Rapa Nui Hooey?


Eco-doomsters have long attributed the ecological "collapse" of Easter Island's civilization to the mad pursuit of status achieved by building gigantic statues. Through the lens of political environmentalism which damns heedless modern consumerism, Easter Island is seen as a harbinger of our future. The most recent popular rendering of this tale of environmental woe is Jared Diamond's very wrong-headed book Collapse.

Now a couple of researchers, Terry Hunt of the University of Hawaii, Manoa, and Carl Lipo of California State University, Long Beach, are questioning the veracity of this cautionary tale. True, Easter Island's once lush forests were gone by the time that Dutch sailors came across it. Why? Instead of the Easter Islanders heedlessly chopping down all of their trees, they argue that the forests could not regenerate because the rats inadvertently brought in by the original Polynesian colonizers ate all of the tree seeds and seedlings. An invasive species, not avaricious humans, got the trees. Naturally, not everyone agrees with the new findings.

However, Hunt and Lipo maintain that even without the forests, Easter Islanders made do and did not suffer a "collapse." In fact, Hunt and Lipo argue that their archaeological data find that there was no population crash until after European sailors introduced diseases and seized inhabitants for slaves. According to LiveScience,

Lipo thinks the story of Easter Island's civilization being responsible for its own demise might better reflect the psychological baggage of our own society than the archeological evidence.

"It fits our 20th century view of us as ecological monsters," Lipo said. "There's no doubt that we do terrible things ecologically, but we're passing that on to the past, which may not have actually been the case. To stick our plight onto them is unfair."

Thus I sadly note that even these researchers apparently believe that while the Easter Islanders are exonerated from being ecological sinners, our modern civilization is still guilty. I think that verdict is wrong too.