When the last tree was cut down

22.10.2014 - Quito, Ecuador - Tony Robinson

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When the last tree was cut down
(Image by Photo: Tony Robinson)

Easter Island was a closed system for 1400 years according to scholars specialising in the history of the place.  It was populated by Polynesians coming from the West who arrived on canoes with a stock of plants and animals that would be used to establish a new colony, a new civilisation.  The new arrivals found a land full of trees, fresh water supplies in dormant volcanic craters, and a seemingly endless supply of birds.

The islanders found life acceptable there and they established villages and an economic system that enabled them to feed their families.

Life went on from year to year, century to century, and seemingly without much else to do apart from to grow food or to catch it in the sea or to forage for it among the birds’ nests and there was lots of time to dedicate to the establishment of sufficient housing and to more cultural pursuits.

A tradition, most likely brought from their previous home elsewhere in Polynesia, of honouring the deaths of the most important chiefs who were considered to contain special energy and power, led to one of the most extraordinary building projects ever seen on the planet: the building of incredible platforms and enormous statues placed on top.  The skulls of the honoured dead were placed inside the platform and on top went an enormous stone statue.

Over time the cult of the statues flourished and small statues became bigger statues and then huge statues weighing tens of tonnes.  The statues were transported sometimes huge distances and enormous head pieces were added.  In the statues, large coral eyes were inserted into sockets and obsidian pupils were added as a dwelling place for all the power that the deceased held.  From generation to generation statues were erected, leading to lines of staring statues pointing towards the settlements and away from the sea, providing protection to the community, filled as they were with the power of the ancestors.

All was going well for the islanders, Europeans had not arrived to take slaves or to infect them with diseases for which they had no immunity.  Yet after a period of 1000 years without recorded wars suddenly, within 20 to 40 years, the island’s population was decimated and the statue building cult was abandoned.

What could cause this sudden collapse?

The effect of a closed system

The answer or at least an analogy for the answer lies, surprisingly, in the field of thermodynamics.  Thermodynamics is a brain-hurting branch of physics for anyone who has tried to study it.  It deals with concepts such as temperature, pressure, volumes and the relationship between them and the rather abstract concept of entropy.

Imagine if you will a box filled with oxygen gas, and a box filled with nitrogen gas.  Now imagine that the boxes are side by side with a removable wall between them.  Then remove the wall and two different gases stand side-by-side.

Over time the gases mix so completely that there is no way of identifying which was the original location of the oxygen and which was the location of the nitrogen.  This is the action of entropy.  Entropy measures the amount of order in a system.  The original state – two masses of pure gas side by side – is the most ordered stated possible.  The final state – a totally mixed gas – is the least ordered state possible.

The 2nd law of thermodynamics states that a system will tend to move towards increasing disorder if it is left alone, i.e. if the system is closed.

This is where the analogy to economics comes in.  In a closed system, the components will move towards increased disorder.

Easter Island – the perfect closed system

The islanders were left to themselves for 1400 years.

Over time the population increased and the islands’ limited natural resources were used up: the trees were cut down for shelter and for transporting statues; the rats introduced as food by the new arrivals ate all the fruits and nuts that could generate replacement trees; the sea birds were driven to extinction; no trees were left to build new boats which could allow the population to find new islands to populate; the population grew exponentially for centuries; deforestation led to soil erosion and increasingly poor harvests.

One day a point was reached when the island could no longer sustain the population.  It was not capable of providing enough food for the islanders.  Statue building stopped because no trees were available and in any case no food was available to support the craftsmen, whether there were attempts to dialogue between the villages is not recorded, but what is recorded are the violent wars.  Suddenly in the archaeological records appear weapons and all the statues on the island are pulled down and the eyes – the source of the village’s power – are destroyed.

The system comes falling down and the population declines by 90% according to some estimates.

Planet Earth – the perfect closed system

It does not take a genius to see the relationship between Easter Island with a population of 20,000 people and planet Earth with a population approaching 8 billion.

We also live in a closed system.  We have finite resources of fossil fuels and trees.  We have a finite number of edible species – plant or animal – and we have a population that is growing exponentially.

It is clear that as time goes by we are tending towards increasing disorder.  There is increasing dissatisfaction among the population, there are increasing wars, there is increasing poverty and death.

Just as the two masses of gas originally stand in a nicely ordered way and then become increasingly disordered, so our nicely regulated lives become increasingly disordered.  Entropy in our closed system is increasing to a point where there is no reversibility.

Where are we going?

We are heading to a collapse of human civilisation, it is clear looking at the Easter Island situation, but you can look at any civilisation and see how a moment of extreme decadence comes immediately before a huge fall.

In the case of previous civilisations, such as the Romans, the system was not perfectly closed, there was always a new place to go to, there were always more resources available if you went looking for them, so it was always possible for a new civilisation to emerge.

On Easter Island, there was no escaping the closed system.  There was no way out, the system crashed and couldn’t recover until it was opened by the arriving Europeans (who in fact almost wiped out the people through disease and slavery).

Similarly, in our current system there is no way out.  There is no Earth 2.0.  If we cannot make life sustainable on this planet, there is no hope for humanity.

The wars on Easter Island were fought with sticks and stones essentially; the wars to bring an end to planet Earth will be fought with nuclear weapons, the nuclear power stations will explode, we’ll pollute the planet for tens of millions of years, and humanity, and possibly every form of life, will become extinct.

The planet will take billions of years to rebuild from the most primitive cells to sentient life forms. Maybe such a renaissance of life will never happen.

What can we do?

The only solution surrounds two principles: humanism and sustainability.

We have to build a world without violence and with respect for all life forms on the planet AND we have to live sustainable lives.  If we use, throughout our lifetime, more resources than the planet is able to regenerate then we continue in the path of destruction.

There are things that we can do.

First we have to recognise as a human species that we are heading for collapse and we have to start talking seriously about how to stop it.

Second we have to move to renewable energy as an urgent priority.

Thirdly we have to move to an economic system based on the principles of sustainability.

Fourthly and most importantly we have to put the value of human life as the central value and concern.  It doesn’t mean we forget about all other forms of life, because putting human life as the central value, demands the valuing of all other life forms.

These things are necessary and they are urgent.

This world that we need to advance towards is the Universal Human Nation.  It is the only way out of the closed system and the only way to avoid extinction.

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