Survivor: Easter Island

Easter Island is a small island in the Pacific that has achieved worldwide fame for its giant Moai statues, giant human sculptures erected on the island circa 1300 CE. Weighing as much as 86 tons and standing as tall as 33 feet, the Moai are akin to a Stonehenge of the South Pacific, unexplained monuments of a primitive civilization. [1]


Moai surveying Easter Island Source:

Moai surveying Easter Island

The Moai are not, however, Easter Island’s only mystery. Archaeologists and anthropologists have also struggled to explain the collapse of the island’s civilization in the sixteenth century. Scientists and historians have put forth a range of theories on the island’s downfall. [2]

The traditional narrative, as told by Jared Diamond, is one of manmade ecological collapse. According to Diamond, the agrarian inhabitants aggressively cleared the island’s trees with slash-and-burn techniques to make room for farms and did not stop until it was too late. With the trees vanished lumber for canoes and huts and protein the form of birds and other wildlife. With too many people and too few resources, the islander civilization caved. [3]

The second narrative, on the other hand, paints mankind as resilient in the face of ecological collapse. According to anthropologists Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo, while Easter Island’s inhabitants did indeed clear large tracts of forested land for farming, an invasive species of rat was equally responsible. Without natural predators, the rats quickly multiplied and assisted the islanders in clearing the trees by eating seeds and sprouts, thereby preventing reforestation . The islanders, however, made the most of the situation by developing innovative farming techniques and eating the rats until they succumbed to diseases brought by European settlers. [4]

Rats like this one became the islanders' main source of protein  Source:

Rats like this one became the islanders’ main source of protein

While both these theories are interesting within the context of Easter Island, they are even more poignant, as Robert Krulwich argues, when expanded as allegories to contemporary global environmental challenges, primarily those associated with climate change. [5] Obviously deforestation on a tiny South Pacific isle is not a perfect analogue for global climate change, but the two theories of Easter Island’s downfall reflect two different ways of conceiving of the relationship between human civilization and the environment.

Diamond’s is very much an environmentalist paradigm that highlights the inextricable link between human civilization and the environment. In his narrative, environmental resources are central to the existence and advancement of human civilization and the extent to which mankind can consume is constrained by environmental limits.

Diamond’s narrative also underscores an important but terrifying truth about human myopia and inaction in the face of environmental overexploitation. As Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert notes, humans are hardwired with a primal threat assessment mechanism. According to Gilbert, the threats with which primitive man was faced were immoral, imminent, instantaneous or intentional, and individuals best equipped to recognize and respond to those threats were more likely to survive and reproduce. Our threat-identification system hasn’t evolved much since then, so humans still respond most viscerally and decisively when a threat fulfills one of Gilbert’s four criteria. [6] This is why the deforestation of Easter Island (if you believe Diamond’s account), the unintentional and gradual byproduct of farming efforts, did not stop until collapse was ensured. This is also why politicians could enact sweeping policy reforms in the wake of the 9/11 attacks (which fulfilled all four of Gilbert’s criteria) while climate change, which is not instantaneous, imminent, intentional or obviously immoral, has yet to be addressed through decisive political engagement or meaningful public policy.

The second account of Easter Island’s collapse reflects Cornucopian sensibilities. Cornucopians stake their faith the boundless human capacity for innovation to overcome the finitude of the environmental resources. [7] In the second narrative, innovation was indeed the islanders’ salvation, allowing them to outlive the island’s ecosystem until European settlers arrived. The irony, of course, is that according to this narrative, the island’s ruin was the islanders’ salvation. The same rats that destroyed the ecosystem sustained the islanders until the Europeans arrived.

Today we have our own version of rats in the form of geoengineering technologies. Geoengineering technologies, including cloud whitening and ocean fertilization, have the potential to alter the environment so that it can better meet human needs. The risk is that these technologies are largely untested. At worst, they could cause severe ecological damage and compromise environmental resources essential to human civilization. At best, geoengineering will have no ecological impact, but will irreversibly transform the natural world into an extension of human society. [8] Once “the rat is out of the bag” as far as geoengineering is concerned, it’s out for good.

Geoengineering promises bold but risky methods for adapting to climate change Source:

Geoengineering promises bold but risky methods for adapting to climate change

Regardless of which story you believe, Easter Island paints a sobering picture of the challenges of climate change mitigation and the limits of adaptation. The environmentalist narrative in particular paints a bleak picture of our planet’s ecological future. If the inhabitants of a small island could not restrain themselves from overconsumption of a critical resource, what hope does modern society have of overcoming a far more complex environmental crisis that will require political collaboration and collective action?

