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...
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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. 
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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. 
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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...
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(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.) 

59 comments:

Alan said...

Adrian,Pseudo science seems very much like fundamentalist religious beliefs and is still very much alive and hard to eradicate.I still do not understand which is the most influential nature or nurture and the current problem of what is a truly healthy diet.I don't know if we are preprogrammed at birth for alztheimers or some cancers.This topic of widely believed psuedo science is fascinating.Link not available.Best Alan

adrian mckinty said...

Alan

Dont get me wrong. I certainly dont think global warming is pseudo science. Its clearly happening but I am not an alarmist.

Yes the planet has been warming for the entire holocene era and yes its warming faster because of all the carbon we're dumping in the atmosphere. However I'm confident that humans will think our way out of impending disaster just as the humans on Easter Island thought their way out of their own eco nightmare.

Alan said...

Adrian,I am a bit more pessimistic about the human race's survival as I remember both the nuclear alert shelter drills as a child and the doctrine of M.A.D.during the "Cold War". I wonder about missing nuclear materials when the Soviet Union imploded and the proliferation of Bio-Chemical weapons in Libya/Syria with lunatic Jihadists et.al ranging the globe looking for a target .Ofcourse I hope I am wrong but reason often seems to fail humankind.Best Alan

adrian mckinty said...

Alan

Yeah I'm pessimistic too but not overly so. Things are better than the MAD days when human civilization cd largely have been wiped out in a few minutes.

The 21st century is going to be a huge challenge but I think humanity is going to be able to figure it out especially with the incredible innovation and development in unlikely places like Africa and SE Asia.

And yes I agree we've gotten off to a terrible start: the invasion of Iraq, Syria, etc. etc....

Peter Rozovsky said...

Fred Phelps's death and the disappearance of Flight 370 make these heady days for alarmists in America and elsewhere. I wonder when the first thoughts of apocalypse occurred to a human being and in what circumstance that human lived. If he had copyrighted the idea, he and his descendants would have been rich until the end of days.

adrian mckinty said...

Peter

But on the plus side David Phelps has been pitching really well for the Yankees so the Yankees have 7 good pitchers competing for 5 rotation spots.

If it were me I'd go: Tanaka, Pineda, Nova, Kuroda, Sabathia and stick Phelps at AAA.

Apocalypse schmapocalypse as my bubby never used to say.

Peter Rozovsky said...

End of the world, schmend of the world. As long as you have your health.

Good move to ship Phelps out. Having a starting pitcher whip out a "God hates fags" sign on the mound would do no one any good.

Which reminds me that Westboro Baptist Church consists largely of people named Phelps by birth or marriage, so one never knows.

seana graham said...

Diamond is massively popular in Santa Cruz, as for that matter is Malcolm Gladwell. It's mainly Guns, Germs and Steel that everyone seems to read, though.

I have been thinking a lot about island ecology recently, after reading Darwin's Armada and then When The Killing's Done, T.C. Boyle's novel about the Channel Islands off southern California. Invasive snakes, rats, and, well, foreigners like the Europeans pose big problems in a closed system.

Ireland had a similar deforestation problem, didn't it?

adrian mckinty said...

Peter

If it were me I'd put Phelps and Nova at AAA to have them ready to come up but they wont do that, they'll put 1 or both of them at long relief.

It wd by funny if Phelps was related to that family. Have you see the Louis Theroux doc: The Most Hated Family In America. Its worth watching. Easy to find on youtube.

adrian mckinty said...

Seana

Of course he's big in SC. Big in Melbourne too. Nice man, heart in the right place, but a bad scientist, a bad social scientist and wrong.

adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Strike that. Meant Phelps and Nuno at AAA.

Nuno Nova Tanaka Kuroda Pineda

wd be a nice sounding rotation though.

Peter Rozovsky said...

A rotation like that could produce a follow-up to this.

Brendan O'Leary said...

Thanks Adrian. I would find it hard to follow a novelist who didn't have faith in human ingenuity and redeemability. Although I'm happy enough to "trust the tale" regardless of what the novelist blogs.


