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THE Easter Island Thread (merged)

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THE Easter Island Thread (merged)

Unread postby Leanan » Fri 20 Aug 2004, 09:08:15

A few years ago, Jared Diamond wrote an article in Discover magazine, about the collapse of Easter Island:

http://members.aol.com/leanan7/rapanui.htm

(And yes, he thinks it could happen to us.)
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Rapa Nui

Unread postby gnm » Fri 20 Aug 2004, 10:31:09

I saw a good movie once which dealt with that period on Easter island. It was called Rapa Nui.

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Unread postby Leanan » Fri 20 Aug 2004, 10:58:16

I think I've got that movie on videotape. It's not bad. I'm not sure how accurate it is (though they made more of an effort than the average movie does). It's visually very impressive. (And I'm not just talking about Jason Scott Lee and Sandrine Holt running around in loincloths.) I should watch it again sometime.
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Unread postby Synergist » Sat 21 Aug 2004, 18:12:31

The Easter Island experience is instructive as a microcosm, but most human societies are not that isolated and small. Furthermore it's not really instructive in the Peak Oil realm because it was a muscle economy, without technology, and as for its politics, it seemed to involve carving giant stone heads and standing them up on hills.

As a parable, Easter Island is a good way to educate people about deforestation and species extinction and the devastating impact of human settlement on a natural environment, but it's not as persuasive in the energy crisis realm.

I suppose an interesting rhetorical question is which resource will be gutted first: oil or forests. I would say over the long run oil, after all when we massively die off, the forests will rebound, whereas petroleum is gone when it's gone.
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Unread postby Leanan » Sun 22 Aug 2004, 19:33:10

The Easter Island experience is instructive as a microcosm, but most human societies are not that isolated and small.


I think a very good argument can be made that the world is Easter Island writ large.

Furthermore it's not really instructive in the Peak Oil realm because it was a muscle economy, without technology, and as for its politics, it seemed to involve carving giant stone heads and standing them up on hills.


That is just not true. They were not "without technology." They were a fairly complex society, as demonstrated by the stone statues they built. (Since it would take hundreds of people do that, that means they had a complex, stratefied, and wealthy society. Otherwise, they could not have spared so much time, energy, and resources to build that sort of "public works.") It's the only visible sign remaining of their politics, but it indicates they were complex indeed.

As for their technology...they built canoes and navigated across the Pacific, by the stars. They built those statues, which so impressed Europeans that many of them refused to believe the Easter Islanders actually built them (because they seem so "primitive" now.) Much of their technology was lost, with the resources that powered them. With no trees, you can't build canoes, and you can't cross the open ocean. Without rope or wood, they could no longer build statues. (Plus, you don't have a lot of energy to build statues when you're starving.)

This article, about similar calamities on Pitcairn, Henderson, and Mangareva Islands goes into more detail about how the loss of resources affected trade and industry:

http://members.aol.com/leanan7/pitcairn.htm


Sometimes, it's not your own environmental mistakes but those of others that kills you.
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Unread postby Soft_Landing » Mon 23 Aug 2004, 12:27:39

I've got to pipe up here and say that this is really a good read. I can't really agree with synergist's appraisal of this piece as perhaps not completely relevant.

I think that this piece is completely relevant. Not because it talks about net energy or trees or anything in particular. Just because it happened, and the people who did it didn't see what they were doing soon enough to stop it. The people, tragically, decimated the hand that fed them. That's a universal theme of decided applicability.

I've said on other threads that the problem of peak oil can well be described as one of ignorance. If everyone in the world understood the problem of peak oil, we could probably work through it. Unfortunately, I think people are too easily misled these days, too trusting of mainstream media, government, and corporate advertising, and too ignorant of the sources of energy without which their lives would not be possible.

But just think about that.

If people on Easter couldn't organise to save their precious trees (the numbers of which would presumably be apparent to anyone who cared to survey the island; the importance of which would be apparent to anyone who cooked, hunted, or built an abode), how will a planet of people organise to protect our diminishing capacity to extract oil, which, for all intents and purposes, is completely invisible to the average modern consumer.

At least they could count the trees. As a side note, I suspect Jared's suggestion that the natives might not have even noticed that there were no trees left of reproduction age is pretty naive. Locals tend to have a very good understanding of native ecology in local domains, and I would suspect that the destruction of the last palm of reproduction age would have been a very noteworthy event, particularly among the elders. Think ghawar dying.