I find the more optimistic narrative, of survival in the wake of ecocide, more troubling. The utter ruin of our planet’s ecosystem is a troubling thought, one that is easy to sugarcoat by placing faith in future scientific innovation and its capacity to limit climate change. But just as Easter Island’s rodent infestation proved a detriment and a salvation to the island’s human inhabitants, any solution that science presents to climate change will likely be imperfect and require some sacrifice.

Both narratives seem to agree on this lesson: as humans place an increasing burden on natural resources, we should not do so in the hope or expectation that science will deliver a panacea. Because even if a solution to climate change presents itself, it will likely demand uncomfortable compromises.

Works Referenced

[1] United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Office [UNESCO]. (n.d.)“Rapa Nui National Park.” UNESCO. Retrieved from

[2] Ibid.

[3] Diamond, J. (2005). Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York, NY: Viking Press.

[4] Hunt, T. & C. Lipo. (2011). The Statues that Walked: Unraveling the Mystery of Easter Island. New York, NY: Free Press.

[5] Krulwich, R. (2013, December 10). What Happened On Easter Island — A New (Even Scarier) Scenario. National Public Radio. Retrieved from

[6] Gilbert, D. (2010). Global Warming and Psychology. Address at Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. Retrieved from

[7] Layzer, J.A. (2012). The Environmental Case: Translating Values into Policy. Washington, DC: CQ Press.

[8] NPR Staff. (2013, October 20). To Fix Climate Change, Scientists Turn to Hacking Earth. National Public Radio. Retrieved from



    This was a really interesting post! The idea of geoengineering in order to save the world from climate change is something that is scary and potentially within our grasp. I think that the risks of these technologies are huge, but at the same time, they hold even greater potential. Ecological development and restoration are the simplest types of these and I think that through altering our environments to make them more resistant to change, we are taking small steps towards changing these environments in major ways. At the same time though, I can’t help but wonder if we left the environment to its own devices and stopped trying to manipulate it, if it would somehow take care of itself.

  2. Caroline Schechinger

    I second what says–this is a really fascinating post, John. For one, I had no idea about the alternative hypothesis concerning Easter Island’s demise. How you managed to embody these competing claims into the cornucopian vs. environmentalist mentalities really made for a very interesting read.

    I’m curious as to what geoengineering ocean fertilization strategies you are talking about. Are you referring to the commercial efforts to inject iron into the deep ocean to revitalize phytoplankton communities/increase carbon sequestration? If so, I understand your hesitancy in seeing such a technique as a panacea in that testing has largely shown the limited effect of iron fertilization. In other words, we would need to do this with a HUGE amount of iron in order to make even a trivial impact in the world’s oceans. However, it seems to be a really viable option for certain localities, so I think we can’t dismiss it altogether. Hence, I think that the larger question comes down to not adopting a single cure-all but perhaps recognizing that specific areas and conditions require unique approaches to minimize the negative unforeseen consequences that you carefully point out. This kind of “patchwork quilt” approach might be able to holistically put a greater dent in climate change.



      I think it’s important to note that no scientists currently engaged in geoengineering research think that it is the BEST approach, nor even want to do it. I have seen many interviews with these researchers and they all strongly wish we could reach a global agreement to rapidly curb emissions, but they understand that realistically that just won’t happen in time and we need to look into backup options.

      Also, as a clarification to the iron fertilization comment, the most prominent form of ‘geoengineering’ being suggested by scientists today is not ocean manipulation but instead solar radiation management–reducing the amount of sunlight that reaches Earth’s surface–by putting sulfur particles into the stratosphere, mimicking the natural effect of volcanic eruptions. When these particles go into the stratosphere, they form clouds and reflect away sunlight, explaining why after large volcanic eruptions there is widespread–though temporary–cooling across the globe. With regards to iron fertilization of the oceans, that idea was floated in the 90’s and early 2000’s, but since then it has been tossed out as being too difficult to implement. My source for that is Richard Barber, an accomplished oceanographer and Duke professor who actually helped run the very first experiments on ocean iron fertilization.


    Cool post! I’ve thought a decent amount about the risk response issue you bring up. From a psychological viewpoint this issue is fascinating, but from an environmental viewpoint its pretty disturbing that a lot of people will not be swayed to do anything until the disaster is at their doorstep. Unfortunately, with climate change, once the impacts become worse and noticeable, it may be too late to halt it.

