November 29, 2006 10:47AM

Enviro Myth‐​Making about Easter Island

If you pay attention to the enviro press, you’ll find a lot of references these days to Jared Diamond, author of Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Time after time, we’re told, human societies have collapsed upon themselves because they didn’t pay enough attention to what they were doing to Mama Earth. Past is prologue, so if we don’t start paying attention to the Green doomsayers, we might as well kiss our butts goodbye.

But is it true? Take, for instance, the example of Easter Island, one of the main exhibits in this enviro show trial. Did the natives really go nuts strip‐​mining that island of resources? It turns out that the answer is no. According to a new study forthcoming in the Journal of Archaeological Science, the entire Diamond narrative is bunk:

Easter Island (Rapa Nui) has become the paragon for prehistoric human induced ecological catastrophe and cultural collapse. Today a popular narrative recounts an obsession with monumental statuary — a mania for moai — that led to the island’s ecological devastation and the collapse of the ancient civilization. Scholars offer this story as a parable for our own reckless destruction of the global environment.

In this paper, I critically examine the historical and popular narrative of human‐​induced environmental change, its causes and consequences, for Rapa Nui. I review new and emerging Rapa Nui evidence, compare ecological and palaeo‐​environmental data from the Hawaiian and other Pacific Islands, and offer some perspectives for the island’s prehistoric ecological transformation and its consequences. I argue here that a revised, later chronology for Rapa Nui calls into question aspects of the current model for the island’s ecological history. A critical examination of the paleo‐​environmental and archaeological records also reveals a more complex historical ecology for the island; one best explained by a synergy of impacts, rather than simply the reckless over‐​exploitation by prehistoric Polynesians. While my focus is on the palaeo‐​environmental record, it is essential to disentangle the related notion of prehistoric “ecocide” with the demographic collapse (i.e., post‐​contact genocide) that would come centuries later with European disease, slave‐​trading, and the other abuses heaped upon the Rapanui people. Contrary to the now popular narratives (e.g., Diamond, 1995 and Diamond, 2005), prehistoric deforestation did not cause population collapse, nor was it associated with it. Such an argument can be based only on facile assumptions and an uncritical faith in contradictory accounts from the island’s oral histories; but this is a critical subject worthy of detailed, continued examination (see Metraux, 1957, Peiser, 2005 and Rainbird, 2002).

There’s a reason people like me are deeply suspicious of virtually everything environmentalists have to say. After you run across this and similar vignettes hundreds of times over, you get to the point where you don’t believe a word these people say. They might be right here and there, but you’ll never know for sure unless you check it out for yourself.