An Unsettling Future

If, by now, you were unaware of my affection for the natural world then this article may provide some insight. A couple of days ago, I stumbled upon a fascinating story on NPR that has kept me thinking. It raises some serious questions through the well known story of Easter Island, but in an entirely new form. 

The story as you know it reads: Polynesians arrive on the island, decimate their natural resources and destroy themselves through this overexploitation. Anthropologist Jared Diamond wrote a best-selling book, Collapse, about the decline of Easter Island's society, suggesting such a fate could one day be our own. Diamond, who has famously studied remote cultures across the globe, coined the term "ecocide" to describe the destructive behavior of the inhabitants of Easter Island. But two anthropologists from the University of Hawaii see a different story, 

A success story, albeit unlikely, is how Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo see things in their book, The Statues That WalkedThe islanders, traveling in large dugout canoes, brought stowaways in the form of Polynesian rats, to their new home on Easter Island. These rats are what Hunt and Lipo attribute the demise of the island's native vegetation and birdlife. While the domino effect had wiped out most of the inhabitants' food and resources, they continued to live and adapt on the island. 

Cue another researcher, J.B. MacKinnon whose book The Once and Future World is both fascinating and alarming. It turns out that archaeologists examining bones on the island found "less malnutrition than people in Europe" from the same time period. The discarded bones in rubbish piles revealed that 60% of the bones were those of rats. Furthermore, the islanders farmed on a small scale using "rock gardens." The technique involved scattering stones across a field to generate turbulence in the winds blowing off the sea, in turn it released mineral nutrients on the rock. With a minute amount of nutrients in the soil, the islanders could farm basic vegetables for food. MacKinnon claims the gardens, covering one tenth of the island, could "sustain a population density similar to places like Oklahoma, Colorado, Sweden and New Zealand today." 

While this new story reveals character in the face of adversity, a triumph of survival in declining conditions, I believe that both versions have important messages for today. While the author of the NPR article appears most afraid to lose the comforts and standard of living our society has grown used to, I look towards the natural consequences. What is Earth without biological diversity? Regardless of which story you follow, Easter Island's resources disappeared quickly. While we may not be confined to a 63-acre-island, our population and our rate of consumption make Earth look a lot like Easter Island. The reality is that our population is eating through Earth's resources at a rate similar to the rats on the remote Pacific Island. 

The important story is not about the human inhabitants of Easter Island, but of the Polynesian rats. A population which grew exponentially in the presence of abundant food and an absence of predators. The resounding effect of the rat's presence echoed throughout the ecosystem until it lay bare. For the majority of time on the island rats lived a posh life, with a happily expanding population. While the story has changed, acquitting the human inhabitants, I don't believe the moral has. 

Disregard the human story, if you will, and focus on the story of the rats. Given enough time, rats alone could result in a complete deforestation. On numerous islands across the Pacific similar trends are documented in the archaeology. It seems regardless of where they landed, the rats found food plentiful and prospered. But, as with islands, the resources were rather finite. Reproducing at an unsustainable rate, the rats outpaced their food sources; depriving soil of seed and fauna of flora. The ecosystem crumbled and the island grew bare.

We are not rats, we prevailed on Easter Island. We have this extraordinary ability to adapt and survive. But what happens when the forest is reduced to a single tree? The last barrel of oil? Our expanding population sees resources consumed faster than ever, the reality is that we need to consider alternatives. Let's not wait until the trees are gone to find a sustainable existence. 


Let's keep these around.