Book offers lessons on behavior, results
What did the Easter Islander say when he cut down the last tree? A student posed that question to Jared Diamond after a lecture about the deforestation of that island famous for the stone heads left by a vanished population.
The history of Easter Island is one of several examples Diamond cites in his book "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed." I discussed the book last week at the Knox County Library's "Books Sandwiched In" program.
In some ways, the book is the opposite of Diamond's Pulitzer Prize-winning "Guns, Germs and Steel," which examined the factors that led to the development of civilizations. "Collapse" uses historical case studies to determine why societies fall apart or survive.
Examples include Easter Island, the pre-Columbian Mayan and Anasazi civilizations, the Norse settlements of Iceland and Greenland and, recently, Rwanda and the Dominican Republic as contrasted to neighboring Haiti.
Sometimes hostile or friendly neighbors played a critical role in a society's success or failure. But in most of the examples, people overtaxed their environments, and how they reacted determined whether they survived or collapsed.
Isolated Easter Island provides the simplest microcosm. After it was settled, its people had no further contact with the outside world until they had virtually wiped themselves out.
When the first Polynesian arrived, they found the land heavily forested. Excavations show they enjoyed a rich diet, including birds and porpoises, which must have been harpooned from large canoes.
But in time, the forest was depleted as trees were used for building, fuel and providing logs and rope for hauling the massive statues from the quarry where they were carved to the coastal platforms where they were erected.
By the time Europeans made contact, the island was denuded, and the few people who survived did not have wood to build decent canoes for fishing.
How could a society allow such self-destruction? Diamond offers several explanations that are relevant today.
Sometimes, societies fail to perceive problems until it is too late. Diamond refers to "creeping normalcy," the idea that we forget how things used to be and accept a changed environment as normal. This would answer the student's question about Easter Island's last tree. Over time, the lack of big trees might not have seemed unusual, and the last one to be cut probably wasn't much of a tree at all.
Perhaps more concerning is the "rational behavior" explanation. A few people acting in their own self-interest may benefit greatly from continued exploitation of a resource, while the large number of people who are harmed are not harmed enough individually to be motivated to fight back.
Then, too, there is "irrational behavior" as people hold tight to cultural norms even after they become destructive. The Greenland Norse clung to dairy farming and refused to eat fish despite starvation, and the Easter Islanders denuded their land to roll giant stone heads to the shore.
The lessons the book offers us today are as stark as those stone faces staring silently from the past.