Richard Smith: Will we follow Easter Islanders into extinction?

Richard SmithWhat contrary creatures we humans are. I begin the year convinced that our civilisation will collapse soon but at the same time enjoying the continuous Mozart on Radio 3, abandoning alcohol for the month with enthusiasm, and committing myself to three runs and 70 000 steps a week. As my wife, who also thinks that our civilisation is approaching its end, says: “Nothing matters, but everything matters.” I didn’t know I’d married a mystic.

I’m convinced of the imminent end of our civilisation because of the best book I’ve read in 20 years, A Short History of Progress by Ronald Wright. The book is pithy, witty, erudite, highly readable, full of marvellous quotes, and ultimately devastating.

Wright, a Cambridge trained archaeologist turned essayist and novelist, sets out to answer Gauguin’s three questions asked in one of his last images painted while he was ill, suicidal, and impoverished: “D’Où Venons Nous? Que Sommes Nous? Où Allons Nous” Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? (I visited the Gaugain exhibition for the second time over the holidays and felt sad that such beautiful artefacts might soon be no more.)

The first question is the easiest to answer, and Wright reminds us that the 10 000 years of civilisation, beginning with Sumeria, represent just 0.2% of human existence. Life may have been “nasty, brutal, and short” for 3 million years, but prehistoric humans could not destroy the planet. The possibility of doing so arose with the so far short lived experiment of civilisation. As Wright puts it, “Nature let a few apes into the lab of evolution, switched on the lights, and left us there to mess about with an ever-growing supply of ingredients and processes.”

Technology presented us with problems right from the beginning. “The perfection of hunting spelt the end of hunting as a way of life”–because free living, food providing creatures were wiped out. This is the “progress trap,” best illustrated by how the capacity to make a big bang is progress but then leads to the capacity to make a bang big enough to destroy the planet. (When I read the sentence on hunting I wondered if it might be possible to substitute the word “medicine” for “hunting.”)

Much of Wright’s book is spent exploring the collapse of civilisations—Sumeria, Rome, the Mayans, and Easter Island. His main conclusion is that humans destroy their civilisations, as they expelled themselves from Eden, by “fouling their own nest,” poisoning their environment.

The short tragic story of Easter Island should be taught to every schoolchild—and to every medical student who doesn’t know the story. When Dutch sailors first glimpsed the island on Easter Day 1722 they saw it to be treeless and barren. Imagine their astonishment when they landed and discovered hundreds of huge stone heads, some 10 metres high. Who had built these heads? And how could they have been erected without any timber to provide leverage and scaffolding?

We now know the story of Easter Island. It was first settled in the 5th century AD by people who arrived by boat to a highly fertile, thickly wooded island, bringing with them “dogs, chickens, edible rats, sugar cane, bananas, sweet potatoes, and mulberry for making bark cloth.” Within five or six centuries the population had grown to 10 000, a lot for 64 square miles. The best land had been cleared for farms, and the society had split into nobles, priests, and commoners.

Like other Polynesians, the islanders built stone images to honour their ancestors. The building of these images became ever more competitive and extravagant, and trees were felled to aid the building faster than they could be replaced. By 1400 the trees and tree pollen had all gone, and, as Wright describes it, “the people who felled the last tree could see it was the last, could know with complete certainty that there would never be another. And they felled it anyway.”

For a generation there was enough wood to carry on erecting the heads and building seaworthy boats. But soon all but scraps of wood were gone. There was no escape. Wars broke out. People starved, and by the time Captain Cook arrived at the end of the 18th century there were just a few “small, lean, timid, and miserable” people left, the sorriest he’d seen in the South Seas. The Easter Islanders had destroyed themselves through “ideological pathology.”

The biggest heads were erected shortly before the collapse, illustrating mankind’s powerful capacity for denial.”Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair,” wrote Shelley in Ozymandias, his poem about the “shattered visage” of the “king of kings.” The planet is littered with the often beautiful remnants of collapsed civilisations.

So will we be any different? “Where are we going?” The difference with our experiment is that we live in a globalised world, and our experiment is thus the last experiment. All of man’s other experiments with civilisation have failed, but might ours succeed? A great advantage we have over our forebears is detailed knowledge of what happened in their experiments. We have the knowledge to save ourselves if we can only apply it.

