A Parable of a Lost Island

Planet3.0’s first really successful community effort, ongoing, is built around the ruins of Rapa Nui or Easter Island.

To summarize the previous article in brief, I have long been struck by how controversy about Easter Island’s collapse seems to avoid the main issues and focus on minutiae, just like criticism of mainstream climate science does, and noting the participation in that controversy of some of the usual suspects in the climate denial world, I thought it worth discussing.

This led to our longest conversation so far. SInce it’s my intent that articles here be well-researched, especially ones reaching prominence. So I needed to go back and read Jared Diamond’s version of the Easter Island story in his remarkable book, Collapse, which I had been so taken with when I first read it.

This rereading led to a rather strange experience. I discovered that the story I had understood from my first reading was not the story Diamond told. I believed that he was being circumspect and choosing his words carefully and that I was reading between the lines. But on rereading, I find that he was not really even implying the story as I understood it. At this point, I am unsure whether my interpretation is consistent with the evidence, and unsure whether it is original.

But I think my understanding is plausible and interesting enough that I’d like to lay it out for your consideration.

The aspect of the Hunt/Lipo anti-collapsist version of the Easter Island story that I find especially unsatisfactory, and especially remeniscent of denialism, is their refusal to grapple with the main mystery.

Diamond says:

Like all subsequent visitors, including me, Roggeveen [the Dutch captain of the first European ship to visit the island] was puzzled to understand how the islanders had erected their statues. To quote his journal … “The stone images at first caused us to be struck woth astonishment, because we could not comprehend how it was possible that these people, who are devoid of thick heaviy timber for making any machines, as well as strong ropes, nevertheless had been able to erect such images”

Like a good scientist, Diamond comes around to the energetics of the situation. The Easter Islanders had no draft animals. All work was done by human muscle power. So:

Jo Anne van Tiburg and her architect husband Jan… concluded that, given the number and size of Easter Island’s ahu [ceremonial platforms] and moai, the work of constructing them added about 25% to the food requirements of Easter’s population over the 300 peak years of construction.

And even this calculation presumes the relatively large population of 15,000 that Diamond advocates. At Lipo and Hunt’s subsistence population of 3,000, the operation simply becomes energetically implausible. What’s more, it is energetically impossible at ANY subsistence population, in fact, by definition of subsistence.
You really can’t have extravagantly scaled art in a society without a surplus. North Korea can barely pull together their little spectacles with a population in the millions.

The other issue was the sign of accelerating production of monuments just before the collapse, and a sudden abandonment of the custom at the peak of the frenzy.

As I was reading his version for the first time, I felt sure that Diamond was hinting at a specific scenario. I thought that while he was being circumspect and only saying things that the evidence could bear, he was telling a specific tale, a specific answer to the mystery of Easter Island. On rereading, I see nothing of the sort.

The closest approach to what I was imagining was here:

I cannot resist the thought that they were produces as a show of one-uspmanship. They seem to proclaim “All right, so you can erect a statue 30 feet high, but look at me: I can put this 12-ton pukao on top of my statue: you try to top that, you wimp!”


While chiefs on other Pacific island societies on ilsands within a few days’ sail of other islands devoted their energy to interisland trading, raiding, exploration. colonization and emigration, but these competing outlets were foreclosed for Easter Islanders by their isolation. While chiefs on other Pacific islands could compete for prestige and status by seeking to outdo each other for prestige and statis by seeking to outdo each other in these interisland activities, “The boys on Easter Island didn’t have those usual games to play,” as one of my students put it.”

Here is where my interpretation gets, perhaps, carried away. And I don’t know as the (ahem) narrative I am about to propose is even testable. Perhaps it can stand as less as a theory, or perhaps it is less a theory than a parable.

What follows is entirely speculative. “Maybe”s and “perhaps”es should be inserted throughout, but are elided for the sake of readability.

Imagine an extremely isolated island, then, much like Easter Island, where competing chiefs, each granted a wedge of island, somehow managed to create a reasonably stable society which was based on trade among the tribes. In the early days, the island created a substantial surplus, so in good times, trading may have resembled a gift economy, but in lean times the network of obligations might have become more important. The tribe did not keep track of obligations through money, but through a system of competing prestige.

