November 23, 2010

Cutting down trees on Easter Island

A while back, I listened to an unabridged recording of Jared Diamond's Collapse: How Societies Choose to Succeed or Fail. It gave me a bit of a "Holy ****!" moment. For most of my adult life, I've tended to be more keyed in to fights over economic justice and policy and haven't been as attentive to environmental issues and particularly climate change.

Lately, I've gone back to Collapse in the print version and have been making my way through it. And sometimes I wonder whether we aren't headed towards a major climate catastrophe.

Such a fate is far from inevitable, given the political will. Alas, political will is the one thing that has been in short supply up to now and will probably be in even shorter supply for the next few years. And West Virgina, where the coal industry is a jealous idol, is ground zero of climate change denial.

Diamond gives examples of several societies that have undergone some kind of breakdown when the over-stressed local environments or faced other setbacks. The most compelling to me is that of Easter Island. I guess I'm not the only one. As Diamond put it,

The Easter Islanders’ isolation probably also explains why I have found that their collapse, more than the collapse of any other pre-industrial society, haunts my readers and students. The parallels between Easter Island and the whole modern world are chillingly obvious. Thanks to globalization, international trade, jet planes, and the Internet, all countries on Earth today share resources and affect each other, just as did Easter’s dozen clans. Polynesian Easter Island was as isolated in the Pacific Ocean as the Earth is today in space. When the Easter Islanders got into difficulties, there was nowhere to which they could flee, nor to which they could turn to help; nor shall we modern Earthlings have recourse elsewhere if our troubles increase. Those are the reasons why people see the collapse of Easter Island society as a metaphor, a worst-case scenario, for what may lie ahead for us in our own future.

NOTE: I'm taking this week off so there will be no links and comments until next week. Party on!

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