Thursday, June 6, 2013

The Lesson of Easter Island

The desire to survive and make changes that will benefit the human species and the Earth is a key element to life. The only limitation is our lack of knowledge. Life is a constant and changing circle of repetition and surprise, and the tools that have long been lost due to modernization are the ability to sense the path of this circle and eke out a successful existence within it. The first step to doing so is looking around you and grounding yourself in your location. Knowing where we live and who we live with can help build a stronger community because we learn to care about those we know and the place we call home. This will then transpire into a global community as we learn to understand the importance of not only where we live, but the importance of the places others live.

The world is an intricate system that is full of moving parts, with each dependent on the other. If one part goes off course, the rest of the system must either learn to adjust or will begin falling apart in a succession of breaking pieces. Think of the inside of a clock - each individual piece moving on its own path yet working in union with the other pieces to run a bigger system. Our existence is similar to this. There are seemingly millions of individual pieces of the earth - plants, soil, water, animals, mammals, insects, minerals - and connecting them at times can be difficult, but each piece requires the other in order to keep the earth moving and improving, and the destruction of one could mean the collapse of an entire system.

The Easter Island Effect
Easter Island is about 2,000 miles to its closes neighbors, the Pitcairn Islands to the west, and South America to the east. In A.D. 400 some seafaring Polynesian families came to easter Island and found 64 square miles of forest lands with a thick mix of trees, woody bushes, shrubs, herbs, ferns, hauhau trees (rope-yielding), toromiro trees (used for mesquite-style firewood) and palms. These palm trees were straight and tall, similar to the existing Chilean Wine Palms, which grow taller than over 80 feet, and they covered the island. They would have also been a valuable source of food, producing edible nuts and a sap that would have been used for syrup, sugar, honey and wine. The Polynesians quickly planted gardens, built homes, settled down on this subtropical island and flourished into a population of 10,000. In 1972, when Dutch Admiral Roggeveen landed on the island, he found a wasteland. The few people, who lived in huts, were at constant battle with each other. They lived in the shadows of enormous stone statues (Moai) that had been erected all over the island. Some of the Moai are as tall as 33 feet, with up to 82 tons and are placed on stone platforms that are more than 500 feet long and nearly 10 feet hight. Roggeveen was baffled at how a "savage" group of islanders had erected these nearly 200 statues without any trees to make machines and strong rope, or any draft animals or source of power besides their own muscles.

What happened in those 1300 years between the Polynesians' landing on the island until the rediscovery by the Dutch? The original Polynesian group grew and prospered, splitting off into tribes. They survived by eating local fish, porpoises, seabirds and land birds. The islanders grew and prospered on this land and before long started erecting the statues, replicas of smaller ones their Polynesian forbearers would have carved. Lugging these statues from the quarries to their final resting place on a hillside overlooking the water would have meant cutting down the palm trees to act as rollers and the hauhau tree for ropes. The statues got bigger and bigger as each tribe tried to rival the others, and more and more natural resources were cut down. They were also burning up the wood as fuel, shelter, equipment, canoes and clear-cutting for gardens. Once the forest was gone, the underbrush that was protected by the canopy of trees now became exposed to the warm southern sun. The plentiful land and sea birds that used the trees for nesting started to die off or go elsewhere and the soil began to erode as a result of it being exposed to the climate. Along with the desolation of the island's natural resources, the population began to exceed the island's capacity. The island could no longer sustain its inhabitants.

What happened on Easter Island is not an isolated case, but it is one that is being re-lived worldwide over the course of history. What's to say that we will not suffered the same consequences as the residents of Easter Island as we chop down our trees faster than they can be replenished to build suburban neighborhoods with bigger houses that burn vas amounts of fuel? It doesn't stop here, though. We blow off the top off mountains to extract coal for our ever-increasing energy use. We drill deep into the earth's core in a rabid quest for oil. Our factories dump extraneous amounts of chemicals into our waterways while pumping toxins into the air. What is the effect of all this on the planet's ecological system? Easter Island should be a warning to all other developing nations, to show us to not make the same mistakes, where ego and social stature become more important than caring for the land that is providing us with food and shelter.

(Excerpt from the introduction of The Maine Conscious Consumer, pp. ix-xi)

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