the trappings of civilizations

It’s early morning on the first day of Family Day weekend in Alberta. Everyone else is still asleep in the house. A good time to put out another blog post. This one is about a great book. It is  Ronald Wright‘s brief classic, A Short History of Progress. I first heard of it as the Massey Lectures topic in 2004, and I read the book shortly after. I re-found and re-read it again during the Great House Clean-Up of 2016.

The idea is that people, being opportunistic animals, find and exploit local natural niches, live there and grow numerous and prosperous. We develop cultures, ways of doing things with each other, to divvy up the ecosystem’s bounty. And then we get too efficient in our exploitation or we grow too numerous, or both, and the ecosystem is exhausted and collapses. At which point there are a whole bunch of disappointed people with a culture, a way of doing things, that no longer works. The book argues that all civilizations, including our current global one, are examples of this boom-and-bust cycle. It is the trap of civilization.

It was fun for me to come across Solon and Peisistratos, in Progress, in a quite different context. I had written about them as adversaries in the struggle for democracy, but they were also allies in the struggle to slow deforestation around ancient Athens.

But I think the most evocative story in Progress is the parable of the Easter Islanders. On that isolated Pacific island social standing came to involve carving and erecting those iconic stone figures. And that involved cutting down trees to roll the statues into place. And so the Easter Islanders cut down all the trees on Easter Island, and could no longer build boats. As Wright says,

We might think that in such a limited place, where, from the height of Terevaka, islanders could survey their whole world at a glance, steps would have been taken to halt the cutting, to protect the saplings, to replant. We might think that as trees became scarce, the erection of statues would have been curtailed, and timber reserved for essential purposes such as boatbuilding and roofing. But that is not what happened. The people who felled the last tree could see it was the last tree, could know with perfect certainty there would never be another. And they felled it anyway.

Did some Easter Islanders rail against the clear cutting policy? Were they mocked as ‘tree-huggers’ by mainstream society? In the end, Easter Island conservationists were not socially dominant, could not carry the day, and they and their civilization paid the ultimate price.

Nobody on Easter Island wanted that to happen. Evey thinking person knew there would be serious consequences to cutting down the last tree. Somehow, the people in charge, in the highest ranks of their competitive society, they dared not loose face before their social rivals. Somehow, those important people let their own standing cloud their judgement.

Progress goes on to tell how, in the final years, everyone knew mistakes had been made. In hopeless fury, people pushed over and smashed as many of those stone statues as they could. The former leaders and their offspring could not have fared well in those last days. Only through cannibalism could anybody survive, and the slogan “Eat the Rich!” would have taken on special significance.

The similarities between the ancient Easter Islanders and us today in our global society are pretty obvious. The question that Progress poses is, can we 21st century people survive the civilization trap? It has never been done before. If we do avoid the trap, it may be done by practicing (real) democracy.

There has been a nice uptick on my visitor counter recently. Thank you all for visiting. Please don’t be shy to leave comments, critical, supportive or quizzical.





    1. Hi Prairiepomes

      Thank you for this interesting lead. I have read through the link, and some of the linked links, too. The idea put forward by Carl Lipo and Terry Hunt is that the Islanders did not suffer from bad management of their home, but from diseases brought by European visitors. The tone of this thesis is pretty challenging, with the commentary aimed at discrediting Jared Diamond and the ideas in his book Collapse (which I have not read). The story-line in A Short History of Progress, by Wright seems to be treading a line between the two narratives. I don’t know enough about the topic to offer a strong opinion, but here are a few observations.
      1. Wright (and Diamond?) clearly got it wrong that walking statues were just wishful thinking by the islanders. Anyone reading this, absolutely check out this you-tube video featuring Lipo and Hunt, at
      Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo: The Statues That Walked | Nat Geo Live
      At 18 minutes in, you will see the statues walking! Totally cool!

      In spite of that, the rest of their case is not strongly made.

