Sunday, June 25, 2006

Easter Island - Why Civilizations Fail

Annalise and I recently read A Short History of Progress by Ronald Wright. It's one of the books from the Massey Lectures series, and basically Wright explores the past to try and come up with an answer to the question of where this civilization of ours is heading. My favourite quote from the book is when he says that mankind must bring the civilization "experiment" under rational control, and not screw it up. "If we fail - if we blow up or degrade the biosphere so it can no longer sustain us - nature will merely shrug and conclude that letting apes run the laboratory was fun for a while, but in the end a bad idea." (pg. 31).


Later on Wright talks about Easter Island. Tiny and remote, it was originally a paradise with flora and fauna aplenty. The islanders started building the idols in honour of their ancestors, but building and moving the idols required using large amounts of timber. So the years passed, the islanders built bigger and bigger idols using up their timber and trees were cut down faster than they could grow. By, at the latest, 1400, there were no more trees on Easter Island. What did this mean? They couldn't build canoes anymore and couldn't get seafood. They ate their dogs. They couldn't build wooden shelters anymore. They moved to caves. The trees no longer secured the earth, so floods washed good farming soil away. They had little to burn, and couldn't make fire, and couldn't cook.
When Captain Cook arrived around 1772 there were only a "ragged few" (to cheat off Shakespeare) left, and these were the warrior class - those who had survived by killing their neighbours and even resorting to cannibalism. As Wright says, what the hell were they thinking? On an island that small they could SEE the trees disappearing. They KNEW what they were doing. At some point there was only one tree left on the island, and they knew it was the last one, and they cut it down anyway!!
What does this mean about us as humans? Wright quotes from a book called "Easter Island, Earth Island" by Bahn and Flenley:
"(The Islanders) carried out for us the experiment of permitting unrestricted population growth, profligate use of resources, destruction of the environment and boundless confidence in their religion to take care of the future. The result was an ecological disaster leading to a population crash... Do we have to repeat the experiment on a grand scale?... Is the human personality always the same as that of the person who felled the last tree?"

Anyway... just something for us all to think about as we let Coca Cola and Pepsi buy up Canadian lakes to sell us bottled water, as we let George Bush set up oil rigs in the arctic, as we refuse to face the tough questions about oil depletion and how we'll live when the oil is gone.

By the way, I've been doing some investigating of other web blogs, and just came across an awesome peak oil information blog from a guy named Big Gav in Australia. Check out this page
Big Gav's Peak Oil Site for the biggest machine I've ever seen. Take a look and ask yourself if mankind was really supposed to tear up the earth this way.

And this is neat for people who like skateboarding/mountain bike videos (i.e. people tumbling down staircases or crashing into trees) - but this one is on unicycles!
Unicycles on You Tube

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