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Easter Island: What if they saw it coming?

George Monbiot has an interesting, if depressing, article out this week about the British Govt. doing more or less nothing to solve the environmental crises we are facing.

We all know the shit is approaching the fan, and it will surely hit it at speed and force should we so blithely as we currently are, continue to do our business as usual on the planet.

I have used in Easter Island as an example in my biology classes for more than a decade now. I had my students read use the essay Twilight at Easter by Jared Diamond in The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2005 before he I read his book Collapse.

It’s an instructive, if depressing, lesson on how people can undermine their own future by going with the business as usual way of doing things, even when that means short-term gains lead to long-term destruction.

People often wonder what the person who cut the last tree on Easter Island thought as he did so.

And the answer of course, is that he didn’t cut down a big tree, he only cut a small tree that he needed to cut to cook his meal, and it looked just like all the other bushes around, so he didn’t think very much of it at all – the big trees had been gone for a while.

We always assumed those poor sods were ignorant, that they didn’t have the benefit of hindsight like we do. If we, with their example, do the same stupid thing, then we would be so many times dumber than they were.

However, perhaps the Eastern Islanders weren’t all that stupid. I mean, perhaps all of them were not that stupid. The ones who weren’t so blind were nearly stymied by the majority of stupid.

I’m sure some saw it coming.

It’s clear that they didn’t do very much to stop it.

More importantly than asking what the guy who cut the last tree, we should ask what went through the mind of the guy on Easter Island who was shouting out to stop the cutting of all the trees. The guy(s and gals) who were predicting the future, pointing out the disappearance of the birds they used to eat, lamenting the old state of the canoes that could not be replaced and meant dolphin and deep-sea fish were off the menu, etc.

You can almost imagine a Monty Python-esque scene where the proto-ecologist says to the crowd that the big statures aren’t going to help get more food or help make canoes to catch tuna, and one of the stone masons shouts back say to him, “Shut up, you, or I’ll bloody throttle you – I’ve a good job here making them statues.”

If it were indeed case that some knew the collapse of their society and lives was imminent, well, it would make Easter Island an even more instructive, and depressing, lesson for us today as we face the guardians of the status quo.

Even more so than the statues of Easter Island, the status quo is a hard stone to roll off us.


“But if we cut down all the trees, Bob, we’ll be fucked!”
“Shut your face, BigNose! I’ll look much more enigmatic surrounded by grass.”

Fire and Water

We’re just about done with possibly the hottest December on record, with heat waves across the northern hemisphere. Simultaneously, there is record flooding in England and Ireland, and huge fires across northern Spain, where I live; seemingly unconnected, but not really.

Both phenomena are either caused by or exacerbated by bad laws.

Today in my email inbox are two mails. One is my automatic notification of George Monbiot’s Guardian article about the predictions of flooding in York because of the actions of farmers (grouse farmers, to be sure) in the watershed upstream, burning and draining peatlands so they don’t hold rainwater as well as they should.

Athlone floodingFlooding in Athlone. Photograph: Harry McGee, from Irish Times


The other email is a request to sign a petition to change the new Spanish law, which means people get rich by burning land. 50,000 hectares have burned so far, and most fires have been set on purpose. Forests which have been burned can now be rezoned for building, making a tidy profit for anyone who invests in a forest and a few gallons of petrol.


Espana arde

It seems amazing that we can have such stupid laws when we are faced with such grave global problems. In Ireland, in fact, the minister responsible for environment will change the law to allow field and hedge burning even later than before, in response to the problem of illegal fire setting last spring. Mind boggling, even if we discount the fact that the birds the law is there to protect are breeding even earlier as the climate warms.

Yet, when I talked to a farmer I know about the article I wrote about the illegal fires, she told me she doesn’t get paid for having gorse on her land, so not being able to burn was losing her money – though to date I haven’t seen her burn the patches she has.

Just as we can’t blame corporations for putting their shareholders ahead of the wellbeing of their customers and workers, since the law obliges them to do so, we can’t blame farmers from trying to get the money the law says they are entitled to, as long as their fields are in “agricultural condition.”

Some farmers I know here in Spain are actively digging trenches and putting in plastic drains under fields in far from the wettest part of the world by any stretch of the imagination. These fields have been farmed for centuries, but nowadays the machinery is so heavy it can only be used on dry soil. The state subsidies for starting farmers stipulates that the five-year plan have such modern machinery to be efficient, so staying out of muddy fields after a rain is not an option. And never mind that the water not held in the fields just goes faster to the Ebro, a river notorious for flooding, and which flows through large cities like Logroño and Zaragoza. A whole pig farm was swept away last year, and farmers are asking the river be dredged so the water can flow faster away from them. Which is counterproductive, we know. But farmers are paid to farm, not to mange the environment in a sensible manner. Or to protect other people’s homes from flooding and wildfires.

In Ireland, the town of Athlone on the Shannon is hoping the river won’t inundate it, while politicians suggest paying people to move out of floodplains that should never have been built on in the first place. At the same time, some locals say they never had a flood in 75 years until trees were cut down on the local mountains.

The rules are more than faulty. They’re stupid. Except for those they benefit, of course. Big landowners are making millions off them.

The politicians have thus far, even including the recent Paris agreement, decided it’s supposedly less damaging to their precious economy to deal with the consequences of climate change rather than prevent it.

This is a test of their ideas.

The warming climate will bring much more such fires and floods.

Building flood defences is all well and good, but it’s more wasted money dealing with consequences rather than wisely trying to prevent them. Forests and bogs can absorb a lot of the water destroyed homes from the recent storms, if they aren’t burnt to the ground.

As Monbiot said, flooding fields or towns: which is it going to be?

Common sense says the former, of course. Let’s see if anyone in power got some for Christmas.