Wednesday, 7 June 2006

Learning from Easter Island: something for Russel Norman and his Greens to think about

Russel Norman's acceptance speech shows the intellectual horsepower that got him the Greens' co-leaders job, and Liberty Scott has another critique of it this morning. I want to examine Russel's view given in that speech of our "impending environmental collapse" and his solution for averting it:
I wanted to start [he says in his acceptance speech] by talking a little about the history of Easter Island... The story of Easter Island is the story of one potential future of the planet writ small...
Okay, stop laughing there at the back. Let the man continue:
A hierarchical society was built around the construction and worship of ... giant statues. The largest and heaviest statues were carved and raised just before the civilisation collapsed. And the civilisation collapsed because they had cut down every substantial tree on the island ...

After the last tree was felled they could no longer build ocean going canoes to catch fish, they ran out of timber to build houses and keep themselves warm, the soil eroded into the sea, there was no wild fruit to eat, and all species of land birds became extinct. Their civilisation collapsed due to civil war over resources and famine, resulting in the loss of 90 percent of the population.
According to Russel, our own culture of industrialism, worldwide trade, contract and property law, and shackled capitalism is the same as the Easter Islanders, only larger:
Now, our society has its own cult of the ever-bigger statue, and it's called the cult of never ending growth in material consumption and GDP. Each year we must build an ever-bigger statue consuming yet more resources taken from the forests and quarries and factories of the four corners of the earth. Every year we must consume more of resources available from the planet in order to expand our material consumption.
I'll let you work out for yourself for a moment just some of the many things Russel has to overlook to make his comparison between the dirt-poor Easter Islanders and free-wheeling, ever-productive modern man. But what's Russel's solution to the impending collapse he predicts for us?
If we are to avoid the fate of the Easter Islanders then we need international environmental treaties that empower governments to discriminate on the basis of how products are made - that is whether they were made in an environmentally harmful way or not.
This is the thinking that got Russel the co-leaders' job. Like author Jared Diamond, who he gives as one source of his 'arguments,' he lacks understanding both of the Easter Islanders' collapse, and what allows the modern semi-capitalist world to work so damn well, and to produce so damn much. And he lacks an awful lot of perspective. What he wants as a solution to the problem he thinks he's identified is to shackle the production that makes human life possible, and to return to the primitivism that killed the Easter Islanders.

Here's something to consider: The Easter Islanders are not us. Their way of life, fortunately, is not ours. Crucially, their culture is not ours. As David Landes argues in his book Poverty and the Wealth of Nations, it is culture that matters.
Culture is a greater determinant for wealth than are geography or history alone... Cultures that value property and contract rights and personal liberty are in the end going to be more successful than those that don’t.
That is the crucial thing. As is found so often, what the 'have-not' cultures had not and have not is freedom, and what makes freedom possible. As Landes says, it's these three things that have underpinned the rise of the western world since at least the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and they were of course spectacularly absent both in the culture of Easter Island, and the Green Party policy manifesto. Property rights. Contract rights. Personal liberty. To ignore these three boons is to ignore human history since about the middle of the sixteenth-century, and to fail to understand human productivity and wealth production.

Perhaps Russel and the Greens could take that lesson from the Easter Islanders: the importance of property rights and contract rights and personal liberty, and what happens in their absence? Sadly, it is these answers to the problem he poses that Russel and his party seems set firmly against. As Gene Callahan says of Diamond's analysis:
he has not realized that ... there is a ... discipline called history that concerns itself with discovering the particular antecedents of some unique going-on that explain its occurrence, based on critically analyzing artifacts from the past that have survived into the historian's present.

... Diamond's mistake is not merely of concern to scholars. The view that "vast, impersonal forces" largely determine the course of history, whether those forces are taken to be "the material conditions of production," as in Marxism, or geographical circumstances, as in Diamond, naturally suggests that individuals can do little to affect their own future.

As a logical consequence, in order to improve the lives of those who have been dealt a poor hand by those forces, it seems necessary to counteract them with another vast, impersonal force, namely, the State. Huge international programs intended to redress the arbitrary outcomes brought about by historical forces are recommended. The cases of countries with few geographic advantages but relatively free economies, such as Japan, prospering, and those of nations blessed with natural resources but ruled by highly interventionist governments, for example, Brazil or Nigeria, lagging behind, are easily dismissed as anomalies by those who are convinced that human action plays an insignificant part in history.

John Bratland makes a related point, against both Diamond and Russel Norman:
For Diamond [and Norman] societies are entities that act independent of the actions of individuals. He sees societal ascent or collapse as being contingent upon the extent to which societies embrace a centralized structure and management. But in so doing, he ignores institutions critical to peaceful, prosperous social interaction and the formation of society: (1) private property rights and (2) human action leading to division of labor and emergence of cooperative monetary exchange. With these institutions, individuals are able to avoid conflict and rationally reckon both scarcity and capital. Without these institutions, societies such as the Soviet Union and Easter Island are seen to have a common fate in that scarcity implies conflict, chaos, ‘waste’ and eventual collapse.
The fate of a culture is not fixed in the stars; it is set by the extent to which "institutions critical to peaceful, prosperous social interaction" are valued, and to which human genius is free to create. Curiously, it is this model for human life that Norman rejects, and it is the centralised Soviet model that he seems to favour as a model for society.

Perhaps if he was serious about his own critique, he might reconsider his position.

LINKS: Russel Norman's links Easter Island and the WTO and comes up with ? - Liberty Scott
Collapsed: Jared Diamond's arguments - Not PC
The Diamond fallacy - Gene Callahan, Mises Institute
On societal ascendance and collapse: An Austrian challenge to Jared Diamond's explications -
John Brätland (US Dept. of the Interior), Mises Institute

TAGS: Property_Rights, History, Economics, Environment, Politics-Greens, Books


  1. Anyone knows any members of the Green Party who is a business person ? I am trying to find out why they think the way they do? They drive cars but criticise Oil companies. They use laptop, but whinge about Bill Gates for being a monopoly. They wear clothes, but criticise the way clothing & manufacturing industry for low pay.

    Do they understand, that to give one self a satisfaction and enjoyment in
    life, they have to stand up and produce for the society and stop whinging. They should make their own cars, laptop computers, fridges, dish-washers, and so on. If they can't then they should simply to advise that the only place on earth that fits in really well with their ideology is the empty Caves in the Somali desert or Afganistan. They can trade their citizenships with peasants from those countries who live near or inside those caves, so that they can come here and be part of a productive society by producing themselves. I am sure Sue Bradford, Keith Locke are willingly to live in an Afganistan cave, where there is no vehicle pollution that they can whinge about. Food are natural (rats, centipedes, worms) and not genetic engineered. No electricity is available that they can whinge about saving power. The life over in a cave would simply be paradise.

    Are you up for that Keith Locke?

  2. the thing about Norman is how soporifically boring he is to hear or see, there is absolutely no hope of regaining 5% with this leadership, Smith and NAT must continue moves on Green issues,


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