    I agree with you that the second explanation for why the Easter Island civilization collapsed is almost more alarming. The idea that the solutions we are grasping for could in the end quicken our demise is a potentially paralyzing thought. However, paralysis is not an option. Therefore I think the biggest take away from this hypothesis is that we need to have a greater understanding of natural cycles and ecosystem functioning so that we can try to develop solutions that work with these cycles in a productive and sustainable way. Which would certainly require a more patchwork style solution, like Caroline said in her response, which I agree with whole-heartedly.

  4. Patrick Hunnicutt

    What an interesting post! There are a lot of lessons to be learned from Jared Diamonds novel–as it contains multiple accounts of historical ecological collapses–and when I read the book my freshman year, I found the story of Easter Island to be incredibly enticing. It perfectly exemplifies Garrett Hardin’s ‘Tragedy of the Commons,’ and serves as a potent microcosm and strong to the development of mass-agriculture today.

    I’d like to briefly throw my hat into the whole ‘geoengineering to prevent/mitigate climate change’ ring. I think that something very important to consider–besides all of the issues associated with geoengineering causing unpredictable and, potentially, irreparable damage to global ecological systems–is the whether the idea would be ethically palatable or acceptable to many environmental scholars. In part, I ask this question because of certain negative responses shared by the “environmental community” in regards to the anthropocentric–and therefore, inherently malevolent–motivation behind ecological restoration. Perhaps the same argument is applicable here; that mankind should have no role in altering nature beyond what they have already done. (And I’m not saying that I support this argument; there are too many loopholes that weaken it.) Here’s a cool article about the argument: It will, undoubtedly, be very interesting to see what is actually done as geoengineering projects evolve and refine in the coming years.


    The story of Easter Island reminded me a lot of Haiti. Massive deforestation, initiated during the colonial era with the creation of massive sugar cane plantations, has left the country vulnerable to soil erosion and extreme flooding. In modern times, the near total culling of trees for firewood and cooking fuel has also led to desertification and loss of soil fertility. As a consequence of such extreme environmental degradation, Haiti suffers some of the lowest health indices in the world.
    In contrast, the Dominican Republic, which constitutes the eastern half of the island and avoided extensive deforestation, remains covered in lush forest and vegetation. Tourism is booming and the country continues to export large quantities of agricultural products.

    This island harshly demonstrates human dependence on the environment and the consequences of poor land stewardship. Deforestation, like climate change, often occurs incrementally and its effects can take years to realize. It is time for humanity to wake up and pay attention to all environmental dangers, not just the most dramatic or eye-catching.


    This is a very interesting post, especially about how different ideologies align with the two different explanations of Easter Island’s demise. The thing that scared me the most was the possibility of collective action failure occurring in the 1600s on this small island, and what that means for our chances of avoiding it today. If that small community couldn’t even control itself, what hope do we have for our global, capitalistic society today. Geoengineering brings in a lot of unknowns, but perhaps it is the only way to save us from ourselves.

  7. James Bando

    When I was reading this, I didn’t know where you were going, but I really appreciate this type of narrative and comparison you make in your conclusion! I think what Easter Island most importantly demonstrates is that us humans really don’t do much with the environment until it is almost too late. I know that is a gross overgeneralization, but there is a truth to the theme that we consume to the point that it bites us in the behind. I think that there is some merit to us as a modern society compared to the indigenous people of Easter Island, so I have a bit more optimism for our existence and perseverance in comparison. Yet you make a very keen point that though our preventative measures and technology is becoming so much more advanced, so are our problems simultaneously. As the earth’s population grows, we fundamentally face more difficult and complex issues globally. Past history serves to teach the future, and hopefully modern society takes an example, like that of Easter Island, as an anecdote of how to learn from our mistakes.


    John, this is a very interesting post. I think the narrative that you create — running from the distant past to future technological possibilities — is both coherent and effective. I’m particularly interested by your mention of psychological “biases” in the context of environmental decisions. These biases are likely most severe in these contexts: environmental degradation is often a slow process, and the benefits to regulation are often felt only with a delay — not to mention the obvious issues related to non-rivalry. Advances in behavioral economics and decision theory have been fruitfully applied to, e.g., asset pricing (ambiguity aversion) and political economy (over-optimism, self-signalling), but I’m not aware of any papers that apply them to environmental issues, and I wonder if there are useful insights to be drawn from such work.

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