In this paper, we will search for an explanation of the mystical collapse of society on Easter Island, during the 18th century. We’ll use the second chapter for the book “Collapse. How Society Choose to Fail or Succeed” by Jared Diamond. First we will summarize some of the evidence supporting the explanatory framework of the author to give an outline of the situation. Then we will state the research question. After that we will talk about the underlying process where we will discuss the actions of the assumptions of the actors goals, the theory of the action implied and the initial conditions.
We will finish with a conclusion. In his first chapter proposed the author, Jared Diamond, five contributing factors for understanding environmental collapses. These five factors are damage, climate change, hostile neighbors, friendly trade partners and the societies respond to its environmental problems. We can use these factors to explain the collapse of the Easter Island. Firstly, there was much damage done to the environment by the inhabitants. Jared Diamond states that the extent and reversibility of the damage depends on properties of both the people and the environment.
In Easter Island, the inhabitants mainly cut trees for burning firewood, cleaning gardens, to cremate bodies and making seaworthy canoes. This led to an extreme example of deforestation. But, not only did the inhabitants destroy many trees, they also had the bad luck to be living on one of the islands with the highest risk for deforestation. In the book, nine environmental causes for deforestation are mentioned, and the Easter Islands had to deal with all of these 9 factors.
The variations in rainfall and latitude, the fact that it is a dry island and that it is a cooler island farther from the equator contributed mostly to the deforestation. Another contributing factor was the overhunting of birds. After a while there were no birds left and the Easter Islanders had to turn to other things to eat. The second reasons Jared Diamond mentions is climate change. With climate change he does not mean global warming, but the fact that climate may vary between months or years.
The problem is that in the time of the Easter Island most people only lived long enough to witness one climate, and not for example a time of plenty and a time of little rain. The inhabitants of the island therefore had no firsthand memory of a previous period of little or plenty rain. Therefore, every time they had to come up with a new strategy because they did not know an old strategy. Another problem with good and bad decades is that after a good period there is too much population to be supported, and after a bad time there are not enough people to deal with a climate change.
There is not much known about the climate changes at Easter Island. But, we do know that the population changed a few times because of kidnapping and different epidemics. This means that although there may have not been a lot of climate change, there was a constant change in the number of people living on the island who may have not known how to deal with different circumstances. The third and fourth factor Diamond mentions are hostile neighbors and trade partners.
But, because Easter Island was an island almost completely isolated from the rest of the world , these factors cannot have played an important role in the collapse of the island. Although in the book is mentioned that the Easter Islanders sometimes had visitors, these visits were not regularly enough to be considered as a big influence. The last, and probably most important, factor is how society deals with the environment. As discussed above in the damage section, the inhabitants cut down many trees for several reasons and they destroyed different animal populations.
But the political, social and religious factors behind the impacts are also of importance. The Easter Island was divided into a dozen of territories were chiefs and there commoners lived. Every territory had their task, based on their valuable resource. Between the territories was a constant competition of building the most impressive platforms and statues. Building these statues took them not only much effort, but it also required trees for wood, rope and timber. This contributed to the deforestation of the Easter Island.
Unusual was, that although the territories competed with each other, they were integrated religiously and also economically and politically. The chief’s and priests on the island had promised to deliver beautiful harvest. Once the environmental situation on the island got worse and all the food was gone, the inhabitants of the island turned to the only food left: humans. But, not only the political system was destroyed, along with the chief’s power the religion got discarded. Based on the text above we formulated the following research question:
How did the environmental changes cause the collapsing of Easter Island? To begin with, we will discuss the actions of the actors on micro level and the outcomes on the macro level. The people on Easter Island needed wood for heating, cremating bodies, gardening and for building and transporting the famous Easter statues. Therefore they used the resources on the island. But, because the island had to deal with lots of bad biological conditions, there was no reproducing of trees and animals. The deforestation led to biological changes, which caused the crop yields being decreased.
When the forest on the island slowly disappeared, so did the sources of wild food. The most animal species on the island, in the air, and in the water surrounding it, became completely extinct due to a combination of overhunting, deforestation, and predation by rats. After this environmental change, the inhabitants did not have enough resources left and because of the bad conditions they looked for alternatives like cannibalism. The cannibalism in combination with the lack of wood and food caused the decreasing of the population and the collapse of Easter Island.
Coming back to our research question, we can state that the environmental change at Easter Island was mainly due to the behavior of the actors and not immediately caused by the initial conditions. The initial condition was the prosper of the island. There were enough resources for everyone, which allowed the statues to be made. People of the island were used to a high standard of life which meant they used a lot of resources and reproduced themselves, which allowed the population to grow. However, the people did not consider the fact that the island was not able to reproduce enough resources.
So, not due to the initial condition, but because of following human behavior did the environment change. In conclusion, we can state that eventually the collapse of the Easter Island is caused by human behavior. Because of the initial good prosper the inhabitants overused their resources. This led to environmental change because the island itself had not enough biological resources to refill the stock. Of the five factors Diamond described, the damage done by people and how society deals with problems were the main reasons for the collapse.
Courtney from Study Moose
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