The three ingredients of collapse are “the Runaway Train, the Dinosaur, and the House of Cards.” We are surrounded by Runaway Trains–“the rise in population and pollution, the acceleration of technology, and the concentration of wealth and power.” We used 70% of nature’s yearly outputs in the early 60s, 100% in the 80s, and 125% by 1999. The Dinosaur element is going on behaving in the same old way, felling trees, and building giant statues until the last tree is gone. “Our present behaviour,” writes Wright, “is typical of failed societies at the zenith of their greed and arrogance…hostility to change from vested interests, and inertia at all social levels.”

When collapse comes it comes suddenly, the House of Cards effect. Civilisations are very vulnerable when living at their ecological limits. We may fear the world slowly warming, but it may be that droughts, floods, fires, hurricanes, crop failures, new pandemics, mass migrations, and nuclear war over scarce resources will hasten our end. And “wealth is no shield from chaos.”

Wright wisely doesn’t attempt to answer definitively Gauguin’s question of “Where are we headed?” and he sees a brighter future if we can make the “transition from short term to long term thinking, from recklessness and excess to moderation and the precautionary principle….We have the tools and the means to share resources, clean up pollution, dispense basic health care and birth control, and set economic limits in line with natural ones.”

Can we do it? I ended his book thinking not, but I urge you to read this book and see what you think. What I am sure about is that the more people who read this book the greater our chance of long term survival.

You can see some of the best quotes from the book on my Twitter page (Richard56).

Richard Smith was the editor of the BMJ until 2004.

  • Hm. Very interesting. I'm not convinced that the end of civilisation is nigh, but it does seem likely that there will be some pretty dramatic changes. No doubt poorer countries will be the hardest hit, and by the time the rich countries are feeling the effects of our pillaging of the planet, it will be too late to escape some serious ecological unpleasantness. But I dare say that civilisation will still be here, albeit in a form that might look very different to how it looks today.

    The other thing I expect we'll see, of course, is the end of dominance of the global economy by the west.

    But whatever else happens, I'm sure people will still be listening to Mozart 100 years from now.

  • Parnold

    Hello Richard,
    Matt Ridley, in his recent book, “The Rational Optimist”, has dealt in depth with these issues, presenting a totally contrary view. He and Wright would be fascinating speakers in a debate.
    Peter Arnold, Sydney.

  • Joseph Ana


  • Ramiah Ramasubramanian

    On the subject of extinction of civilizations, it is worth reading Rebecca D. Costa's book ” The Watchman's Rattle”. It puts in perspective the unique challenges we currently face as a civilization and the potential solutions on offer.
    Ramiah Ramasubramanian.