In contrast, modern day oil reserves are often a state secret, with politically published numbers so obviously flawed.

The notion that we are less likely to suffer the same fate as Easter native's because our society is bigger and more complex seems quite crazy to me. Surely, in a more complex world, there are more conflicting sources of information, more reasons to doubt, and a much greater chance that someone, somewhere, is trying to tell you something that you'd really rather hear.

If Rapa Nuian's couldn't do it, how the hell are we going to?
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Unread postby Leanan » Mon 23 Aug 2004, 14:09:13

Just because it happened, and the people who did it didn't see what they were doing soon enough to stop it.


Very true. But I suspect many think that they were just savages, and surely we will be smarter.

As a side note, I suspect Jared's suggestion that the natives might not have even noticed that there were no trees left of reproduction age is pretty naive. Locals tend to have a very good understanding of native ecology in local domains, and I would suspect that the destruction of the last palm of reproduction age would have been a very noteworthy event, particularly among the elders. Think ghawar dying.


The difference is that Ghawar isn't going to renew, while the Easter Islanders had every reason to believe that the trees would, eventually. When they cut down the last mature tree, there were probably lots of nearly-mature trees still around. Whoever cut that last mature tree likely figured that if he didn't cut it, someone else would. And figured he wasn't doing permanent damage, since there were all those immature trees. Then people cut the nearly mature trees, figuring there were other, slightly younger trees to replace them. By the time the very last saplings were cut, people had forgotten how big they could get, and how useful they were when mature.

FWIW, in the movie, the cutting of the last tree was a big deal, and Jason Scott Lee tried to stop it. But in a frenzy of war and vengeance, no one would listen to him.

I dunno...IME, human nature is pretty consistent. It's a mistake to ignore what happened on Easter Island as something that happened only because they were "primitives" who lacked our modern technology. OTOH, it's also a mistake to imbue them with a deeper understanding of ecology than we have. The fact is, humans, from hunter-gatherers to high-tech, have frequently driven other species to extinction, when it would have been in our interest not to. We can't seem to help ourselves. :(
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Unread postby PhilBiker » Mon 23 Aug 2004, 14:52:36

Locals tend to have a very good understanding of native ecology in local domains, and I would suspect that the destruction of the last palm of reproduction age would have been a very noteworthy event, particularly among the elders.
Also I believe that the Easter Island population was not "natives" but Polynesian immigrants from elsewhere who found the island. They may not have known the patterns of the vegetation.
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Unread postby Soft_Landing » Mon 23 Aug 2004, 18:59:23

Just because it happened, and the people who did it didn't see what they were doing soon enough to stop it.



Very true. But I suspect many think that they were just savages, and surely we will be smarter.


Hrumph. Makes you angry, doesn't it? It's such a deep rooted assumption embeded in the way modern man thinks.


Think ghawar dying.


The difference is that Ghawar isn't going to renew, while the Easter Islanders had every reason to believe that the trees would, eventually.


Try to really put yourself in the shoes of the residents of Rapa Nui. They know that the consumption of trees is an ongoing process. They know that you need mature trees to reproduce and replenish your stock. If they tear down every last mature tree, they know they'll keep needing to tear down trees at the current rate (or higher) while no new trees are beginning. I think it would be very apparent, plain as day, that after tearing down mature trees, denuding the entire island of trees was only a matter of time. If you don't think they could've shown this rudimentary foresight, I suggest that you may be tripping on the falacy laid out above.

OTOH, it's also a mistake to imbue them with a deeper understanding of ecology than we have. The fact is, humans, from hunter-gatherers to high-tech, have frequently driven other species to extinction, when it would have been in our interest not to. We can't seem to help ourselves.


Or am I making this mistake? I don't think so. When humans drive a species to extinction, it seems to me that we are often aware of the damage being caused (type not magnitude). The difficulty is organising and motivating the entire group to change the behaviour pattern causing the damage. We seem to see the error of our ways long before we are actually able to change our behaviour.

Also I believe that the Easter Island population was not "natives" but Polynesian immigrants from elsewhere who found the island. They may not have known the patterns of the vegetation.


