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.
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.