Jared Diamond’s masterful Collapse: How Societies Choose To Fail Or Succeed is a collection of case studies of societies that were unable or unwilling to correct defects which ultimately led to their destruction. The book’s examples include, among others, the Anasazi culture of North America, the Vikings of Greenland, the Mayans, and even modern Rwanda. But for me, the most haunting example of collapse discussed is Easter Island. Diamond explains in great detail how the decline and collapse played out, taking advantage of the most current scientific research. The resulting story is unforgettable. The lessons emerge with stark clarity, if only we are willing to hear them without comforting prejudices.
When most people think of Easter Island, of course, they picture the great monoliths erected there by the inhabitants centuries ago. Seen today, the island is nearly bare, with no trees over ten feet tall. But it was not always so: the island was once a thriving ecosystem, with extensive forests, numerous bird species, and a wealth of other fauna. When humans first arrived there about A.D. 900, it was densely forested, and was capable of sustaining numerous tribes and a relatively high population. When the first Europeans “discovered” the island in the 1720s, they found it very sparsely populated, the inhabitants reduced to a mean and pitiable state of existence, the landscape denuded of trees. What had happened?
The scientific evidence makes it clear that overexploitation of resources by the natives set in motion a chain of events that pushed the inhabitants over the brink. Trees were an important resource for the islanders: they were used for cremation, construction of statutes, and habitations. But the islanders were unable—or unwilling—to manage their natural resources in ways that ensured their continued renewal. Gradually, perhaps nearly imperceptibly, the resources began to dwindle. Warning signs were ignored or rationalized away. As deforestation proceeded, animal life became extinct or went elsewhere. Crop yields plummeted. Native plants, birds, and animals melted away.
The islanders then began to compete with each other more and more fiercely for an ever-declining volume of natural resources; vendettas multiplied, intertribal warfare flared, and a pall of hostility and fear descended on the island. As the trees vanished, the islanders were unable to build boats to escape to other islands: they became trapped in their own hell, doomed to fight each other in perpetuity for the last crumbs that the barren land could offer. Eventually the islanders began to starve, and feed—literally—off each other. As wild meats became unavailable, and escape off the island became impossible, the natural consequences followed. Cannibalism stalked the island, animating its folklore and infecting its archaeological sites. Perhaps the islanders compensated for their misery by focusing more and more on the empty ritual of building and raising statutes, as their means of sustenance melted away. It is a haunting picture, impossible to forget.
Diamond muses on a question worthy of some reflection. He asks, “As an islander cut down the last tree, what would he have been thinking?” Cleverly, he notes that modern analogues offer a possible answer: “It’s about jobs, not trees!” or “God will take care of it!”, or “Next year will be better!” Such responses are easy to imagine, and have the ring of truth. Just as many today are in denial about resource depletion and global warming, so we can imagine that the ancient Easter Islanders may have had some soothing, face-saving explanation for why they were unable to take action to avert disaster. Reason can always be counted on to provide justification for our vices.
Denial is a curious thing. We choose to ignore the problems that confront us, because doing so involves some degree of self-examination. I have often noticed that when people or businesses are confronted with problems, they will continue to do the same thing over and over again, even when such a course of action has demonstrably failed. In some cases, speedy and decisive action may have saved a situation that was allowed to degrade to the point of no return. And then it becomes too late for remedial action. Diamond notes that even the modern Easter Islanders are unwilling to believe what had befallen their ancestors. “Our ancestors would never have done that!” was a common response when he discussed the history of the island with them. Delusion is of old date.
Why does this happen? I think the answer is that on some level, people, organizations, or nations make a conscious choice. They choose to fail or to succeed. Faced with a fork in the road, we are all forced to make a choice. And the truth seems to be that some people actually prefer to fail. Perhaps failure validates some hidden prejudice, or secret self-destructive impulse, that they have; or perhaps they find it impossible to extricate themselves from the situation in any other way. The motivations are many and varied. Without doubt, the power of choice is not a burden sought by all. Some men prefer to have no control over their fate, despite their assurances otherwise. Freedom brings responsibility, which for many is an intolerable burden. Slavery is an intoxicant. It first blackens, then dulls, the edge of our initiative.
But it still is baffling to outside observers to see a situation, that might have been remedied, continue to spiral downward for no justifiable reason. Call it the power of the irrational. Easter Island’s collapse highlights the power of choice as a constant force in mankind’s affairs. For me, it is a reminder that we, and we alone, retain the power to sketch the contours of our destinies.
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