Clearly the size and scale of a tribe’s ceremonial platform were indeed an indicator of prestige. Suppose, then, that the ceremonies associated with the statues were involved in the trading. That is, when one tribe held a feast on one of its ceremonial platforms, the other tribes were obligated to bring gifts in proportion to the grandness of the statues. The more elaborate a tribe’s ritual platform, the larger the contribution of its neighbors was expected to be. In good times, this would be a friendly competition.

Perhaps this is much like ourselves. In our day, we establish prestige and power with money. The islanders were obligated to give gifts in proportion to the audacity and power of one anothers’ monuments and ceremonies; the prestige was accumulated and not traded, but it resembled our situation in that there were specific rules to a specific game that enforced the exchange of goods.

And this competition seemed to drive a great deal of creativity. The non-coastal parts of the island were carved up into large estates, and agricultural production was eked out of the windy volcanic soil, providing further surplus for further population growth (and meanwhile providing more pressure on the forest ecosystem).

This is to say, this form of competition was adaptive. It increased the productivity and population of the island, which in Polynesian culture was the goal. After all, a rich island can colonize other islands. But Easter Island, in its isolation, could not. There was no escape mechanism from its growth economy.

So this prestige-based mutual taxation economy that I am imagining resembled our own situation in another way. It was growth oriented. As the monuments became more elaborate, the obligations became more elaborate as well. Great cleverness was therefore put to use not only in building the monuments but also in extracting the maximum wealth from the landscape. One can imagine a very happy island in friendly competition, until the growth pattern could no longer be sustained.

Eventually, the island reached its maximum productivity, and in an overshoot most of the large tree species were wiped out. (There were multiple causes, but the exuberant construction of monuments is itself a candidate.)

And here we reach the point in Easter Island’s history that has caused the most head-scratching. Why did the statue-building reach such a frenzied pace just before its abrupt collapse?

The usual explanation involves religious faith. The moai were supposed to embody the spirit of ancestors, who watch out for the living. So in hard times, it would follow that one should tap into more ancestors, right? Except for the fact that once the limits to growth kicked in, food energy used in this massive construction enterprise impoverished the society, and its demands for lumber and rope did so as well. Why didn’t the people see this?

If we conceive of the moai not so much as religious totems but more as money, the behavior comes into a clearer focus.

The masses were attached to their respective tribal leaders, who allocated intra-tribal resources to them as individuals. Angering your chieftain was not a good move.

The chieftains in turn were closely committed to the moai-as-currency because they controlled the moai. Overturning the moai system would mean loss of privilege for them. They were deeply disinclined to reconsider it, and after generations of promoting the system would not have suitable ways of expressing alternatives or modifications.

Though in lean times (i.e., after the island reaches its sustainable population), the motivation to build more statues is systemically unsound but could have been entirely rational from the perspective of each individual. The chiefs promoted a system whereby the tribe with the most and best moai were due a tribute from the other tribes. The more desperately underfed the society, the more important the construction work because the greater the competitive advantage. The chiefs therefore encouraged as much moai construction from their tribespeople as possible. None of this expanded the available resources; indeed, it contracted them.

Toward the end, in this scenario, a failure to participate eventually took on an air of suicidality. If you didn’t build enough statues, your tribe really would starve because your net obligations to others would bleed you dry.

And of course, you can’t eat statues, any more than you can eat money. So the system, unable to correct itself, crashed spectacularly.

So far, nothing I have heard about Easter Island contradicts the idea that something like this really did happen. I’m not an expert on Polynesia, and history is hard even for professionals, so there is no way this could be right in every detail. But I think this idea of “statues as money” has explanatory power. And it is yet another way in which the astonishing events of Easter Island provide us with a warning, not just against hubris, but also against confusing the tokens of wealth with wealth itself.

It also resolves the necessity of arguing that the Easter Islanders were especially fanatical in their religion. On this model, they were no more fanatical than we are, in responding to a resource-forced contraction, with demands for “growth” and “jobs”.

So telling this version of the story seems to me to have value whether it is true or not. As such it is a parable. It may have value whether or not it is true, because it is plausible enough and relates so directly to our present situation. In a pre-limits world, the best strategy is growth. But the transition in which the growth strategy becomes maladaptive is potentially very abrupt. The culture of growth seems to value good-natured competition in a jointly agreed upon rule set, with tokens of success allowing access to the real resources of the growth. If we can do this, who is to say that the Easter Islanders, in their own way, did not?

But when they hit the wall, it took a long time before enough people could even recognize what had happened. The formerly adaptive behaviors had become maladaptive. The statues, formerly the token of success, had become the definition of success.

