Easter Island - an unsustainable community

Sustainability requires a respect for the environment and the natural resources available in the community. But there needs to be recognition of where resources come from, how they are consumed and the regeneration process and lead time, says Paul Jackson.
Easter Island - an unsustainable community

There is ready recognition of the issues associated with the depletion of fossil fuel reserves, and the acknowledgement of the need to move to renewable sources of energy.   So why do we continue to focus on developing elaborate carbon capture solutions to help hide the underpinning issue, i.e. that we are using a non-sustainable resource in an irresponsible manner. Catching the carbon dioxide and pumping it back underground to save it from entering the atmosphere is not dealing with the issue.

It’s a simple equation: Replenishment Rate must be greater than Consumption Rate. If you cut down a tree, how long will it take to grow a replacement? And then you need to act, to plant the tree to make it happen.

Take for example the case of Easter Island in the South Pacific.   This relatively small volcanic island of little over 140 square miles sits over a 1000 miles from its nearest inhabited island, and nearly 2000 miles from the South American mainland.   Yet it has a long history and its population has in the past been over 5000 inhabitants.

Early explorers discovered the island in the 18th century, finding a relatively primitive population, supported by a fragile ecosystem producing barely enough food to support the then declining community. Several incursions by countries investigating the islands saw little reason to colonise, the remoteness and lack of obvious resources making such an activity unworthwhile.

However, explorers found evidence of a once thriving community, highlighted by the numerous stone statues, some over six metres in height, that are spread across the island.  

Theories abound as to why and how the statues were produced, ranging from Inca involvement to far-fetched theories of deliveries from outer space. A more plausible explanation, however, is that the inhabitants had once been highly resourced and skilled yet had fallen on hard times with this as their outlet. So what happened?

The most common view is that the islanders, over their thousand year history, simply lived beyond their sustainable means.  

The island was once heavily forested, however when the explorers arrived in the sixteen century, they found no trees at all. Evidence suggests that these trees were cut and used for wood, without any strategy for their replacement.    Much of the wood was used for housing, burning and to help transport and erect the massive statues. The source of this wood was not replenished, leaving the islanders unable to build boats, and thus trapping them on the island.

Housing on the island needed to change to reflect the lack of building materials, forcing the inhabitants into alternative cave dwellings. The lack of certain plant material inhibited the construction of canoes and fishing items cutting of an obvious alternative food source to that of animals, which were themselves limited in range and in short supply.

Furthermore, farming methods did not develop. Crop preservation methods, composting, manuring or soil management was not understood or applied, and the lack of land coverage increased soil degradation and erosion. The crops deteriorated until the base diet had reduced to little more than potato types and chicken, with evidence of cannibalism on the menu in the later periods.

In effect, the Islands had destroyed the community they had created by simply living outside the sustainable scope of the island. They had exhausted all their resources, destroyed their habitat, and cut off their means of escape.

In contrast, issues with food demand and production drove the development of crop rotation during the seventeen century, and then fuelled the subsequent industrial revolution to maintain the demand for machinery required to continue the land development.  

Crop rotation focused on land husbandry to make optimum use of the soil.   It recognised the balance between using land to grow food and produce, with the need to feed the land itself, replenishing the minerals needed to maintain its effectiveness.   This necessitated use of composting, manuring, and growing nitrogen intense plants merely to feed animals or mulch back into the soil.

Critically, the growing area was rotated with different plant types to balance the nutrients extracted with the replenishment regime. This was then supplemented with a portion of the land left fallow every fourth year to allow it to recover.

Crop rotation is a cycle that focuses on a simple principle: you have to replace what you take from an ecosystem to sustain it. 

The philosophy of a sustainable community extends into other areas of society. Deforestation is an issue for the modern world, but what about short-sighted building projects? The Millennium Dome in London lay unused for many years with no clear use factored into its original business plan; the Cape Town Green Point stadium developed for the South Africa World Cup but now unused; the Marathon cricket venue in Australia now unused; or the Reims Formula One motor racing circuit in France, now rarely used.  

Consider the Olympic villages and elaborate stadia in host cities across the globe that lay discarded after the event has come and gone - which of the historic Olympic stadiums are still in regular use?   Beijing, Athens, Atlanta, Barcelona, Seoul?!

And will we learn by the mistakes made previously? The London Olympic bid was based on the concept of legacy – will the legacy be that which was projected, or one of desolate venues, underused infrastructure and budget shortfalls.   Sadly this is a reality of our societal short-termism, narrow horizons and unsustainable business philosophies.

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by Tom Holmes

Marine Trader Editor

Tom Holmes is the Editor of Marine Trader and readmt.com, the official publications of the International Marine Purchasing Association (IMPA). To discuss news, features or contributing to Marine Trader please get in touch.

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