Survivor: Easter Island

Easter Island is a small island in the Pacific that has achieved worldwide fame for its giant Moai statues, giant human sculptures erected on the island circa 1300 CE. Weighing as much as 86 tons and standing as tall as 33 feet, the Moai are akin to a Stonehenge of the South Pacific, unexplained monuments of a primitive civilization. [1]


Moai surveying Easter Island Source:

Moai surveying Easter Island

The Moai are not, however, Easter Island’s only mystery. Archaeologists and anthropologists have also struggled to explain the collapse of the island’s civilization in the sixteenth century. Scientists and historians have put forth a range of theories on the island’s downfall. [2]

The traditional narrative, as told by Jared Diamond, is one of manmade ecological collapse. According to Diamond, the agrarian inhabitants aggressively cleared the island’s trees with slash-and-burn techniques to make room for farms and did not stop until it was too late. With the trees vanished lumber for canoes and huts and protein the form of birds and other wildlife. With too many people and too few resources, the islander civilization caved. [3]

The second narrative, on the other hand, paints mankind as resilient in the face of ecological collapse. According to anthropologists Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo, while Easter Island’s inhabitants did indeed clear large tracts of forested land for farming, an invasive species of rat was equally responsible. Without natural predators, the rats quickly multiplied and assisted the islanders in clearing the trees by eating seeds and sprouts, thereby preventing reforestation . The islanders, however, made the most of the situation by developing innovative farming techniques and eating the rats until they succumbed to diseases brought by European settlers. [4]

Rats like this one became the islanders' main source of protein  Source:

Rats like this one became the islanders’ main source of protein

While both these theories are interesting within the context of Easter Island, they are even more poignant, as Robert Krulwich argues, when expanded as allegories to contemporary global environmental challenges, primarily those associated with climate change. [5] Obviously deforestation on a tiny South Pacific isle is not a perfect analogue for global climate change, but the two theories of Easter Island’s downfall reflect two different ways of conceiving of the relationship between human civilization and the environment.

Diamond’s is very much an environmentalist paradigm that highlights the inextricable link between human civilization and the environment. In his narrative, environmental resources are central to the existence and advancement of human civilization and the extent to which mankind can consume is constrained by environmental limits.

Diamond’s narrative also underscores an important but terrifying truth about human myopia and inaction in the face of environmental overexploitation. As Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert notes, humans are hardwired with a primal threat assessment mechanism. According to Gilbert, the threats with which primitive man was faced were immoral, imminent, instantaneous or intentional, and individuals best equipped to recognize and respond to those threats were more likely to survive and reproduce. Our threat-identification system hasn’t evolved much since then, so humans still respond most viscerally and decisively when a threat fulfills one of Gilbert’s four criteria. [6] This is why the deforestation of Easter Island (if you believe Diamond’s account), the unintentional and gradual byproduct of farming efforts, did not stop until collapse was ensured. This is also why politicians could enact sweeping policy reforms in the wake of the 9/11 attacks (which fulfilled all four of Gilbert’s criteria) while climate change, which is not instantaneous, imminent, intentional or obviously immoral, has yet to be addressed through decisive political engagement or meaningful public policy.

The second account of Easter Island’s collapse reflects Cornucopian sensibilities. Cornucopians stake their faith the boundless human capacity for innovation to overcome the finitude of the environmental resources. [7] In the second narrative, innovation was indeed the islanders’ salvation, allowing them to outlive the island’s ecosystem until European settlers arrived. The irony, of course, is that according to this narrative, the island’s ruin was the islanders’ salvation. The same rats that destroyed the ecosystem sustained the islanders until the Europeans arrived.

Today we have our own version of rats in the form of geoengineering technologies. Geoengineering technologies, including cloud whitening and ocean fertilization, have the potential to alter the environment so that it can better meet human needs. The risk is that these technologies are largely untested. At worst, they could cause severe ecological damage and compromise environmental resources essential to human civilization. At best, geoengineering will have no ecological impact, but will irreversibly transform the natural world into an extension of human society. [8] Once “the rat is out of the bag” as far as geoengineering is concerned, it’s out for good.

Geoengineering promises bold but risky methods for adapting to climate change Source:

Geoengineering promises bold but risky methods for adapting to climate change

Regardless of which story you believe, Easter Island paints a sobering picture of the challenges of climate change mitigation and the limits of adaptation. The environmentalist narrative in particular paints a bleak picture of our planet’s ecological future. If the inhabitants of a small island could not restrain themselves from overconsumption of a critical resource, what hope does modern society have of overcoming a far more complex environmental crisis that will require political collaboration and collective action?

I find the more optimistic narrative, of survival in the wake of ecocide, more troubling. The utter ruin of our planet’s ecosystem is a troubling thought, one that is easy to sugarcoat by placing faith in future scientific innovation and its capacity to limit climate change. But just as Easter Island’s rodent infestation proved a detriment and a salvation to the island’s human inhabitants, any solution that science presents to climate change will likely be imperfect and require some sacrifice.

Both narratives seem to agree on this lesson: as humans place an increasing burden on natural resources, we should not do so in the hope or expectation that science will deliver a panacea. Because even if a solution to climate change presents itself, it will likely demand uncomfortable compromises.

Works Referenced

[1] United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Office [UNESCO]. (n.d.)“Rapa Nui National Park.” UNESCO. Retrieved from

[2] Ibid.

[3] Diamond, J. (2005). Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York, NY: Viking Press.

[4] Hunt, T. & C. Lipo. (2011). The Statues that Walked: Unraveling the Mystery of Easter Island. New York, NY: Free Press.

[5] Krulwich, R. (2013, December 10). What Happened On Easter Island — A New (Even Scarier) Scenario. National Public Radio. Retrieved from

[6] Gilbert, D. (2010). Global Warming and Psychology. Address at Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. Retrieved from

[7] Layzer, J.A. (2012). The Environmental Case: Translating Values into Policy. Washington, DC: CQ Press.

[8] NPR Staff. (2013, October 20). To Fix Climate Change, Scientists Turn to Hacking Earth. National Public Radio. Retrieved from