April 25, 2006

Valuable lessons we can learn from lost civilisations

Posted in International Economy · 11 comments ·

For many school children, one of the most fascinating stories is that of the giant statues of Easter Island – the most remote piece of land in the Pacific. These enormous constructions were built by a people who had all but died out when the first Dutch explorers alighted upon the island in 1722.

There is something intriguing about lost civilisations – whether it is the Mayan cities in the jungle, Newgrange or the inexplicable Easter Island statues. The unexplained captivates our attention. Why did they build these monuments? How did they – with no machines – hoist these 75 ton hulks upright. What did they symbolise?

Given the remoteness of the place – 2,400 miles off the Coast of Chile and 1,400 miles from the next nearest island – the other unfathomable is how did they get there in the first place? When the Dutchman, Jacob Roggeveen, first landed on the island, the last few natives had only leaky canoes which could hardly float let alone carry people over thousands of miles of ocean. So who were the Easter Islanders, where did they come from and why did they disappear?

When the Dutch arrived, the island had no trees above shrub level, very little fertile soil, few native birds, plants or wildlife (apart from thousands of rats) and a half-starved human population who, naively, showed no fear of the Westerners.

How could these desperate people have built such monuments which are the biggest anywhere in Polynesia? In all there are 300 of these statues and at least 25 surpass anything seen in Tahiti, Hawaii or Samoa. There must therefore have been a rich, well-fuelled and well-fed population with its own political structure to erect such things. But why did they go to all the trouble?

Today, modern archaeology answers most of those questions. But for at least three hundred years, Easter Island and its mysterious giant statues was the source of all sorts of fantastic yarns from a lost Aztec tribe to the fashionable, turn of the 19th century theory of an alien visitation.

In fact, the real story is more interesting and is highly relevant for us today. (For those interested in it see Collapse by Jared Diamond.)

The Easter Islanders were part of the great Polynesian wave of discoveries which saw the populations of today’s Fiji and Tonga sail out into the Pacific in large canoes, capable of holding up to twenty people, live animals plus water and supplies for what must have been voyages of up to four or five weeks.

This Polynesian age of discovery occurred about 800AD. Those who landed in Easter, found a paradise full of trees for fuel and shelter, land mammals for food and abundant sea-food. The population grew to a peak of 30,000 and this is when the problems started. The different chiefs on the island started to build statues to their Gods which served two purposes: the first was piety and the second was to show the other chief who was the top dog on the island. So the nobility involved themselves in a conspicuous war of showing off – the bigger the statue, the bigger the chief. This is a pre-historic version of today’s conspicuous buying of the fastest car, the biggest house or the fanciest kitchen.

Archaeologists point to gigantic unfinished statues which remained in the quarries and were over 270 tons. There is no way the islanders would have ever been able to lift these, but it shows the megalomania that was knocking around in downtown Easter circa 1400 AD. The problem with the statues was that they demanded almost all the resources of the island while their purpose was simply to flatter the vanity of the local chieftain.

They were pulled by at least 500 humans using sheer muscle. This implied enormous food resources to feed the pullers and suggests that every statue signalled a period of intensive agricultural development to generate the food surplus to feed the workers. A second issue is that the ropes used for all the pulling were made from the bark of local trees, so again every statue signalled the felling of hundreds of palm trees for ropes. Third, more trees again were need to create the “wheels” upon which these huge slabs of rock were placed and moved.

If economists were describing it today in our modern parlance we might say that the local economy was growing at full tilt with full employment but an increasing amount of output was being focussed on the construction sector. Had an ancient ESRI report been published, it might have questioned the robustness of this building boom because the picture begins to emerge that every giant statue took a giant bite out of the island’s natural resources. As more and more forests were cleared, the top-soil eroded quicker, reducing the agricultural yield and ultimately leaving the land useless.

Initially in response, the Islanders switched to deep sea fishing using the same sturdy canoes that originally brought them to the island. Dolphin appeared to be a favourite but archaeological evidence indicates that sometime around 1500 AD dolphin disappeared from the diet. Why? Most probably because they did not have any wood left to build the strong canoes and therefore had to fish closer to the land in the leaky boats that they had when the Dutch arrived.

Thus every giant statue built and the wood wasted, had the effect of tightening a noose around the population’s throats. Simply put, the quicker their parents erected giant statues for the titillation of their vain chiefs, the quicker their descendants would starve. Easter Island, without wood and therefore without wild mammals, birds, fishing and soil protection, slowly starved to death. Records show that the civilisation which built the most impressive structures in Polynesia was reduced to cannibalism. They were doomed by their own chiefs’ obsession with opulence, flashy statues and keeping up with the Joneses.

It is tragically telling that when Captain Cook arrived on Easter Island in 1775 with a Tahitian translator (who could communicate with them in ancient Polynesian), the surviving natives excitedly repeated the word miru which was their word for timber.

That was all they wanted and they were prepared to trade anything for it. The question for us modern observers of the tragedy of the Easter Islanders is whether they at some stage twigged that every time they cut down a tree they were signing their own death sentence or whether they were blissfully unaware of the link. My hunch is that they knew, but the short-term obsession with conspicuous displays of power and wealth overwhelmed them and, like all humans, they gambled that something would turn up at the last minute to save them.