      2 Many of the statues had big stones on top of their heads. How were the hats put on? Again, without wood for framing? Not addressed.

      3 Rats killed off the trees, well maybe. But rats were not free of predators on the island as the lecturers and the links suggest. The settlers brought dogs and rats both. Rats might escape captivity, but their population would not be unchecked. The dogs would have hunted them, and, because rats were food for the settlers, so would the people. Yes, rats multiply, rats are prolific, unchecked exponential growth generates big numbers, etc. But there were also two hungry and really good rat predators on that little island.

      4 The trees weren’t that useful to the people. Well, maybe. Quite the thing to say about 21 extinct tree species. Some of those trees seem to have been relatives of the Chilean wine palm. They grew a kind of tiny coconut that people eat in Chile today and that the rats seem to have eaten on the island. Maybe the wood was no good for boat building or ropes or home construction projects, but that does not seem a conclusion so easy to jump to that there is no need to do more than assert it. What effect did the trees have on the local weather, on slowing soil erosion, as habitats for birds and insects and other plants that could have been useful? Not addressed.

      5 There really was a change in religion at some point soon after European contact. Bird Man took over from the Moai. The islanders became dissatisfied with the way the statues were taking care of their spiritual needs. This issue is not addressed.

      6 The rival story lines agree things were going bad on the island between first contact and later visits. Both story lines agree that islanders were devastated by chicken pox and TB. Were the troubles on the island due to the plagues or due to local problems. Did these epidemics strike right after first contact in 1722, or after the slave trade raids in the 1860’s? Browsing the internet, sources seem to agree it was the slave trade mess that unleashed the plagues. But Lippo and Hunt seem to be asserting that the problems began with the plagues, and so the plagues happened in the 1720’s. Fair enough to say, but deserves an explanation about why all other sources got the timing wrong. Not addressed.

      7 The obsidian spear ends (called mata’a) are not the ends of spears. Well maybe. First, there is a wide range of mata shapes presented in the article, and *some* of them look like spear ends. Those that don’t look like spear ends are wider and more shaped like half moons or little spades. Maybe these are garden implements. But its a bit of a stretch to say that obviously, if a mata wasn’t shaped like a spear head then it wasn’t a weapon. Obsidian edges are razor sharp. On the end of a stick, swung with intent, these little spades would probably make pretty serious wounds. Not the shape of weapon we are used to, but maybe the islanders tried something new?
      (And, while I am on this, the byline for the main article is ‘Researchers debunk a longstanding myth using elliptical Fourier analysis on ancient tools’. I am all about the use of math with history, but come on! The researchers superimposed the outlines of many mata. Elliptical Fourier analysis gave them a standardized and consistent way to centre each mata in the composite picture. As exciting as the phrase ‘elliptical Fourier analysis’ is, the use of this math does not make the authors’ interpretations indisputable. They could have laid a few representative mata samples on a table and taken photos and we would have got the basic idea.)

      The new narrative that Lipo and Hunt present, and defend, is that the dozens or hundreds of new settlers who found Easter Island, judged that the trees of their new home would not be useful for making boats, or for anything, and so burnt down the forest to make farmland. After a while there were 3000 or so folks living and farming there, stranded, and no trees. The ancients didn’t fell that last tree, they burned it in a windrow, not for the cult of the statues, but for the short-term economic reasons that drive human decisions everywhere.

      Rapa Nui still makes a valuable cautionary parable.

  1. I have known about the Easter island story for many years thinking it one of the world’s great enigmas.Your comments on Robert Wright’s analysis was an enlightening parallel to our own moment in time as we contemplate the future of Canada’s magnificent forests. As an environmentalist, thank you for this thought provoking piece.

  2. I recommend reading Thor Heyerdahl’s Aku Aku, written decades ago, for another account of a scientist who actually went to Easter Island, engaged with the residents, and saw first hand how they made the moai walk. I believe he also addresses the issue of getting their hats on.

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