Yes. I did make something of a mistake here. I was imagining a culture with millenia to get to know it's environs. On the other hand, Diamond mentions that the palm that went extinct on Rapa Nui still exists today. Presumably, that is because it was also other polynesian islands? So maybe their cultural ancestors had experience with these same plants elsewhere? In any case, I would expect a complex organised society to have figured out the reproductive cycle of it's most important resource after 600 years. . . Not certain, but I think, highly likely.
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Unread postby MattSavinar » Mon 23 Aug 2004, 19:12:33

Silly doomsayers at it again.

Don't you know, the islanders didn't have capitalism and the free market? If they did, they would have developed alternatives to trees. The market would have encouraged them to come up with technology that would have allowwed for an alternate source of timber. Really, basic Economics 101 here folks.

Sheesh, modern man would never be so stupid as to base its entire civilization around using a single resources to build useless crap like those primitive people on Easter Island did!

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Unread postby Aaron » Mon 23 Aug 2004, 19:40:41

Great thread folks...

A very good analogy for our current dilemma.

Perhaps one of you fine folks might post a brief synopsis of the Easter Island story for the benefit of future guests who might not surf the link above?

:)
The problem is, of course, that not only is economics bankrupt, but it has always been nothing more than politics in disguise... economics is a form of brain damage.

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Unread postby Soft_Landing » Mon 23 Aug 2004, 20:23:38

Keeping things in context.

Whilst I think these examples, Easter and the other Polynesian cases, are extremely informative as possible results of a resource crunch, it's important to remember the other side of the story.

These examples are striking precisely because they resulted in catastrophic failure. What would we see, on the other hand, if such cultures had survived the resource crunch?

Bear with me, as I try to flesh out an alternate scenario.

What if, instead of highly compromising carrying capacity through resource depletion, just before the trees were completely exhausted, population was heavily corrected to bring it inline with whatever small amounts of resources were remaining? As the resource base replenishes, the population base also returns, in something of a balance with remaining resources. The remaining people, having a resource crunch relatively near in terms of tribal memory (oral history, etc.), pass down stories of the importance of the land, of staying in balance with nature.

Does this remind you of anything? Well, I'm sure it does. There are many cases of so-called primitive peoples whose culture is based around respect for nature, respect for the land, respect for mother earth. I'm thinking particularly of the Australian Aborigines who for a long time were the custodians of the continent that I now inhabit. They had a strong culture of respect for the land, and they considered themselves to 'belong' to the land, not the other way around, as modern man does. There were strong cultural taboos on population levels in local environments, ensuring that carrying capacity was not breached. Concepts of God or Gods, to the extent they existed, revolved around the workings of land and nature.

These beliefs seem quite strange to western society, and I have sometimes heard people complain; 'why can modern man not adopt these 'enlightened' environmental beliefs?'

It's my theory that these cultures that fundamentally exist in harmony with nature are merely Rapa Nui events where carrying capacity was not terminally damaged, even though a resource crisis of sorts was probably reached. In transitioning through a resource crisis, the cultures could be shaped in ways that make them harmonious with the natural world into the future, preventing further resource crisies.

As a particular example, I'd like to point to the Sahel people of Africa. The quote below comes from this article:

The traditional migration routes followed by the herds, and the amount of time a herd of given size might spend at a particular well, were governed by rules worked out by tribal chiefs. In this way overpasturage was avoided. The timing of the movement of animals was carefully calculated so as to provide feed and water with the least danger from disease and conflict with other tribal groups.


These rules mentioned above, I suggest, are just like the morals and beliefs of the Australian Aboriginal people. I doubt they were developed by forward thinking local ecologists and then adopted on mass by forward thinking tribal elders. Rather, feedback from the environment, in the form of local resource crunches or crises, might gradually shape such cultures into possessing such harmonious (with nature) moral codes. I don't think it's going too far to suppose that this kind of adaptation is one of the essential evolutionary advantages for having the capacity for a versatile morality.