Now fast-forward to Ireland today and let’s examine our spending splurge. We likewise are burning through a precious resource and that is credit. Like the ancients cutting through a large swathe of forest, we are absorbing enormous amounts of credit and spending it frivolously.

It is driving up the cost of property, inflation and consumer spending. Like the hey-day of the giant statue building period, it is giving the impression of full employment.

But as the ESRI pointed out yesterday, much of this employment is coming from the construction sector. In fact, take construction and its attendant industries out of the equation and there is not much vibrancy here. But like the ancient Polynesians we are caught in the headlights of wanting to buy better, bigger and more expensive stuff than our neighbours. In the process, we burn through other people’s credit.

What happens when this resource dries up or the price of it rises? Modern societies rarely turn to cannibalism nor suffer massive population loss, but undoubtedly there will be serious political consequences. Will people ask, as they do now of the Easter Islanders, how did they not see it coming?

  1. Pete

    Perhaps the question we should ask when thinking about how
    civilisations self-destruct, is “Has any civilisation ever
    started down a self-destructive path, then realised the
    danger and changed course and lived happily ever after?”.
    Without doing much research, I have a feeling that the
    answer will be No. Human nature doesn’t change much.

  2. Conor Delaney

    Nice one David. I have used that story to illustrate
    environmental destruction, but that is the first time I
    have ever heard it used in a economic context. I suspect
    that you are correct in the suggestion that the Easter
    Islanders knew their actions were not sustainable. Human
    nature doesn’t seem to progress much?


  3. mark

    its worth noting that if oil is today waht wood was on
    easter island, then future big world economies will be the
    likes of brazil, (only 5 years from energy independence by
    using home grown sugar cane ethanol), and the nuclear
    fuelled countries like france or even Iran?

  4. mick

    This countrys economic success is largely an illusion.
    Its overdependent on construction and “transfer pricing”
    Interest rates are ridiculously low and actually negative
    in real terms.Inflation is rampant and pushing our costs
    even more out of line with eurozone.
    Balance of payments is negative and growing(ah sure we can
    make money taking in each other washing).
    It has few if any world class indigenous companies
    competing in global markets.
    It’s fast losing competivness and will see many jobs leave
    for eastern europe and india/china etc,even graduate jobs
    will go to cheap well educated english speaking indians.
    Much of the gdp growth has come from population growth
    and not productivity gains.
    We spend ridiculously low amounts on r&d in “knowledge
    industries” of the future and i dont even think we have a
    plan for the future.I was looking at New Zealands
    strategic plan for future industries and clusters they are
    developing in their country and its miles ahead of us.
    Consumer is driving the boom through buying houses and
    Worst of all is that everyone has become complacent and
    thinks things cant go wrong ,even normally prudent and
    conservative economic commentators get convinced things
    can keep going like this for forseeable future ,its like
    they dont want to beleive it will end in tears even
    thought the rational parts of their brains are telling
    them it will .
    ok,rant over

  5. Donall Garvin

    The comparison of wood and credit/oil in today’s world is
    an interestig one. Working for a oil and gas multinational
    I can let you know that we are running out of easily
    accessible oil. Just think of the Corrib project; you’d
    have to be pretty desperate to go to Mayo but it’s what the
    world is demanding. With a predicted commodities boom
    approaching we are wondering when the bust will come
    along. The high cost of energy, commodities (concrete,
    steel, copper etc…) and property will retard economic
    growth at some point, and the credit bubble is the only
    thing that is keeping the global juggernaut lurching

    With a view to lost civilisations it is commonly seen that
    sophisticated civilisations can exist that use only
    renewable energy sources. These societies had to use these
    resources sustainably to exist in the long term. It was
    only with the industrial revolution and more importantly
    the large scale exploration, production and consumption of
    oil and gas that our societies can be released restrictions
    of limited energy supply. This can be shown with the
    comparison of GDP/GNP with energy usage – the richer
    countries are the biggest consumers.

    The restrictions of economic growth placed by energy have
    been removed however it is the restrictions of money supply
    that were removed by the US$ abandoning the gold standard
    under Nixon. This has allowed has allowed massive credit
    expansion and all that that entails.

    Maybe we will end up like Easter Island, if we don’t change
    our behaviours (e.g. car use, food production and
    distrubution, fondness of exotic foreign holidays and the
    ability to pay for it on credit).
    If we don’t…
    How many ancient civilisations can you think of that are
    around today?


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  9. Andrew

    You should all be ashamed of yourselfves for perpatrating this myth. See below for an extract of the truth written by the Anthropoligist Benny Peiser. Full paper available from: http://www.staff.livjm.ac.uk/spsbpeis/EE%2016-34_Peiser.pdf

    Introduction to the paper:

    Of all the vanished civilisations, no other has evoked as much bafflement, incredulity and conjecture as the Pacific island of Rapa Nui (Easter Island). This tiny patch of land
    was discovered by European explorers more than three hundred years ago amidst the vast space that is the South Pacific Ocean. Its civilisation attained a level of social
    complexity that gave rise to one of the most advanced cultures and technological feats of Neolithic societies anywhere in the world. Easter Island’s stone-working skills and proficiency were far superior to any other Polynesian culture, as was its unique writing system. This most extraordinary society developed, flourished and persisted for perhaps more than one thousand years – before it collapsed and became all but extinct.