It's a pity for wider discourse but the mechanical engineers and other applied science people don't really engage with the chattering classes. They don't see the point. They're comfortable enough knowing they'll always be needed.

Brendan O'Leary said...
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adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Thats cute. Didnt know about that little jazzy thing.

adrian mckinty said...

Brendan

Thats exactly the problem. The doom and gloom merchants are almost always arts majors with little command of math or science. The statistical errors in some of the opinion pieces one reads in the press (The Huffington Post in particular) are shocking.

Brendan O'Leary said...

Offhand, I can't really think of an applied science practitioner in modern times who wrote philosophical works or imaginative fiction. Maybe Primo Levi. Have you read The Wrench? A collection of workplace stories from engineering and construction projects, some very funny.

Peter Rozovsky said...

I resent your slur against the Huffington Post. You accuse it of statistical errors, but nowhere do you mention its sloppy writing and its neglect of the most basic fact-checking (the most recent example I found was in a story about Philadelphia whose accompanying list of corrections threatened to overwhelm the article. And i found another mistake.)

seana graham said...

Although I understand what you're saying about the lack of scientific or statistical training in some of these writings, what I find interesting is that the way you are actually pointing out their lack of faith in human resourcefulness, which you would think a humanities background would give you a feel for, if for nothing else. I had my eyes opened on this around this time last year when I took a course on Global Poverty, where our assumptions were constantly challenged by data. One thing I remember is the instructors' thought about global population which contrary to pretty much everything I've ever heard about population growth, suggested the idea that more people meant the possibility of more innovators. The class was rather exhilarating in that sort of way, because it valued individual contribution as significant, and potentially game changing. And not just the contributions of the privileged either.

Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, doom and cynicism sell, don't they? In America, at least, optimism has been co-opted by Republicans, so what else is left besides doom-saying for a social scientist who wants to make a buck?

Interesting that the Rapa Nui book apparently shifts the blame from ecological to disease and rats introduced by Europeans. Once upon a time, and not so long ago, either, the latter would have been more in accord with (leftist) popular beliefs. So yes, this book appears worth a look. But the B&N that displayed all three of the Sean Duffy books on its shelves had no copy of the Lipo/Hunt in stock. I shall have to visit my local independent.

Peter Rozovsky said...

I should add that Adrian is not the only acquaintance of mine who maintains political views that would fit comfortably toward the left end of the spectrum in most respects but who is nonetheless dismayed by the how the media and politicians and the public deal with what is misleadingly called "climate change." (Such a term suggests a failure to recognize that what we ought to be worried about is man-made climate change.)

seana graham said...

It's funny, but I have come to the opposite conclusion, Peter. Instead of worrying about how much human beings cause it, what we ought to be doing is trying to figure out how to mitigate it, regardless of its sources. Otherwise, it's going to be a hot time in the old town tonight.

Peter Rozovsky said...

I don't so much mean to suggest that we ought to ignore one and worry about the other. I'm really more worried that the term climate change suggests a lack of awareness of climatic cycles that long predate what we humans do to the atmosphere.

This is a essential step, since the the natural kind would be a lot easier to mitigate than the man-made variety, I think

seana graham said...

Hmm--I would think the opposite. But in any case, I would think that human steps to actively cool down the planet would be a good idea regardless of why it was heating up. Just from a human rather than geological perspective I mean.

adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Jesus dont get me started on the Huffington Post, an organ which has done much to coarsen the discourse in America with its absurd opinion pieces from Depark Chopra and other eloquent hucksters...

I think it wd be very silly to argue that all the carbon we're burning is doing nothing to the climate but the doom merchants are just as absurd in many cases. James Lovelock predicted 25 years ago that NY and London wd be under water by now and when that didnt work out predicted it again a few months back in the Guardian for 20 years from now...

adrian mckinty said...

Seana

I'd love to point out to that book Abundance which has become a best seller which argues that very point. Its a very cheery look at Africa and its potential in particular and sort of makes my point about human ingenuity. Its been well reviewed and like I say is a best seller...

