Blog Archives

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.”