  • Hegdebm

    Dear Richard,
    Your blogs are thought provoking and demand similar comments.
    Since the time of Rene Descartes, we have been looking at everything through our reductionist glasses. This has been the bane of medicine. Nobel Laureate Bernard Lown, my former teacher at Peter Brent Brigham’s, has written thus about the sorry state of affairs in medicine, thanks to reductionism: “We believe the modern medical model has become increasingly reductionist: human beings are seen as repositories of malfunctioning organs that need repair. This view results in an onslaught of tests and uncertainty. Doctors often take refuge behind technology because it is easier and less time-consuming than talking with a complex human being who is their patient.” (The New Yorker 5/17/99).
    Global warming threat perception also looks at this world through the reductionist glass. I remember the days in early 1970s, when I used to be doing a locum job at The Middlesex; there was a threat that the world is headed towards another ice age. All that fear was because the winter that year in the UK got extended by a few weeks and the ground sleet brought all agriculture to stand still. The ground temperature in the USA dipped by just 0.5 degree centigrade. The linear reductionist pundits predicted the second ice age and famine based on linear laws in a non-linear world! There was talk of covering the ice caps with carbon soot to prevent further icing. Hardly three decades from there are we threatened by the other extreme? This world, a better German word is Wer ald (as man sees it); still better is the word in German, Wirklichkeit, the acting or changing constantly, would remain an enigma for man and his science for all times.
    May be this world with its sun is only one of the millions of such planets in the universe (Aaakaash in Sanskrit). While we are predicting the unpredictable future of this one small speck in the universe the universe might have its own non-linear self correcting agenda, as otherwise, we should have been in the second ice age by now. All round efforts are on to stop global warming. In Bellevue, a suburb of Seattle in Washington State, there is a non-descript building with no windows where brilliant brains sit to find ways and means of treating warming gases like CO2 and SO2 to be sent up to the stratosphere to give a cover from the UV rays of the sun through balloons sent up! The small board outside says “Intellectual Ventures.” Inside is one of the craziest laboratories doing all sorts of things from malaria eradication to warming control. The brainiest of the people inside is Nathan, whom President Clinton described as the brainiest living human being.
    With all the claptrap of global warming, I feel the emphasis on CO2 is highly misplaced. The worst warming gas is water vapour coming from the vast expanse of sea water. How to stop that happening? More than the CO2 are the excretions, including the gases, of the cud chewing animals like the dairy animals. One cow passes around 850 ml of methane in its fart a day which could be equal to a small factory output of CO2. The animal out put of methane is responsible for 18% of global warming while all the transport in the world, put together, can only contribute 13%. If the world becomes vegetarian we can possibly slow global warming or reverse it. If people do want meat at any cost they must learn to eat the Kangaroo meat whose digestive tract, somehow, does not produce methane!!
    The history of the Island could also be like many of our histories. History is what the historian writes. It need not be (usually is not) the truth. The Bengall famine was not due to the vagaries of weather as was made out but, due to the human greed of the then government in The Bengall which predicted the invading Japanese Army to descend on the plains of River Ganges any time. The Japanese soldiers live on rice. The government bought every grain of rice grown in and around that part of north eastern India and dumped the same in the Bay of Bengal to defeat the Japanese Army. The Japanese did not come down providentially but the poor in The Bengall died by the millions for want of rice! How is this history for a change as the cause of Bengal famine? Dr. Anil Sarkar MD, a pathologist in his late eighties settled in the USA now, was an eyewitness to this when he was a young student and had recorded that in a book. The book never saw the light of the day in print, though. All truth is initially declared as blasphemy. Sarkar’s book was no exception.
    One of the wonderful books that I read during the Xmas break was Superfreakonomics by Steven D Levitt and Stephen J Dubner (Penguin-Allen Lane publications) which is worth its weight in Platinum. This world is a wonderful wonder. Looking at all these, I am tempted to agree with Albert Einstein, when he said that: “The significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them.” We need to think laterally-out of the usual box. No physicist knows as to where do the leptons originally come from. Now that Hans Peter Durr has shown that matter is energy and vice versa (a-duality) there is no conventional physics of the study of matter. Edwin Babbitt, Charles Leadbeater and Annie Besant were teaching physics at Cambridge who left to go to India to study yoga. They became ‘Siddhis”. In that state they could meditate to get a third eye vision where in they could see the inside of nine elements from hydrogen to helium. Their description probably matches the latest thinking in physics of the super string theory. They could visualize the leptons “flowing from another ethereal world like smoke coming through the key hole.” Another reason to believe that there are other similar planets around, I suppose. Their book, Occult Chemistry, written in 1920 (Oxford University Press, Madras), has recently been updated by a panel of great physicists.

    “This is a whole and that is a whole. The bit is also a whole: when taken out of the whole the bit becomes a whole and the whole remains a whole,” is an old Vedic wisdom. Late Professor Rustum Roy and his group at Penn State were able to make use of this wisdom to extract atomic hydrogen from water where the water remains water and the hydrogen atom becomes a whole. The latter is now being made use of to run engines-an answer to energy crisis? Normal chemistry can extract molecular hydrogen from water leaving behind nascent oxygen which could destroy any engine in no time! The second method is reductionist while the first one based on Vedic wisdom is holistic. They had serendipitously passed ordinary radio waves through salt water in a test tube. Lo and behold! the gas coming out (atomic oxygen) could burn easily!

  • Hegdebm

    The last sentence should read: Lo and behold the gas coming out (atomic hydrogen) could burn easily.

  • Jack Hughes

    Can you put a date on the 'imminent end of our civilisation' ?

    Just the year will be OK.

  • Enrique Sanchez Delgado

    Dear Richard,

    Resources are indeed not infinite. The laws of thermodynamics apply from stars to man.

    Big stars with high energy consumption live shorter.
    The same for people with high body mass index,
    high resting heart rate (high PULSE MASS INDEX),
    high metabolic rate and energy consumption.

    We can hope that the wisdom of mankind, as we
    can predict and prevent diseases, like
    cardiovascular, infectious, and cancer, will guide us
    to find the way of survival before it is too late.

    Every generation has faced enormous dangers and
    somehow find the way for the next generation.
    God help us to do the same for our children and
    the children of our children.