    Why did this exceptional civilisation crumble? What drove its population to extinction? These are some of the key questions Jared Diamond endeavours to answer
    in his new book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive (Diamond, 2005) in a chapter which focuses on Easter Island.

    Diamond’s saga of the decline and fall of Easter Island is straightforward and can be summarised in a few words: Within a few centuries after the island was settled, the
    people of Easter Island destroyed their forest, degraded the island’s topsoil, wiped out their plants and drove their animals to extinction. As a result of this self-inflicted
    environmental devastation, its complex society collapsed, descending into civil war, cannibalism and self-destruction. When Europeans discovered the island in the 18th
    century, they found a crashed society and a deprived population of survivors who subsisted among the ruins of a once vibrant civilisation.

    Diamond’s key line of reasoning is not difficult to grasp: Easter Island’s cultural decline and collapse occurred before Europeans set foot on its shores. He spells
    out in no uncertain terms that the island’s downfall was entirely self-inflicted: “It was the islanders themselves who had destroyed their own ancestor’s work” (Diamond, 2005).

    Lord May, the President of Britain’s Royal Society, recently condensed Diamond’s theory of environmental suicide in this way: “In a lecture at the Royal Society last
    week, Jared Diamond drew attention to populations, such as those on Easter Island, who denied they were having a catastrophic impact on the environment and were
    eventually wiped out, a phenomenon he called ‘ecocide’” (May, 2005).

    Diamond’s theory has been around since the early 1980s. Since then, it has reached a mass audience due to a number of popular books and Diamond’s own publications.
    As a result, the notion of ecological suicide has become the “orthodox model” of Easter Island’s demise. “This story of self-induced eco-disaster and consequent elfdestruction
    of a Polynesian island society continues to provide the easy and uncomplicated shorthand for explaining the so-called cultural devolution of Rapa Nui society” (Rainbird, 2002).

    The ‘decline and fall’ of Easter Island and its alleged self-destruction has become the poster child of the new environmentalist historiography, a school of thought that
    goes hand-in-hand with predictions of environmental disaster. Clive Ponting’s The Green History of the World – for many years the main manifest of British eco-pessimism – begins his saga of ecological destruction and social degeneration with “The Lessons of Easter Island” (Ponting, 1992:1ff.). Others view Easter Island as a microcosm of planet Earth and consider the former’s bleak fate as symptomatic for what awaits the whole of humanity. Thus, the story of Easter Island’s environmental suicide has become the prime case for the gloomiest of grim eco-pessimism. After more than 30 years of palaeo-environmental research on Easter Island, one of its
    leading experts comes to an extremely gloomy conclusion: “It seems [...] that ecological sustainability may be an impossible dream. The revised Club of Rome predictions show that it is not very likely that we can put of the crunch by more than a few decades. Most of their models still show economic decline by AD 2100. Easter Island still seems to be a plausible model for Earth Island.” (Flenley, 1998:127).

    From a political and psychological point of view, this imagery of a complex civilisation self-destructing is overwhelming. It portrays an impression of utter failure
    that elicits shock and trepidation. It is in form of a shock-tactic when Diamond employs Rapa Nui’s tragic end as a dire warning and a moral lesson for humanity today: “Easter [Island's] isolation makes it the clearest example of a society that destroyed itself by overexploiting its own resources. 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 of us in our own future” (Diamond, 2005).

    While the theory of ecocide has become almost aradigmatic in environmental circles, a dark and gory secret hangs over the premise of Easter Island’s selfdestruction: an actual genocide terminated Rapa Nui’s indigenous populace and its culture. Diamond ignores, or
    neglects to address the true reasons behind Rapa Nui’s collapse. Other researchers have no doubt that its people, their culture and its environment were destroyed to all intents and purposes by European slave-traders, whalers and colonists – and not by themselves! After all, the cruelty and systematic kidnapping by European slave-merchants, the near-extermination of the Island’s indigenous population and the deliberate destruction of the island’s environment has been regarded as “one of the most hideous atrocities committed by white men in the South Seas” (Métraux, 1957:38), “perhaps the most dreadful
    piece of genocide in Polynesian history” (Bellwood, 1978:363).

    So why does Diamond maintain that Easter Island’s celebrated culture, famous for its sophisticated architecture and giant stone statues, committed its own environmental suicide? How did the once well-known accounts about the “fatal impact” (Moorehead,1966) of European disease, slavery and genocide – “the atastrophe that wiped out Easter Island’s civilisation” (Métraux, ibid.) – turn into a contemporary parable of selfinflicted ecocide? In short, why have the victims of cultural and physical
    extermination been turned into the perpetrators of their own demise?

    This paper is a first attempt to address this disquieting quandary. It describes the foundation of Diamond’s environmental revisionism and explains why it does not hold
    up to scientific scrutiny.

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