Saturday, 18 January 2014

Looking Back - Easter Island

Sometimes to get a good perspective on how things are stacking up. Its good to take a look back at what people were saying and doing in the recent past. Its called foresight or in some circles technology foresight. Much of the research into foresight techniques has been rather fuzzy work and has been very elitist. Foresight attempts to go beyond the normal and gather information from much more diverse sources. Foresight is intended to be used for long-range planning that's influenced by using a structured and systematic approach. Foresight is helpful to examine alternative paths and not just what is currently believed to be most likely or business as usual. Measuring how effective foresight is requires a benchmark. The benchmark to measure against, is what has taken place in the recent and distant past.

Looking Back this time - it's about Easter Island and our collective understanding of the issues surrounding the history of the tiny pacific island.

Our current perspective and understanding of Easter Island culture is as follows: The island is a small 63-square-mile patch of land more than a thousand miles from the next inhabited spot in the Pacific Ocean. In AD 1200 a small group of Polynesians made their way there, settled in and began to farm. When they arrived, the place was covered with trees as many as 16 million of them, some towering 100 feet high. These settlers were farmers, practicing slash-and-burn agriculture, they burned down woods, opened spaces, and began to multiply. Pretty soon the island had too many people, too few trees. Then within a few generations, the island had no trees at all.
The popular conception is echoed in Jared Diamond's book 'Easter Island' Jared said "Easter Island is the clearest example of a society that destroyed itself by overexploiting its own resources. Once tree clearing started, it didn't stop until the whole forest was gone. He called this self-destructive behavior "ecocide" and warned that Easter Island's fate could one day be our own.
When a Dutch explorer, Jacob Roggevin, happened by in 1722, he wrote that islanders didn't ask for food. They wanted European hats instead. And, of course, starving folks typically don't have the time or energy to carve and shove 70-ton statues around their island. When Captain James Cook visited some 52 years later in 1774, his crew counted roughly 700 islanders (from an earlier population of thousands), living marginal lives, their canoes reduced to patched fragments of driftwood. And that has become the lesson of Easter Island that we don't dare abuse the plants and animals around us, because if we do, we will, all of us, go down together. And yet, puzzlingly, these same people had managed to carve enormous statues almost a thousand of them, with giant, hollow-eyed, gaunt faces, some weighing 75 tons. The statues faced not outward, not to the sea, but inward, toward the now empty, denuded landscape. When Captain Cook saw them, many of these "moai" had been toppled and lay face down, in abject defeat.
That is as they say is the story, that the island civilisation collapsed. However, an alternative theory is that Easter Island was a success story. Because, Hawaiian anthropologists Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo say that the clans and families on Easter Island didn't fall apart. The island did become much more desolate. The ecosystem was severely compromised. And yet, say the anthropologists, Easter Islanders didn't disappear. They adjusted. They had no wood to build canoes to go deep-sea fishing. They had fewer birds to hunt. They didn't have coconuts. But they kept going on rat meat and small helpings of vegetables. They made do.

Professors Hunt and Lipo say fossil hunters and paleobotanists have found no hard evidence that the first Polynesian settlers set fire to the forest to clear land in what's called "large scale prehistoric farming." The trees did die, no question. But instead of fire, Hunt and Lipo blame rats. Polynesian rats (Rattus exulans) arrived on the island by some means. Hunt and Lipo say that once they landed, with no enemies and lots of palm roots to eat, they went on a binge, eating and destroying tree after tree, and multiplying at a furious rate. As the trees went, so did 20 other forest plants, six land birds and several sea birds. So there was definitely less choice in food, a much narrower diet, and yet people continued to live on Easter Island, and food, it seems, was not their big problem.

Archeologists who examined ancient garbage heaps on Easter Island looking for discarded bones found that 60 percent of the bones came from introduced rats. So it would seem that they had found a meat substitute. So if everybody was eating enough, why did the population go into deep decline. Probably, the professors say, from sexually transmitted diseases after Europeans came visiting. Humans are a very adaptable species. On Easter Island, people learned to live with less and forgot what it was like to have more. Maybe that will happen to us. There's a lesson here. If you're waiting for an ecological crisis to persuade human beings to change their troubled relationship with nature you could be waiting a long, long time."

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