Lessons from Easter Island

Here’s a cool link about possible alternative scenarios that played out on Easter Island, which has become kind of the pet example when talking about human overshoot. New research suggests that rats were responsible for the loss of trees—not human slash-and-burn agriculture, as previously thought—and that these same rats became the island inhabitants’ main food source. What most likely killed the human inhabitants, then? Sexually transmitted diseases, contracted from the visiting European explorers. Neat.

The takeaway of this alternative scenario is that people will never be alarmed enough by collapsing ecosystems to halt or reverse course. They’ll simply try to adapt until they all die, along with the trees. The only thing that saved the island—the actual island: the soil, microorganisms, flora, and other animals that depend on them—is that it’s an island, i.e. it’s contained; humans ran their course of destruction and then petered out, while life out in the open ocean went on, as if this blip never even happened.

It’s likely to be a different outcome in today’s world, where every continent is both connected and filled to the brim, and where even a gradual collapse means the release of nuclear waste—if not nuclear weapons. Nope, it doesn’t bode well for us civilized folk, as we continue to build and topple moai instead of addressing where all the trees have gone. Rats taste like chicken, right?

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