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How close to catastrophe?
Bill McKibben, New York Review of Books via Grist
Gristmill’s Dave Roberts: a new essay by Bill McKibben, addressing — in the context of reviewing five new books — just how close we are to ecological catastrophe, and what reasons there are for hope.
…The technology we need most badly is the technology of community — the knowledge about how to cooperate to get things done. Our sense of community is in disrepair at least in part because the prosperity that flowed from cheap fossil fuel has allowed us all to become extremely individualized, even hyperindividualized, in ways that, as we only now begin to understand, represent a truly Faustian bargain. We Americans haven’t needed our neighbors for anything important, and hence neighborliness — local solidarity — has disappeared. Our problem now is that there is no way forward, at least if we’re serious about preventing the worst ecological nightmares, that doesn’t involve working together politically to make changes deep enough and rapid enough to matter. A carbon tax would be a very good place to start.
Bill McKibben is scholar in residence at Middlebury College and the author of The End of Nature and Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future.
Books reviewed by McKibben:
The Revenge of Gaia: Earth’s Climate in Crisis and the Fate of Humanity by James Lovelock.
China Shifts Gears: Automakers, Oil, Pollution, and Development by Kelly Sims Gallagher. )
Solar Revolution: The Economic Transformation of the Global Energy Industry by Travis Bradford.
WorldChanging: A User’s Guide for the 21st Century edited by Alex Steffen.
Design Like You Give a Damn: Architectural Responses to Humanitarian Crises edited by Architecture for Humanity.
(22 Oct 2006)
Rethinking the Fall of Easter Island
Terry L. Hunt, American Scientist
Every year, thousands of tourists from around the world take a long flight across the South Pacific to see the famous stone statues of Easter Island. Since 1722, when the first Europeans arrived, these megalithic figures, or moai, have intrigued visitors. Interest in how these artifacts were built and moved led to another puzzling question: What happened to the people who created them?
In the prevailing account of the island’s past, the native inhabitants—who refer to themselves as the Rapanui and to the island as Rapa Nui—once had a large and thriving society, but they doomed themselves by degrading their environment. According to this version of events, a small group of Polynesian settlers arrived around 800 to 900 A.D., and the island’s population grew slowly at first. Around 1200 A.D., their growing numbers and an obsession with building moai led to increased pressure on the environment. By the end of the 17th century, the Rapanui had deforested the island, triggering war, famine and cultural collapse.
…When I first went to Rapa Nui to conduct archaeological research, I expected to help confirm this story. Instead, I found evidence that just didn’t fit the underlying timeline. As I looked more closely at data from earlier archaeological excavations and at some similar work on other Pacific islands, I realized that much of what was claimed about Rapa Nui’s prehistory was speculation. I am now convinced that self-induced environmental collapse simply does not explain the fall of the Rapanui.
…Newly introduced diseases, conflict with European invaders and enslavement followed over the next century and a half [after the first European contact], and these were the chief causes of the collapse. In the early 1860s, more than a thousand Rapanui were taken from the island as slaves, and by the late 1870s the number of native islanders numbered only around 100. In 1888, the island was annexed by Chile. It remains part of that country today.
In the 1930s, French ethnographer Alfred Metraux visited the island. He later described the demise of Rapa Nui as “one of the most hideous atrocities committed by white men in the South Seas.” It was genocide, not ecocide, that caused the demise of the Rapanui. An ecological catastrophe did occur on Rapa Nui, but it was the result of a number of factors, not just human short-sightedness.
I believe that the world faces today an unprecedented global environmental crisis, and I see the usefulness of historical examples of the pitfalls of environmental destruction. So it was with some unease that I concluded that Rapa Nui does not provide such a model. But as a scientist I cannot ignore the problems with the accepted narrative of the island’s prehistory. Mistakes or exaggerations in arguments for protecting the environment only lead to oversimplified answers and hurt the cause of environmentalism. We will end up wondering why our simple answers were not enough to make a difference in confronting today’s problems.
Ecosystems are complex, and there is an urgent need to understand them better. Certainly the role of rats on Rapa Nui shows the potentially devastating, and often unexpected, impact of invasive species. I hope that we will continue to explore what happened on Rapa Nui, and to learn whatever other lessons this remote outpost has to teach us.
UPDATE Oct 24. Comment by Andrew Leonard at Salon: Are we not rats? (need to subscribe or watch ad):
For my part, the dispute over whether the forest disapeared because humans cut down the trees or rats brought by humans ate all the nuts is slicing matters rather fine. For that matter, one could also argue that genocide committed by Westerners is just another form of extreme environmental catastrophe. The real question, which no amount of clarity on Easter Island will answer, is whether humans are like rats, and will end up inflicting some form of genocide on ourselves as a species by chewing through our global ecology. (Personally, I’m an optimist. I think we’re smarter than rats. But I’m not sure.)