Easter Island: How We can Learn From Our Past

Daniel Altieri

On January 1st, 2016, the estimated world population was around 7.3 billion people . For nearly seven and a half billion people, only two and a half percent of global water is fresh, drinkable water and of that two and half percent, approximately forty percent is polluted in one way or another . Regarding deforestation, about eighty percent of the worlds forests have been destroyed by humans . As the problem of environmental degradation and ways to combat it become increasingly popular among world governments and their constituents, humans are looking for some sort of guidance in order to save what is left of the planet. Luckily, the leaders of the world don’t need to look at a computer simulation, or devise a hypothetical scenario in order to see what would happen if they don’t change course. A look back through history will provide all the guidance they need, as the demise of Easter Island shows, on a small scale, how the fragile balance between humans and the environment needs to be kept in check, in order to avoid a apocalyptic outcome. Easter Island is a small, remote volcanic island about two thousand miles off the coast of Chile, with a land area of only one hundred and fifty square miles . The island was first inhabited between the years 700-1100 A.D . Arriving in a group of approximately twenty to thirty people, the residents of Easter Island, who call themselves the “Rapanui”, created a hierarchal society that was centered around and dominated by religion and ritualistic practices and cultural appreciation . These practices including constructing their famous stone face statues that still baffle historians today as to how they were able to move these extremely heavy pieces of rock without any modern technology. The best answer to this question is that the Rapanui needed large quantities of timber from the existing forests on the island to create long flexible tracks to slide the stones on . Besides using trees to help build the statues, the Rapanui severely deforested the island for cooking and heating, rowboats, agriculture, and other daily goods . However, as the Rapanui lived in their seemingly paradise world, their effect on the environment of the island slowly became apparent. As timber from the forests started to disappear, the Rapanui had to quit building houses, and use what was left on the stone on the island to make caves and shelters. Without any more timber, canoes, and rowboats were not being made anymore, so fishing and any form of offshore catching ceased. That meant that the Rapanui had to resort to only agriculture for their diet. Although Easter Island had a tropical like climate, the soil was nutrient deficient, and the only crops that could flourish were potatoes and chicken livestock . The impact on the loss of the forests also affected their spiritual and cultural beliefs and practices. Without wood, the Rapanui could not drag the stones and erect any more statues, which threw their social structure and religious beliefs into a tailspin, causing frequent conflicts and hatred between each faction. This division, along with the existing environmental degradation, lead to the near extinction of the Rapanui, and eventually to the enslavement of the remaining survivors by explorers throughout the 1700 and 1800s . However, there have been a handful of historians and scholars who have disagreed with the theory that the Rapanui were responsible with the deforestation and collapse of Easter Island. One theory suggests that the Rapanui unintentionally brought rodents on the first ships to the island, and that the rats multiplied so fast that they ended up eating all the palm seeds and thereby preventing any trees from growing . Another hypothesis includes that the Rapanui degrading their environment was not the reason that their society collapsed, but that the existing climate, vegetation, soil and landscape of the island were not conducive to human life, and they would’ve failed to survive anyway . Whatever the case my be, the destruction that the Rapanui inflicted on their environment accelerated any other factors in play, and was the chief cause of their demise.
Fast-forward to today, and society is faced with a similar problem that the Rapanui faced hundreds on years earlier, only this time it’s on a global scale. With diminishing forests, air and water pollution on the rise, and energy consumption on the rise , humans face severe environmental consequences, which will lead to probable famine, disease, war, and reduction in the human population. Looking at Easter Island, what lessons can society today learn and use for the future? For starters, an important lesson is understating the principle of respect and appreciation for our surroundings. Our environment gives us natural resources that we use every day, and for decades we have been finding new ways to extract more and more while at the same increasing our own population. Going forward, we as a global society need to realize the strains we are putting on finite resources, and how to respect those limits in order to ensure our future prosperity. At the same time, we need to also know that, although humans are creature of habit, we also have to power to change. The Rapanui’s belief in the stone heads made them keep destroying their environment in order to build them. Likewise, many in society today believe that we cannot change our current behaviors and habits in our lives, and that environmental change will never come. Just as we, and the Rapanui, altered the environment to fit our current lifestyle, we have the ability to change it again to ensure a sustainable, safe, and healthy planet for the future.

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