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.