The point is that the Easter Island example is striking because we can see a human extinction event. The evidence for this will always be easier to locate than for a resource crunch that a culture survived. We shouldn't jump to the conclusion that all resource crunches result in mass die-offs. It's just that we wouldn't be able to find evidence of resources crunches that didn't result in extinction events. Unless, that is, if cultures that have a moral code that ensures harmony with nature might be considered evidence of successful transition through a resource crisis. This would mean, of course, that those so called 'primitive' cultures are actually windows into more advanced moralities, in the sense that they may be the kinds of rules and beliefs that may arise in the future of 'western' culture, should peak oil instigate a massive resource crisis.
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Unread postby MattSavinar » Mon 23 Aug 2004, 22:42:42

Exceprt (unedited) from my book:

----------------------

Over the course of human history, many populations have suffered from die-offs. In fact, regional die-offs of human populations aren’t all that uncommon. The only thing uncommon about the impending die-off is its scope: it will be a global die-off, not a regional one.

The die-off most analogous to our current situation is the one that took place on Easter Island during the early 18th century.

Easter Island was discovered by western civilization in 1722 when Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen landed on the island. At the time, Roggeveen described the island as a wasteland. The islanders he encountered led a particularly primitive existence, even by 18th-century standards. The island was almost completely devoid firewood, plant life, and animals larger than insects. The islanders possessed no wheels, few tools, and only a handful of flimsy, leaky canoes.

Despite the complete absence of tools and natural resources, the island was populated with giant, elaborately constructed, stone statues. Roggeveen and his crew were completely perplexed by these statues, as it was clear whoever built them had tools, resources, and organizational skills far more advanced than the islanders they encountered. What happened to these people?

According to archeologists, Easter Island was first colonized by Polynesians sometime around the year 500 AD. At the time, the island was a pristine paradise with lush forests. Under these conditions, the island’s population grew to as much as 10,000. During this population bloom, the islanders used wood from the forest trees to power virtually every aspect of a highly complex society. They used the wood for fuel, canoes, houses, and of course, for transporting the huge statues. With each passing year, the islanders had to cut down more and more trees as the statues became larger and larger. The islanders’ entire culture and way of life began to revolve around building and transporting increasingly larger and elaborate statues.

Pretty soon, the islanders were cutting the trees down faster then they could grow back. As the tree supply dwindled, the islanders ran out of timber and rope to transport and erect their statues.

Once the supply of timber went into decline, an aggressive, militaristic warrior class dismantled the island’s long-standing centralized government. Soon, chaos ensued and the islanders began participating in brutal clan warfare over access to the island’s rapidly dwindling supply of timber.

Unfortunately for the islanders, the effects of the “timber crash” impacted much more than just their statue construction and transportation efforts. As the forest shrank, so did the streams and springs that had provided the islanders with drinking water. Similarly, without an abundant supply of timber, the islanders could no longer construct fishing boats with which to obtain seafood.

Before long, food became so scarce the islanders resorted to cannibalism. The practice became so common the islanders developed a new insult, “The meat of your mother sticks between my teeth.”

The story of Easter Island fascinates us because we know, on a gut-instinct level it, is as much about our future as it is Easter Island’s past. Like the islanders, we have built our entire civilization around one resource. That resource is what drives our transportation, housing, and food and water distribution networks. Our entire culture and psychology revolves around that one resource. Now that the resource is in decline, we are participating in ever-intensifying wars in order to obtain it.

What is truly astonishing about the Easter Island die-off is that the children of the survivors lost all the knowledge and technological abilities of their ancestors. For instance, when Roggeveen’s crew inquired as to how the statues had been built, some of the islanders explained the statues had come with the island, just like the trees. Furthermore, the islanders had no idea how to construct or operate the sea faring vessels their ancestors had traveled to the island in.

As far as industrial civilization is concerned, the ramifications of such a drastic loss of knowledge are truly mind-blowing. It is entirely possible our descendents (if there any) will believe the empty skyscrapers and abandoned automobiles they find came with the land, just like the trees.

Even if they possess a somewhat accurate understanding of how the skyscrapers and automobiles were created, they are unlikely to know how to operate an elevator, a light switch, or a car ignition. With so little energy available to operate these devices, there will be little reason for anybody to learn how.

Eventually, the idea that man once visited the moon will, quite possibly, be considered a fairy tale or ancient myth.

--------------

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Unread postby MattSavinar » Mon 23 Aug 2004, 22:48:20

Some of you may think that is an exageration. If so, kindly tell me how the pyramids were constructed.