I cant recommend it at all though. I thought was a barely literate screed written by someone who has watched way too many TED talks and read too few books.

seana graham said...

I think the longer you live the more you find that life is actually very unpredictable, for either good or ill.

I didn't expect that Putin would cap off the Olympic Games with a little expedition into the Crimea, for instance.

Brendan O'Leary said...

The thing about doom-mongering is that it doesn't inspire action but paralysis. We're all fucked; why bother?

Imagine if the Dutch had reacted to the encroaching sea in that way.

Which reminds me:Hitchhiking around Cork and Kerry in the late 70s i got a lift from farmer who got into a rant about Irish agriculture. "They say if the Dutch had Ireland, they could feed the world. And if the Irish had Holland, they'd drown"

adrian mckinty said...

Seana

Have a skim through Abundance but dont buy it. Or better yet watch what the authors say on TED. Thats really the medium to assess the book's arguments. But basically the message is one of optimism, particularly relating to Africa and poverty.

adrian mckinty said...

Brendan

Yeah. Disaster fatigue or doom fatigue. Its silly. And the science doesnt back it up. Unless we get hit by a comet before we establish a Martian colony we humans are not going to die out any time soon.

Anne said...

Jarred Diamond must have based his research on Dr. Seuss's tale of the Lorax. :- )

Brendan O'Leary said...

Diamond and Flannery were together in PNG at one stage and are long-time friends. I guess that's how it goes with reviews these days. Maybe it always did.

I guess the key thing about a successful doomsday/collapse book is to pitch your ending just beyond the shelf-life of the book, so you'll be mostly forgotten and won't look too silly when it doesn't eventuate, but it's still near enough in the future to make people nervous. The internet has undermined that strategy somewhat.

Alan said...

Adrian,A bit more optimism about nations and life in the NYT today re:a converstion with Paddy Fermor's biographer.Well written I felt especially the ending sentence.Best Alan

adrian mckinty said...

Anne

Like Dr Seuss Diamond is a very good writer and, it seems, a nice man whose heart is definitely in the right place.

However, his book just doesn't accord with the facts. I'm not accusing him of intellectual dishonesty just a slapdash approach whereby the premise comes before the facts.

adrian mckinty said...

Brendan

Doesnt surprise me. I think both men are basically right about climate change but their alarmist approach and this idea that its too late now away doesnt A) help B) accord with the facts.

adrian mckinty said...

Alan

It wd be a dream assignment to write a life of PLF, a man who had who so many facets and divertissements...

Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, I suppose Putin had to time his annexation of the Crimea in time to avoid marring the Olympics, and also for the fuss to have died down by the time Russia hosts soccer's World Cup in 2018.

John Halbrook said...

Seems a big leap from Jared Diamond's possibly mistaken assumption about the end of life on Easter Island and some kid in Africa figuring out how to solve the carbon problem. Of course it could happen, but I can't quite get the connection.

seana graham said...

I didn't provide the carbon solution, John. I think what the instructors were saying is rather than just looking at people as unwanted extras, you have to also think about how each person might also contribute some innovation or new way of looking at things that hasn't come up before. It isn't really a genius model, it's how is having that many more perspectives beneficial?

adrian mckinty said...

John

The connection is this: Jared Diamond underestimated the Rapa Nuians ability to think themselves out of an eco catastrophe, which apparently they did. There were only 15,000 Easter Islanders. In 10 years there are going to be a billion Africans under the age of 30 with the most diverse DNA of any human population and access to the world knowledge base through the internet so its not at all ridiculous at all to suggest that some African kid is going to become the next Thomas Edison, Bill Gates, Einstein in fact it seems pretty likely. A human who cd invent cheap solar, or a cheap carbon scrubber or s'thing that will save the planet.

Rob James said...

Apropos of nothing, we're having a lot of arguments at work about a good text to teach year 11 next year. It has to link to the idea of Identity and Belonging.

Any ideas anyone?

