Tuesday, 1 August 2006

Russel Norman, Jared Diamond & Easter Island: "Bunk."

On his election to the Green Party co-leadership back in June, Russel Norman delivered an impassioned speech imploring humanity to halt our path to self-destruction, citing as his chief example of our fate the destruction of their own habitat by the people of Easter Island.

"The story of Easter Island is the story of one potential future of the planet writ small," said the senior Green outside Parliament. [You can read my analysis of Norman's speech here, and Liberty Scott's here]

Problem is, New Scientist magazine says that the story of Easter Island told by Russel and others is bunk.

Not just wrong in the sense as I'd said before in trying to equate societies with property rights to a society that didn't, but wrong in the sense that, as New Scientist says, "At the very least, there is painfully little archaeological evidence for the fundamental claims that underpin the self-destruction theory." That's scientist-talk for: this hypothesis is bunk.
"Much of what has been written about Easter Island is little more than speculation," says Terry Hunt of the University of Hawaii. "When you start to search for the actual evidence for some of these claims, often it just isn't there."
Alas, poor Russel. Alas too for his thesis, and for the myth on which he and author Jared Diamond relied.
There are ... problems with almost all aspects of [the much-cited 'Collapse'] story, say Hunt and his colleague Carl Lipo of California State University in Long Beach. Take the idea that the population was once much larger than the low estimates made by early visitors. "People say, 'Look at all these statues, there must have been armies of people to do this,'" says Lipo. Many conclude that by Roggeveen's time the society had already collapsed. "But that is just absolute speculation," Lipo says.
The soil itself was never any good either, which is perhaps why the palm forest was removed.
"Thegn Ladefoged of the University of Auckland in New Zealand is analysing samples of soil from locations across the island. In general, the soils are poor, he reported at the meeting of the Society for American Archaeology in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in May. Nevertheless, he adds, there is no clear evidence of extreme soil degradation across the island. "I think people have extrapolated from one area which does show extreme degradation, Poike, to the whole island. I just don't see it," says Ladefoged."

"Lipo and Hunt suggest that, given Easter Island's poor soils and relatively low rainfall - which struggles to top 1500 millimetres a year - it actually made sense to get rid of the forest to make way for [rock] gardens [with a 'lithic mulch], and to extend agriculture across a greater range of soils and levels of rainfall."
So the story that Russel and Jared spun just falls apart, doesn't it.
"In 2002, Paul Rainbird of the University of Wales, Lampeter, investigated the idea of eco-disaster on Rapa Nui and concluded that there is no compelling archaeological evidence for any of the key claims of societal dissolution and breakdown before the 18th century."
Russel thinks we should find in Easter Island a lesson for ourselves "writ small." On that I do agree with him. There is something to be learned, and it is this: scaremongering claims for eco-collapse and eco-destruction produced without evidence should be ignored.

Are you listening, Russel?
LINKS: Easter Island - A monumental collapse - New Scientist [with podcast]
Learning from Easter Island: Something for Russel Norman and his Greens to think about - Not PC (Peter Cresswell)
Collapsed: Jared Diamond's arguments - Not PC (Peter Cresswell)

RELATED: Science, History, Economics, Environment, Politics-Greens, Books


  1. This is a really good article as well: http://www.staff.livjm.ac.uk/spsbpeis/EE%2016-34_Peiser.pdf

    I have to disagree with certain facts you mention in this post. In particular Easter Island was very fertile according to visitors: Here a few quotes while I tried to update the Wikipedia entry, but as you will see it the Wikipedia entry is really, really twisted. It has slowly gravitated to all Diamond again:

    Jakob Roggeveen reported that Easter Island was exceptionally fertile, producing large quantities of bananas, potatoes and thick sugar-cane. In 1786 M. de La Pérouse visited Easter Island and his gardener declared that "three day's work a year" would be enough to support the population.

    Rollin, a major of the French expedition to Easter Island in 1786, wrote, "Instead of meeting with men exhausted by famine... I found, on the contrary, a considerable population, with more beauty and grace than I afterwards met in any other island; and a soil, which, with very little labour, furnished excellent provisions, and in an abundance more than sufficient for the consumption of the inhabitants." (Heyerdahl & Ferdon, 1961:57).

    Wikipedia is an utter failure for many subjects. You just can't get an objective article on certain subjects.

  2. Are you pointing out that there are problems with Jared Diamond's explanation, in the sense that he over-states his case, or are you just saying we shouldn't give a shit about our environment because there's no problem to worry about?

  3. I believe that's three questions there, Chris.

    1. "Are you pointing out that there are problems with Jared Diamond's explanation, in the sense that he over-states his case..."?

    I'm pointing out what 'New Scientist' is pointing out: the problems with Jared Diamond's argument is that it's based on something that's not true. That's about as serious a problem as an argument can have.

    I've previously pointed out more than once that even if Diamond's account were true (which it isn't), and if it did indeed show industrial society in microcosm (which it doesn't) what our Jared is describing in 'Collapse' is the process of environmental degradation characterised by the tragedy of the commons, and the way you permananently fix the tragedy of the commons is with secure property rights.

    2. "...are you just saying ...there's no problem to worry about?"

    I'm saying that if Jared Diamond's account is wrong (which 'New Scientist' says it is), then for Russel Norman to base anything on it would be foolish.

    3. "...are you just saying we shouldn't give a shit about our environment..."?

    Is that really a serious question?

  4. "I have to disagree with certain facts you mention in this post."

    Best you send your disagreement to 'New Scientist,' Berend. The facts and scientific arguments are their's and the scientists they cite.

  5. I'm quoting facts as well PC. Just visitors report from a very well-regarded and supported paper.

    I didn't know you quoted your facts from the New Scientists (just thought they were your own interpretations), so I'll have a look at the New Scientist article.

    But at least we agree that Jared Diamond made his facts up (which the paper I mentioned very convincingly demonstrates).

  6. PC, the Auckland University "2006 Sir Douglas Robb lecture series" is scheduled for September 20th to 22nd (3 evenings). It is indeed Professor Jared Diamond. Lets book the back seat again this year at BL28 lecture theater for this interesting series.

    "Annual Robb lecture series, given in 2006 by Professor Jared Diamond"


  7. I am very sorry to say that your theory is undermined by a huge body of coherent archeological evidence.
    Easter highland population faced a harsh collapse right after ending deforestation. There is a very good report in national geographic that illustrates recent findings that confirm by the detail the collapse theory of Diamond and others.

    Agriculture did not work on eastern island. And as they removed tree they could not fish pelagic fishes anylonger (need wood to build boat and also houses by the way)...and there are very little coastal fish on this island. So yes they were starving and archeology has definite proof.

    Unfortanately i do not find a complete video for free on the net, i saw it on swedish SVTplay some months ago



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