Likewise, if you think about the energy curve of human history, it is flat for thousands of years, then it spikes way of starting at 1800, peaks around 2000 and sharply declines by 2100-2200.

People 200 years from now will have as much access to energy as people 200 years ago. (Barring some miracle)

They will have as much energy avaialbe to them as Thomas Paine and Thomas Jeffereson did.

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Unread postby MattSavinar » Mon 23 Aug 2004, 22:51:01

Of course, those primitive savages didn't have the Federal Reserve to save them like we do.

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Unread postby Canuck » Mon 23 Aug 2004, 23:47:03

Soft_Landing wrote:The point is that the Easter Island example is striking because we can see a human extinction event. The evidence for this will always be easier to locate than for a resource crunch that a culture survived. We shouldn't jump to the conclusion that all resource crunches result in mass die-offs. It's just that we wouldn't be able to find evidence of resources crunches that didn't result in extinction events.


This is an interesting idea, but in the end it doesn't work for me. I think you are talking about a resource scare, not a true limit. A food crunch was looming and averted with the Green Revolution. It was a resource crunch that did not result in a die-off. It was not a true resource limit.

Peak Oil may end up being a resource scare too, but if so it is a doozy because it is scaring the bejeesus out of me. (It's the damn physics. Energy is limited by the rate at which we can pull it out of the ground or capture it from the sun. I can't make the arithmetic work.)

I also hate to say that I find the case for overshoot and crash when a resource limit is breached to be compelling.

I don't think the population on Easter Island even realized that the supply of trees was dwindling. The population was probably as large and as rich as it have ever been a generation before the crash.

It is always both sides of the equation. Demand was growing exponentially and supply was dwindling. The Island may be small, but it is too big for anyone to have inventoried the trees so the extent of the depletion was not known for sure.

There might have been a few Cassandras in the population, but it would take a fairly sophisticated mind to grasp the problem based on very spotty information. He would have to sound a convincing warning when there were still lots of trees left.

Even if Cassandra is believed, what would they do? They would have to figure out some way to manage - eliminate - growth. I haven't seen any credible ideas on that score.
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Unread postby Leanan » Tue 24 Aug 2004, 08:41:01

Try to really put yourself in the shoes of the residents of Rapa Nui.


IMVHO, I don't have to put myself in the shoes of the Easter Islanders...because I'm already in them. As are we all.

And what do we hear about Ghawar? "Don't worry, there are decades of production left." "It's not even near peak." "New techniques will increase production." Even "Oil is abiotic, Ghawar will refill." Very few of us believe it's an actual problem, and those of us who do can't convince everyone else.

Was it any different on Rapa Nui? I doubt it.

As for the aboringines...in Australia, every animal (mammal, reptile, or bird) that weighed more than 100 kg went extinct shortly after humans arrived. Coincidence? Probably not. Something similar happened in the Americas with human arrival. And in Hawaii when the first Hawaiians arrived. Etc.

Yes, people do eventually learn to live within their resources...one way or another. But the lessons can be brutal. Before the industrial age, Europeans also had ways to limit growth and live within their resources. For example, in Ireland, people weren't allowed to marry unless they owned a farm that could support a family. The limited land available kept the population in check. In London, it was economically impossible for even an upper-middle class family to support more than one child, so when a new child was born, it was killed or abandoned...or the older child was pushed out of the home, sometimes at ages as young as 5. (Hence the bands of boys roving the streets, a la "Oliver Twist.") We've lost those cultural limits to growth, and are going to have to acquire them again.

Anyway, I think Canuck may be right. The last generation before the crash will have little inkling that there's trouble ahead.
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Unread postby Leanan » Tue 24 Aug 2004, 09:07:12

Matt's provided a synopsis of what happened on Easter Island. Here's a synopsis of what happened on another Pacific Island, Mangareva (from the second link I posted above):

After the islanders deforested most of the island’s hilly interior to plant their gardens, rain carried topsoil down the steep slopes, and a savanna of ferns, which were among the few plants able to grow on the now-denuded ground, replaced the forest. Eventually, little land was left for gardening and tree crops. Deforestation indirectly reduced yields from fishing as well, because no trees large enough to build canoes remained: when Europeans came to Mangareva in 1797, the islanders had no canoes, only rafts.

