Saturday, March 22, 2014

Why Jared Diamond Is Wrong About "Ecocide" on Easter Island And What This Means For The Green Movement

Easter Island attracts crackpots like no other place in the world. In a best selling and widely influential book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Jared Diamond (a more respectable breed of crackpot) took several cases of what he called prima facie ecocide and drew wide ranging conclusions from them. The case he devoted most space to was that of Rapa Nui (Easter Island) which he said was a gloomy portent of what could happen to planet Earth if we didn't get our act together. When the Polynesians immigrants arrived on Easter Island c. 1000AD they found a small volcanic rock covered with a dense palm forest. Over the next five hundred years the palms were cut down for slash and burn agriculture and for the timber logs needed to move the massive Moai statues all over the island. Diamond makes much hay of this Moai building claiming that the forests were denuded purely for ceremonial and status reasons - in effect for luxury goods. The effect of the deforestation led to crop failure, famine, war, cannabalism and a massive reduction in Easter Island's population from 15,000 to just over a 100 people by the end of the nineteenth century. Diamond goes on to draw the obvious conclusion: this could happen to spaceship Earth if we are as blind and shortsighted as the Rapa Nuians. Collapse was reviewed ecstatically in Science magazine by the prominent Australian environmental writer Tim Flannery (my daughter is in Tim Flannery House at her Melbourne school) and by the likes of Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker. It has been cited hundreds of times since then by environmentalists both as paradigm case of man's eco foolishness, and as a prophecy of what could happen in the future...
...
There is only one problem with all of this. A big problem. Diamond's book is almost certainly complete bollocks. Diamond spent no time doing original botanic or archaeological work on Easter Island, was not an expert in the field and thus based his research on secondary sources. Recently a book was published by scientists who actually work on Easter Island and they tell a rather different story. Carl Lipo and Terry Hunt from the University of Hawaii and U California argue that yes Easter Island was deforested (probably by a spike in the rat population) but when Europeans arrived the Rapa Nuians had adapted to the deforestation and were farming other crops in unique and clever ways, were still fishing and were healthy and happy: there was no evidence of cannablism, no evidence of war or of mass starvation. In their book The Statues That Walked they even debunk Diamond's claim that the Rapa Nuians had committed ecocide just to move their Moai around - the statues they say were almost certainly moved by ropes. The tales of cannabilism were invented by the usual suspects (French missionaries) to denigrate the old religion. 
...
In a BBC documentary I watched last night (shown here in Australia on SBS) Jago Cooper very carefully unpacks the ecocide argument and finds the Rapa Nuians not guilty. Interviewing all the relevant experts on Easter Island (scientists who actually do field work there) Cooper argues that yes Easter Island was deforested but also yes the population continued to thrive even after the forests had gone. How? Well through ingenious rock gardens, semi subterranean agricultural plantations, fishing, harvesting of bird life and many other unique and smart ways. When the Dutch arrived in 1722 the population was not starving but thriving and this was a hundred years after the last of the forests had gone. However fifty years later when Captain Cook came to Easter Island he found a population on its legs and almost completely wiped out. What happened? Well, the clue if he'd bothered to look, was in Jared Diamond's first book: Guns Germs and Steel. The Dutch brought European diseases which reduced the population of Easter Island by 90%. The rest of the Easter Islanders were carried away in slave raids. The final straw was the introduction of sheep at the end of the nineteenth and the effective imprisonment of the remaining Rapa Nuians. 
...
You can watch Jago Cooper's documentary on SBS here and make up your own mind. (I dont know if this link will work outside of Australia.) But I'm convinced by the scientists. The eco parable is wrong. On Easter Island human ingenuity saved the Rapa Nuians until the Dutch brought measles and the Spanish and Chileans brought guns. And thus, a fortiori, Diamond's argument about human ingenuity, climate change and planet Earth? Yes climate change is going to be devastating in the twenty first century, but human ingenuity is going to come up with many clever solutions to carbon fuel and carbon pollution...there's probably a kid in Africa right now who is going to become the solar energy Bill Gates...
...
(I don't know if it's a coincidence or not but Jared Diamond, Tim Flannery and many of the other eco catastrophists were not trained as scientists (Both have BA's and only switched to science for their research degrees). I'm guessing that a BSc imposes a scientific rigour on the mind that you just don't get in an arts degree.)