Could it be that our increasingly avid and even frantic pursuit of “growth” or “jobs” or “recovery” is not about getting enough resources to feed, shelter, clothe, educate and edify the population? Could it be just about building more statues, because that is what worked in the past?

Because of the nature of exponential growth, the transition from an empty island to a full one is a sudden and unexpected event. Words and symbols used to adapt to a prior situation fail to apply. Most cultures do not actually plan their successor cultures.

Unlike the islanders of the parable, whether real or not, we have the knowledge needed to do better, to make the transition to the low-impact low-effort world we need, and which we once wanted, back when we were sane, before we got so frantic. But everybody still has to get up in the morning, carve up some lava, and make a few bucks. A fellow’s got to eat, you know.

Image: Sue Tordoff via Creative Commons Search. Follow the link for an interesting Easter Island account from a British tourist.


  1. " The tribe did not keep track of obligations through money, but through a system of competing prestige. "

    I know we normally talk about these things in terms of oversized houses and cars, but there's more to it than that. An oversized house or car still serves useful ends in terms of shelter and transport. The same cannot be said for obvious extravagant waste of items like food.

    A relative at Xmas lunch talked about being invited to a neighbour's home for a previous Xmas. 6 adults plus assorted ankle-biters and rug-rats, no adolescents with insatiable appetites. The meal consisted of a whole turkey, a leg of ham, a whole chicken - OK so far for standard Xmas indulgence for a fairly small group - as well as a leg of lamb, a shoulder of pork and a whole beef fillet. That is, enough for a whole roasted joint or bird for every adult at the table.

    As it turned out, the leftovers were not used at the evening meal, because the host then provided a couple of barramundi, lobsters and several kilos of prawns and crabs. I'd like to think that these people did something generous or frugal or useful with the vast quantities of uneaten food. But no. To the dump.

    This occasion didn't even have the saving grace of the lord of the manor providing luxurious exotic foods to guests - where the surplus went to servants, assorted tenants and other hangers-on or even to feed animals or compost.

    This kind of 'prestige' extravagance and pointless waste is what gets us into real trouble.

  2. MT, I think there's a danger with relying too much on parables. If the Easter Island theory 'is just a parable' and 'doesn't have to be true', then others with wacky beliefs can also invent their own parables, replete with flying pigs and gods from machines, since there's no need for parables to be actually true. Then what do we do?

    Plus, I do prefer a story based on an actual event to be, well, actually based on facts. 'Imagine this hypothetical world which happens to be somewhat inspired by real artefacts but whose relationship with reality is otherwise purely coincidental' doesn't work very well.

    That's why minutiae are useful.

    -- frank

  3. I've been trying mentally to compose a comment on the 'narrative' thread about this, not very successfully. I think the point I'm trying to get at is something like this:

    I see a narrative (parable?) such as this not as an intention to communicate knowledge, or even directly ideas, but rather as an attempt to clarify ideas that you believe others already hold but which they may not yet have drawn together.

    The universe is infinitely nuanced and we can only ever grasp the faintest shadow of it, but even then our understanding of that universe is still far too complex and nuanced for anything more that fragments of it to ever be communicated directly by language. We have to trust to common experience and understanding for effective communication, and also to good faith on the part of the other. Narratives are indeed susceptible to abuse by unscrupulous communicators, but they are a powerful form of high level communication and shouldn't be discounted because of this.

    We risk becoming too reliant on evidentially justifiable positions - in a similar vein, I worry that we underplay the potential impacts of climate change on vulnerable societies, such as those in sub-Saharan Africa, because there isn't evidence available to justify claims about the likely impacts of changes in climate there.

  4. "We risk becoming too reliant on evidentially justifiable positions"...

    Yes, this is true. This is a weapon of naysaying, since in the end, the toddler's "why? why? why?" game always triumphs in the end leading to solipsism and chaos. In the end we know "cogito ergo sum" and not much else, after all.

    However, the question is always the relationship to truth. When I spin a tale here, I am trying to get to the truth of the matter. When a political player spins the sort of "narrative" that soi-disant communication experts talk about endlessly, they are advancing an agenda.

    Advancing an agenda is a necessary pursuit, but the successful agendas will be better the more the population is in tune with the truth. The recent ascendance of superstition, confusion and paranoia is a result of "narrative" thinking via politicians and lawyers through journalist, not "truth" thinking which journalists hardly seem to comprehend.