With too many people and too little food, hunger on Mangareva became chronic. Modern islanders tell how, starved for protein, people turned to cannibalism, not only eating freshly dead people but also digging up buried corpses. Chronic warfare broke out over the precious remaining cultivable land; the winning side redistributed the land of the losers. Instead of an orderly political system based on hereditary chiefs, nonhereditary warriors took over. All that political chaos alone would have made it difficult to muster the manpower and supplies necessary to cross the ocean, even if there had been trees left for canoes.


While humans survived on Mangareva, at greatly reduced numbers, the dieoff was complete on their two colony islands, Pitcairn and Henderson. Even today, with our modern techology, Pitcairn cannot support more than about 100 people. When the population grew to almost 200, the British government had to evacuate a lot of them, to keep them from starving.
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Unread postby Soft_Landing » Tue 24 Aug 2004, 10:15:03

As for the aboringines...in Australia, every animal (mammal, reptile, or bird) that weighed more than 100 kg went extinct shortly after humans arrived. Coincidence? Probably not.


Yes, precisely. I would suggest that this gives up the opportunity to date the resource crunch. Even though, of course, the evidence for it is very much indirect.

I also hate to say that I find the case for overshoot and crash when a resource limit is breached to be compelling.


I'm not sure if I've given the impression that I disagree with this. I don't.

Rather, all I'm saying is that massive die-off with heavy technology loss, massive carrying capacity loss, and all the other things, is most certainly at one extreme of a range of possible outcomes. I'm saying that we'll find more evidence for these kind of effects of resource crisis because they are self-preserving - if everyone of an island dies, no one is left to tamper with the crime scene. In contrast, where complex societies have reorganised after a resource crunch, we could only expect that their footprint would smudge the evidence of that resource crisis. I'm also suggesting that, in leiu of physical evidence of the quality of that on Rapa Nui, we might be willing to allow moral codes and native religions that give primacy to the earth/environment to be considered circumstancial evidence that these cultures have experienced serious resource strife in the past.


Canuck wrote:I don't think the population on Easter Island even realized that the supply of trees was dwindling. The population was probably as large and as rich as it have ever been a generation before the crash.


Leanan wrote:Was it any different on Rapa Nui? I doubt it.


I'll restate the reasons why I think it would most certainly have been different on Rapa Nui.
  • Much much smaller 'world'. Any person could walk their planet.
  • Much much more visible resource. Compared to oil, for example.
  • Much more dependancy upon single resource.
  • Much fewer degrees of separation between the users of the resource and the extractors of that resource. The ship builder may well have dealt directly with a logger, for example.
  • The scope of the problem is smaller. Rather than dealing with trillions of barrels, the problem may be expressed in thousands of trees.

I'm not saying that there would be universal appreciation of the certainty of catastrophe.

I am saying that given the differences between our societies and the resources upon which they have depended, it would be much easier to explain to your average Rapa Nuian the serious nature of the resource problem, much easier for he/she to appreciate the tangible qualities of the problem. A Rapa Nuian could more easily conceive the practical significance of 10 trees than your average Australian can conceive the practical significance of a million barrels of oil. The appropriate null hypethosis would be that whatever awareness modern man has of the risk of a crisis related to oil, we must expect that the Rapa Nuians had at the very least that same level of society-wide appreciation, if not much more.

This is why I think that the challenge that peak oil has presented, does present, is very much to do with information and overcoming ignorance. For modern man, there is so much serparation between itself and the source of sustainance, the gulf of comprehension becomes perhaps prohibitively wide. It may - who knows? - already by too late.

On the other hand, the positive message that I'm trying to get across is that the Rapa Nuian story suggests an overly pessimistic appraisal of our own future. We may have even less chance at preventing a crisis than did the Rapa Nuians, but neither does the crisis need to be that bad. Again, if complex societies have survived a resource crunch, the direct evidence for that crisis would be gone. Of course, for the complex society to continue after the resource crisis, it needs to have some system in place to ensure that it remains in balance with the ability of nature to provide resources. A moral and ethical code that protects the carrying capacity of the environment, together with rules that not only do not condone growth, but actually taboo it, would be necessary to allow the complex society to continue sustainably in the face of resource limitations.

