Grant McDermott bio photo

Grant McDermott

Economics.
Environment.
Data science.

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I've just handed in a fat micro assignment and thus finally seen the back of a hellish two weeks. Twelve-hour days (plus) have become the new norm... and then working on weekends as well. Who said university life was lark? Still, I'm acutely aware that I need to keep the odd post going so that I don't lose my readership entirely. In that spirit, I recently came across a fascinating debate concerning Easter Island.


"What's so important about Easter Island?", you may find yourself asking. Well, in short, people have long used it as cautionary tale of the human risks associated with environmental degradation. A once-stable and relatively prosperous civilization suddenly imploded as the supporting systems of their natural environment began to fail. Worse still, these wounds were self-inflicted; it was the islanders that caused the very environmental damage that brought about their demise. This idea was perhaps most memorably outlined by Jared Diamond, in his 2005 book Collapse.

Earlier this month, however, the British environmentalist Mark Lynas (whom I've mentioned favourably before) wrote a blog post that sought to overturn this standard, "ecocide" account of Easter Island's downfall. Drawing on some new archaeological research, Lynas shaped to explain why many of the traditional ideas on the subject are completely wrong. Most importantly, he claimed that the Easter Islanders were actually good stewards of their environment and were thus largely blameless for the fate that befell them. Instead, the tipping point for environmental collapse came with the arrival of European settlers, who brought the disease and invasive species (most notably rats) that ultimately decimated the indigenous plant and animal life. As Lynas's post was one aimed at refuting the orthodoxy, it probably won't surprise to learn that Jared Diamond was the primary focus of much the criticism.

So what happened next?

Well, Diamond responded to this stinging critique by penning an excellent rebuttal, which describes in some depth why the revisionist view is highly implausible (to put it kindly), and why the traditional account continues to provide the most compelling thesis. Ever the scholar, Diamond's tone is never less than respectful and thoughtful, although the evidence he cites is rather damning. I was particularly struck by his concluding paragraph:
The islanders did inadvertently destroy the environmental underpinnings of their society. They did so, not because they were especially evil or deprived of foresight, but because they were ordinary people, living in a fragile environment, and subject to the usual human problems of clashes between group interests, clashes between individual and group interests, selfishness, and limited ability to predict the future. Does that remind you of any problems that we ourselves face today? That’s why we find Easter’s story so gripping, and why it may offer us lessons.
Sage words indeed.

PS - Kudos must also go to Lynas for publishing Diamond's reply. (I believe he is currently seeking a response from some of the researchers that he initially quoted. ) This is what scientific and, I daresay, moral progress looks like. No room for sacred cows... but no indulgence of second-rate science either.