    This piece, in addition to its explicit content, shows that I value "story" as communication. But I'm also trying to express how all this talk of "narrative" offends me. When you talk to a friend, you don't construct a "narrative", you "tell the truth", which is to convey your actual understanding honestly. Unless you are a sociopath.

    We are all in the same boat and had better learn to trust each other. This means telling the truth. Being colorful and interesting is necessary, but spinning the facts is malicious. To the extent "narrative" is about spin, it is a problem.

  5. Coming from a computer programming background, I think analogies, and parables, are most useful when they function as abstractions. That is, we start with something complex, and we distill it down to the bare essentials for the purpose at hand.

    As an example of what I think would be a good use of the parable, consider Orwell's Animal Farm. The complexities of Soviet-era geopolitics were distilled into a tale about animals and farms, so as to shine a light on the ideas that Orwell was conveying. This isn't too hard because the whole tale of animals and farms is fictitious in the first place, so Orwell has a lot of leeway to adjust his story to fit the outline of historical fact.

    If instead we try to use some other past historical event as a "parable" for a current event, things get infinitely murkier. We're essentially using something concrete as an "abstraction" for something else; we're trying to force-fit some past event into the frame of current events. This may be useful, but I think it needs to be done carefully.

    -- frank

  6. MT

    Couple of books you might be interested in:

    Peter J. Wilson - The Domestication of the Human Species (esp ch 5 The Surrealities of Power); and

    William McNeill - Moving Together in Time

    First notes that building something large signals the unity and strength of the group, and therefore deters enemies and attracts allies - hence henges, temples, Maori food towers and much else;

    second notes that there is a physiological feedback between group rhythmic movement and group bonding - ie, building something large by all moving together creates the unity and strength of the group.

    Given tribal competition, building moai made sense on both counts. The tribe that didn't signalled weakness and actually was weaker. And as resources diminished, competitiveness would increase, and moai-building become more necessary. A familiar logic.

  7. Prestige is almost certainly part of it. Prestige is an example of what economists call a "positional good," and it can be be very valuable to an individual to chase it but society as a whole can only create so much of it. If prestige is what you're building for, the more/bigger/better statues around, the more/bigger/better you have to build to get the same benefit.

    A modern example is billionaires' superyachts.

    The largest private yacht in the world at 163 meters long, "Eclipse" is believed to feature around 24 guest cabins, two swimming pools and a mini-submarine, and was rumored to have cost between $540 million and $1.1 billion. ... "You'd probably want at least two helicopter platforms, so you can land your own helicopter and visitors can also land theirs, cinemas, hospitals, spas, large entertainments areas and hairdressing salons.

    Sure, hundreds of millions will get you swimming pools, spas, cinemas, and submarines, but what are they really buying? A place to invite peers who are hard to impress, a place where any party is a must attend that people will talk about afterward. How much does it cost to buy that? Much more than it used to. What it costs depends on how nice everyone else's are.

    But it's not just a problem of the super-rich, people devote a lot of their income to purchasing status or trendiness in the middle class, too.

    On a related note, an interesting new article from Kenneth Rogoff:

    does it really make sense to take growth as the main social objective in perpetuity, as economics textbooks implicitly assume? Certainly, many critiques of standard economic statistics have argued for broader measures of national welfare ... But there might be a problem even deeper than statistical narrowness: the failure of modern growth theory to emphasize adequately that people are fundamentally social creatures. They evaluate their welfare based on what they see around them, not just on some absolute standard. ... benchmarking behavior is almost surely an important factor in how people assess their own well-being. If so, generalized income growth might well raise such assessments at a much slower pace than one might expect from looking at how a rise in an individual’s income relative to others affects her welfare. And, on a related note, benchmarking behavior may well imply a different calculus of the tradeoffs between growth and other economic challenges, such as environmental degradation, than conventional growth models suggest.

  8. "This piece, in addition to its explicit content, shows that I value “story” as communication. But I’m also trying to express how all this talk of “narrative” offends me. When you talk to a friend, you don’t construct a “narrative”, you “tell the truth”, which is to convey your actual understanding honestly. Unless you are a sociopath.

    We are all in the same boat and had better learn to trust each other. This means telling the truth. Being colorful and interesting is necessary, but spinning the facts is malicious. To the extent “narrative” is about spin, it is a problem."

    Well said Michael.

