maya had lived through, but it was the most severe. At the time of previous droughts, there were still uninhabited parts of the Maya landscape, and people at a site affected by drought could save themselves by moving. However, at the time of the Classic Collapse, the landscape was now full, there was no useful unoccupied land in the vicinity on which to begin anew.

We have to wonder why the Maya kings and nobles failed to recognize these seemingly obvious problems undermining their society. Their attention was evidently focused on their short-term concerns of enriching themselves, waging wars, erecting monuments and extracting enough food from the peasants to support all these activities. Like most leaders throughout human history, the Maya kings and nobles did not heed long-term problems, insofar as they perceived them.

Much the same thing happened on Easter Island. Humans probably arrived at Easter Island from Polynesia around A. D. 900. (While Polynesians lacked compasses and writing and metal tools, they were masters of navigational arts and sailing canoe technology.) The statue building period seems to have fallen mainly in the years A.D. 1000-1600. Archeologists have enlisted modern Easter Islanders in experiments aimed at figuring out how the statues might have been carved and erected. One theory is that they modified the so-called canoe ladders that were widespread on Pacific islands for transporting heavy logs. In the New Guinea region, I have seen such ladders more than a mile long, extending from the coast hundreds of feet uphill. Using this technology, 50 to 70 people working five hours a day could transport a 12-ton statue nine miles in a week. The statue operation required not only lots of food, but also lots of thick long ropes by which people could drag statues, and also lots of big strong trees to obtain the timber needed for sleds, ladders and levers. But the Easter Island seen by Roggeveen and subsequent European visitors had very few trees, all of them small and less than 10 feet tall. Where were the trees that provided the required rope and timber?

Pollen analysis records show that for hundreds of thousands of years before human arrival and still during the early days of human settlement, Easter was not at all a barren wasteland but a subtropical forest of tall trees and woody bushes. The island supported a diverse forest including a rope-yielding hauhau tree, at least eight other species suitable for carving and construction and the toromiro tree which yields an excellent wood for fires. The most common tree in the forest was a species of palm, so big it was the largest palm in the world.

Deforestation must have begun some time after human arrival by A.D. 900 and must have been completed by 1722, when Roggeveen arrived and saw no trees over 10 feet tall. Most radiocarbon dates on the palm nuts are before 1500 suggesting that the palm became rare or extinct thereafter. Pollen cores show the disappearance of palm, tree daisy, toromiro and shrub pollen and their replacement by grass and herb pollen between 900 and 1300. Lack of large timber and rope brought an end to the transport and erection of statues and also the construction of sea-going canoes.

Most sources of wild food were lost. Bones of porpoises virtually disappeared from middens by 1500, as did tuna and pelagic fish. Land birds disappeared completely – including many unique species that went extinct – and seabirds were reduced. Palm nuts, Malay apples and all other wild fruits dropped out of the diet. Surviving islanders’ accounts of starvation are graphically confirmed by the proliferation of little statues depicting starving people with hollow cheeks and protruding ribs. The only wild food source whose availability remained unchanged was rats.

The parallels among Easter Island, the Maya and the modern world are chillingly obvious.

In the United States, at an accelerating rate, we are destroying natural habitats or else converting them to human-made habitats, such as cities and villages, farmlands and pastures, roads, and golf courses. More than half of the world’s original area of forest has already been converted to other uses, and at present conversion rates one-quarter of the forests that remain will become converted within the next half-century. The great majority of valuable fisheries have already either collapsed or are in steep decline. About one-third of the world’s coral reefs have already been severely damaged. At current rates, we shall have depleted or destroyed most of the world’s remaining marine fisheries, depleted clean or cheap or readily accessible reserves of oil and natural gas, and approached the photosynthetic ceiling within a few decades.

Perhaps the commonest circumstance under which societies fail to perceive a problem is when it takes the form of a slow trend concealed by wide up-and-down fluctuations. Politicians use the term “creeping normalcy” to refer to such trends and another term related to it, “landscape amnesia.” In the case of Easter Island, one of my students asked once, “What did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say as he was doing it?” I suspect that landscape amnesia provides part of an answer.

We unconsciously imagine a sudden change: one year, the island still covered with a forest of tall palm trees being used to provide wine, fruit and timber to transport and erect statues; the next year not a single tree left. Much more likely, though, the changes would have been almost undetectable: yes, this year we cut down a few trees over there, but saplings are starting to grow back again here on this abandoned garden site. Only the oldest islanders, thinking back to their childhoods decades earlier, would have recognized a difference.

It’s true that there are big differences between the situations of past societies and our modern situation today. The most obvious difference is that today we have six billion people equipped with heavy metal machines and nuclear power whereas the Easter Islanders had at most a few tens of thousands of people with stone chisels and human muscle power. Yet the Easter Islanders still managed to devastate their environment and bring their society to the point of collapse.

Yet, I have cause for hope. While the Easter Islanders were busy deforesting the highlands of their overpopulated island, they had no way of knowing that, thousands of miles to the northeast, Classic Maya society had failed. Our television documentaries and books show us in graphic detail why the Easter Islanders, Classic Maya and other past societies collapsed. Thus we have the opportunity to learn from the mistakes of distant peoples and past peoples. That’s an opportunity that no previous society enjoyed to such a degree. History is a mirror in which we can see our own fate. My hope is that enough of us will choose to profit from that opportunity to make a difference.

Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from COLLAPSE: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond. Copyright © Jared Diamond, 2005.

About the Author

Jared Diamond is the author of The Third Chimpanzee and Guns, Germs and Steel, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998. He is one of the most lucid thinkers on the environmental crisis in the world today, so when we talked to him about writing an essay for our catalog, we were not surprised when he told us the title of his next book would be Collapse. Collapse was published in January (2005) to worldwide acclaim.