Of course, transition for a complex society such as this will still require some form of poulation correction, as per the theory of overshoot. This is not in dispute. Rather, I'm simply saying that the conclusion that near extinction is likely for us because it happened to some dudes on Easter Island is statistical nonsense. What about complex societies that survived resource crises? Of course we don't see evidence for them like we do on Rapa Nui - they would erase their own evidence. Nonetheless, it is quite possible that they outnumber Rapa Nui events 1000 to 1.

Thus, the lessons i take from the Polynesian stories are two-fold. On the one hand, if they couldn't prevent the resource crunch from transpiring, we've got buckley's. Second, we should keep in mind that the consequences the Rapa Nuians suffered from not averting the crisis should be taken simply as one possibility, and a pessimistic possibility at that. It should not be considered the likely outcome for our world, should we fail to appropriately deal with peak oil.
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Unread postby Leanan » Tue 24 Aug 2004, 11:44:04

Yes, precisely. I would suggest that this gives up the opportunity to date the resource crunch. Even though, of course, the evidence for it is very much indirect.


And it may not have been a resource crunch. That is, they may have wrought the destruction, not by hunting the animals to extinction, but simply by changing the environment so that the local flora and fauna could not survive. Setting fires to flush out small game, clearing land to plant gardens, importing new animals that out-competed the native ones, etc. Not fully realizing the destruction they wrought.

I'm also suggesting that, in leiu of physical evidence of the quality of that on Rapa Nui, we might be willing to allow moral codes and native religions that give primacy to the earth/environment to be considered circumstancial evidence that these cultures have experienced serious resource strife in the past.


I think all the races on Earth have experienced serious resource strife in the past. It's been a dominant effect on our evolution, physical and cultural. The current period of relative plenty is what's odd.

Much much smaller 'world'. Any person could walk their planet.


But did they? Polynesians generally divided up islands into chiefdoms, and you didn't have free reign to go wherever you wanted. It was a complex society, and life in complex societies is often constrained. Indeed, the statues seem to be evidence of an "arms race" of sorts, between vying chiefdoms. They may have hidden their resources, just as the Saudis are hiding theirs.

Much more dependancy upon single resource.


I think that's arguable.

The scope of the problem is smaller. Rather than dealing with trillions of barrels, the problem may be expressed in thousands of trees.


I don't think that makes a difference. Most people can't really grasp numbers that large, anyway. Moreover, I think the main issue is not the scope of the problem, but simple human denial. Which seems to be somewhat hard-coded into us. Healthy humans tend to be over-optimistic. We believe we have more control over our lives than we actually do. The only realists among us are the clinically depressed.

A Rapa Nuian could more easily conceive the practical significance of 10 trees than your average Australian can conceive the practical significance of a million barrels of oil. The appropriate null hypethosis would be that whatever awareness modern man has of the risk of a crisis related to oil, we must expect that the Rapa Nuians had at the very least that same level of society-wide appreciation, if not much more.


I don't think I believe that. While I don't discount the intelligence, organization, and accomplishments of the Polynesian peoples, they did not have a written language, and thus didn't have access to the historical warnings we have. That, I think, offsets the simpler nature of the problem they faced.

This is why I think that the challenge that peak oil has presented, does present, is very much to do with information and overcoming ignorance.


While in my view, all the information in the world isn't going to help.

On the other hand, the positive message that I'm trying to get across is that the Rapa Nuian story suggests an overly pessimistic appraisal of our own future. We may have even less chance at preventing a crisis than did the Rapa Nuians, but neither does the crisis need to be that bad.


To my mind, Easter Islanders were never near extinction. And I don't think humans are in danger of extinction now, either. But we are in danger of a dieoff. It has happened numerous times in the past, and left evidence, even when the society continued. (There are still Egyptians, and we know from anthropological and genetic studies that they are the descendants of the pyramid-builders, but they no longer know how to build pyramids. Similarly, China has suffered numerous dieoffs and collapses, but has maintain some cultural continuity for thousands of years.)

According to Tainter, dieoffs of 75% to 90% are pretty common. Easter Island's, at 80%, is not unusual. Sometimes the society continues, in a simpler form. Sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes societies go through more than one dieoff.

So I guess the main point of disagreement here is how much we know about past collapses. I don't think the evidence of complex societies is easily destroyed. Ordinary Americans may not know much about them, but that's more a reflection of our U.S.-oriented education system than of scientific evidence.
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