  9. Only supporting comments so far. I agree with David that Yap money seems related.

    Is there any evidence against the hypothesis? If not, is it worth publication, or is it so plainly obvious as to not bother?

    I know that I had been banging a drum for looking at climate through a risk analysis framework for years, but thought it too obvious to write up. Now Martin Weitzman is famous for that. I doubt he had heard of me, but after all, I still think the idea is obvious.

    I am glad readers think it plausible, but is it a novel idea that the moai functioned as a resource allocation device, i.e., more or less as money? It would explain a lot of otherwise peculiar things. Can it be tested? Is it worth working up for publication?

  10. Now being retired I have had time to look into the antropoogy and archaeological literature (A&A). You can certainly find a venue there. Two suggestions: (1) cultivate the interests of someone on the faculty in those fields and follow their advice; (2) find armsloads of (at least moderately) relevant literature from A&A and integrate as references.

    Looks to be a tremendous effort but the idea is sufficiently novel to be publishable.

  11. Well, this is a great deal more work than I'd be willing to do. There's a hell of a lot of sociology and anthropology around power, status and display that you'd have to at least allude to.

    Preferably you'd have to do a fair bit of argumentation showing why the 'resource allocation device' approach is credible, let alone valid, as a good or better description of the processes. I do think it's plausible but I'm not familiar enough with the field to say that it's novel. My reading is strictly casual and incidental.

    Still, you could have a lot of fun looking at how this notion fits in with funeral, wedding, trading and other ceremonial feasts and similar events. Is it an extension of or an addition to such things. Which societies are/ were more likely to go down this path.

    Oh well. You probably needed a hobby anyway.

  12. MT: When you talk to a friend, you don’t construct a “narrative”, you “tell the truth”, which is to convey your actual understanding honestly. Unless you are a sociopath.

    We are all in the same boat and had better learn to trust each other. This means telling the truth. Being colorful and interesting is necessary, but spinning the facts is malicious. To the extent “narrative” is about spin, it is a problem.

    I disagree. We lie about a lot of things, to ourselves and to others, family and friends especially, all the time. I wish it were not so. Language and grammar evolved not just to communicate useful truths but also to allow us to deceive and gossip. I suggest that you read “The Folly of Fools,” by Robert Trivers NYT review here.

    If we are to be effective in changing the consciousness of our fellow humans towards the threats of climate change, we first have to deal with the fact that they are not Vulcans. Framing matters. Telling the truth is not sufficient. A compelling narrative is necessary.

  13. I think the novel point is statues as resource allocation devices. I doubt the Easter Island record could support (or refute) this idea, so you would have to look elsewhere (perhaps with Maori food display towers?). But i doubt the idea is needed - prestige competition would do the job without any resource allocation. Interesting question is why Rapa Nui was not politically united, which would then have allowed effective regulation of population and ecology?

    Unrelated point - on moving Moai - Egyptian picures show large statues being moved upright. Stone is less liable to break that way, and you don't need to prepare the road surface as much. By ancient standards moaia were not that big (around 70-80 tonnes - smaller than many neolithic monuments). Get it on a sled and "walk" the sled with levers. Slow, but if you have a year or so..... Wikipedia gives maximum distance as just over 6 kms - 20 metres a day for a year with 60 days off.

  14. What you are describing sounds like an Easter Island version of the N American Indian potlatch economy. If your hypothesis about multiple tribes is correct, a potlatch would be a counter narrative to the resource abuse of one tribe over another, as potlatch was used as a social instrument to redistribute income, and confers a higher social status to the giver. But in either instance, it can fall apart as resources dwindle as in any economy.

  15. Jay Rosen has a wonderful rant on Google Plus which touches on my answer. In short, the right has no monopoly on denialism, though of course in the denialism sweepstakes the right clearly holds a commanding lead these days.

    I remain reasonably convinced that despite their protestations to the contrary, Lipo and Hunt know more or less what answer they want and they doggedly collect data which supports it and dismiss or ignore that which doesn't. In short, they argue like politicians and advocates.

    Indeed this "I used to think (sensible thing) but now I think (ridiculous thing)" is a symptom of the most egregiously dishonest denialism, since it is a necessary counterweight to others making the opposite transition. I am speculating and I can prove nothing but this raises quite a flag for me about the purpose of their endeavors. It would be unsurprising if they don't look too hard at where their funding comes from, and that it in the end comes from somebody with whom they do not on the whole sympathize.

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