My shortlist so far is:
Concrete Island - JG Ballard
Maus - Spiegelman
The Curious Incident... - Haddon

We've been doing Montana 1948 for a loooong time and need a change.

You lot are literate. Hayulp.

adrian mckinty said...

Rob

Those are some good choices. I especially like to encourage the early adoption of JG Ballard. 5 more short works about identity that I happen to Love:

The Crying of Lot 49
Scoop
The Importance of Being Earnest
A Scanner Darkly
The Double (Dostoyevsky)

seana graham said...

Adrian's always a good source for this kind of stuff Rob. I'll just add a couple of more recent ones, Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist, and Karen Joy Fowler's We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.

Peter Rozovsky said...

Rob: Joseph Roth's What I Saw: Reports from Berlin, 1920-1933 might fit that list.

One of my two verification words for this post is a fine word for a Scottish suck-up, or for someone who was always telling Steve Jobs hoe great his company's product was: Macsycophant

Brendan O'Leary said...

I'm not sure how Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man would stand up now, but I remember it being good on the identity theme at the time I read it.

Or has it been done to death by Lit classes? I really have no contact with that world.

Peter Rozovsky said...

Ralph Ellison's image is among those that come up on a Kindle screen when the device is in rest more. I suspect that means he may have been done to death in class.

Brendan O'Leary said...

I suspect you're right Peter. I came across it in the 70s when I asked an English Lit tutor acquaintance for reading suggestions. He was bright-eyed evangelical about Ellison. I think academics like him because he's ... academic.

I could suggest "The Fanatic" by James Robertson which I think is brilliant on identity, but teaching it to year 11 , or any year, would be an uphill battle to put it mildly.

adrian mckinty said...

Peter, Brendan

Invisible Man is a wonderful novel that for once lives up to its billing and hype but I think it might be a little too long for 16 year olds...

adrian mckinty said...

Seana

I've heard good things about We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. I think I'll pop over to Audible and see if theres an audio version...

adrian mckinty said...

Seana

Strangely there is not.

Some v nice reviews on Amazon though and a lot of Best of 2013 lists which sounds good, the stuff about the chimpanzee though is a little off putting...

Peter Rozovsky said...

I noticed your list's emphasis on short books. It's one reason I suggested Roth. His book consists of short pieces, written for newspapers. Teenagers could read a piece or two between text messages.

By the way, I have a blog post coming up concerning a writer about whom Patrick Leigh Fermor raved.

adrian mckinty said...

Peter

I am intrigued. I shall tune in.

Peter Rozovsky said...

It's up! (I discovered the your man PLF liked the book in question from the WIkipedia entry about the author.)

seana graham said...

I read the Fowler book in a galley form, so didn't know anything about it, which I think was better. KJF apparently doesn't think spoilers are that big a deal, but I beg to differ. It's a little like how I felt about knowing the protagonist of Fifty Grand before you start in, but more so.

Rob James said...

You lot are great. Should be a nice reading list for the next while.

Thanks.

Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian: I bought the Lipo/Hunt book this week with part of my share of the settlement from the e-book pricing antitrust suit. Interesting that this is not a case of left vs. right, or of a "progressive" argument overturning a regressive one (or vice versa). Rather it's a case of an older "progressive" argument returning to debunk a newer one.

The argument that disease brought by Europeans is responsible for decimating a non-European population was once a popular argument on the left, I think, or at least an argument that enjoyed some cultural currency. Then environment became the hot cause. Now disease is back.

adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Its true that its just the replacement of one paradigm for another but if the second paradigm accords more closely with the facts on the ground...

Matt said...

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/29/world/asia/facing-rising-seas-bangladesh-confronts-the-consequences-of-climate-change.html?hp&_r=0

:(

I wish I were more optimistic, but even our leaders in Canada are in bed with the oil and gas industry and denigrate scientists on a daily basis (what are these left-wing unions they are supposed to be in league with, anyhow?)

Peter Rozovsky said...

Oh, I wasn't criticizing the new paradigm. I quite like what they have to say. I merely noted that racism and imperialism are so pre-Al Gore when it comes to paradigms of evil.