Easter Island

Our plane, a Boeing 676, lands on the longest runway in Polynesia. It happens to be on Easter Island, one of the most remote inhabited islands in the world. The runway was extended by the United States in 1986 to accommodate the space shuttle in case of an emergency. The shuttle has never used it.

People are always going to the highest this, the lowest that, the farthest other, impelled, perhaps, by a grass is always greener mentality. That is not why people come to Easter Island now. They come to see the Moai, those 70 ton plus monsters that the island’s ancestors ripped from the sides of the volcano, Rano Raraku, the way God ripped Eve from the side of Adam. These massive stone statues stand along the coastline with their backs to the sea as if they were ignoring the world around them. Staring impassively inward, the Moai are why Easter Island is the world’s largest work of public art, not a small achievement for a race of people who lived and may even have died doing it.

The island is a Rorschach test. Visitors project onto it what they need to see. Optimists see Easter Island as an example of resilience. The island is, after all, returning to life. There are now 4,000 people living on it, up from the 111of 1877. These people co-exist with 3,000 cows and 2,000 horses. Downtown Hanga Roa has several bars and our hotel will be torn down in April to be replaced by a modern one. On some days 5,000 passengers from visiting cruise ships descend like locust. Like contemporary Italy, where one out of four jobs is in the tourist trade thanks to the magnificent artists of the Italian renaissance of 500 years ago, so, too, will modern Easter Island continue to live and even thrive off the creations of its artists 500 years ago.

So speak the optimists.

Who are the pessimists? Jared Diamond is one. In his book, Collapse, he sees in Easter Island a parable of Mother Earth. Like Easter Island our planet is a precarious eco-system that will soon be unable to sustain its 6.3 billion and still growing population. We are threatened by climatic change in the form of global warming, by a disintegrating ozone layer as a result of manmade hydrocarbons, by the loss of our major source of energy in the form of oil. Diamond sees in this all the elements of imminent collapse, just as Easter Island collapsed by the 18th century when all the trees had vanished. The world has become a place where cowboys fight in the arroyo while the dam has burst. It is only a matter of time before the floodwaters are upon us.

For Diamond Easter Island was a culture so intent on building Moai that it was oblivious to the destruction the enterprise was wreaking—cutting down trees to manage and move the statues until there were no trees left. The population dwindled from thousands in the 16th century to 111 in the 19th. For Diamond Easter Island is a warning sign, a fire alarm, a railroad-crossing bell. He warns us to take its lesson to heart, to wake up before it is too late.

I ran across an article in Science recently that offered another account of the deforestation of Easter Island. In a word it was rats. The islanders brought the rats and the rats ate the seeds that made the trees. After awhile, there were 20 million rats and no seeds. That’s where all the trees went. I prefer this hypothesis. It is the most elegant of the two. But does that mean Diamond’s pessimism is uncalled for?

Depends on whether you are an optimist or a pessimist.

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