The myths of Easter Island – Jared Diamond responds

This week I wrote a blog post re-examining the historical evidence for the view that what happened in pre-historic Easter Island is a classic story of ecological ‘collapse’ and thereby holds lessons for us all. Jared Diamond, who used the Easter Island story as the lead case study in his 2005 book ‘Collapse’, responds to the charge below. I am happy to publish his comments in full, including links to two scholarly articles that Jared also supplied.

Jared Diamond writes:

This website has posted comments on Hunt’s and Lipo’s book about Easter Island, which claims to show how those authors’ recent archaeological studies overturned orthodox conclusions derived from a century of previous extensive archaeological research by many scholars.  Among Hunt’s and Lipo’s main conclusions, they say that Easter Island was deforested by rats, not by Polynesian settlers; that settlement was not until AD 1200 rather than earlier as widely assumed; that the tall stone statues of up to 90 tons were not transported horizontally, but were “walked” upright; that the collapse of Easter society was due to European impact, rather than to impacts of the settlers themselves before European arrival; and that the view of Easter society’s collapse as a self-inflicted ecological catastrophe is flawed.

Unfortunately, the web postings don’t recognize the compelling reasons why Hunt’s and Lipo’s conclusions are considered transparently wrong by essentially all other archaeologists with active programs on Easter Island.  I’ll summarize the reasons, for readers interested in these issues:

Rats.  The initial reason for positing a role of rats in Easter’s deforestation was that some preserved seeds of Easter’s extinct palm tree, found in caves, show marks of gnawing by rats; and that a study of Hawaii attributed deforestation there to rats.

However, evidence that rats played no significant role in Easter’s deforestation includes the following.  Rats occur not only on Easter but also on every other one of the hundreds of other Polynesian islands, most of which nevertheless did not end up deforested.  Over 90% of preserved palm seeds outside caves were not gnawed by rats.  Easter’s forest consisted not only of the palm but also of at least two dozen other species of trees and other plants, all of which also became extinct on Easter although most of them are not known to suffer seed predation by rats and continue to exist in the presence of rats on other Polynesian islands.  The Hawaii study does not demonstrate, but merely speculates about, a role of rats in deforestation on Hawaii.  Had rat predation on seedlings caused deforestation on Easter, there should then have been no regeneration of young palm trees, but continued survival of mature palms capable of living for many centuries.  Instead, palm trees continued to regenerate for centuries in the presence of rats, but eventually all palms, young and old, disappeared by AD 1600.  The reason for their disappearance is obvious: they were cut and burned by humans, as shown by burned palm stumps, cleanly-cut-off palm stumps, burnt palm leaves, and burned soil in many parts of Easter Island.  See the attached paper by Mieth and Bork, which Hunt and Lipo did not even cite in their book.

Settle a date. On the basis of radiocarbon dates of AD 1200 for a few wood samples from a surface at Anakena taken to represent the first settlement on Easter Island, Hunt and Lipo concluded that settlement was not until around AD 1200.  They rejected all of the many older radiocarbon dates obtained by other authors.  However, the Anakena surface occurs at a gap in soil deposition layers (an “unconformity” in geological terms), indicating that archaeological layers corresponding to an unknown number of centuries are missing (blown or dug or washed away) below that surface.  The surface thus provides no evidence about first settlement.  See the attached book review by Paul Bahn and John Flenley, two of the leading experts on Easter Island.

Statue transport.  How could tall 90-ton statues have been dragged over unpaved hilly terrain?  The only reasonable solution, to avoid their tipping and breaking during transport, is to transport them horizontally and then lever them into an upright position.  Jo Anne Van Tilburg, the leading scholar of Easter statues, who has spent decades cataloging the hundreds of statues, carried out an experiment in which Easter Islanders demonstrated for her their horizontal transport and levering-up of a model statue.  But Hunt and Lipo claim that statues were transported vertically.  This seems an implausible recipe for disaster.  Imagine it yourself: if you were told to transport a 90-ton statue 33 feet high over a dirt road, why would you risk tipping and breaking it by transporting it vertically with all its weight concentrated on its small base, rather than avoiding the risk of tipping by laying it flat and distributing its weight over its entire length?

Collapse only after European impact. Hunt and Lipo, relying partly on a paper by Peiser (written apparently without first-hand experience of Easter Island), claimed that Easter’s collapse was due to European impact, and that the islanders were coping successfully before European arrival.  No one disputes that European impact did devastate what was left of indigenous Easter society, especially by introduced diseases and by a slave raid.  However, to blame it all on Europeans dismisses all the convincing evidence that Easter society had been collapsing well before European arrival: evidence such as the near-completion of deforestation (attested by the disappearance of forest pollen and of forest plant remains), the evidence of widespread warfare (from detailed oral accounts and preserved weapons and skeletal injuries), the cessation of carving statues, the disappearance of oceanic fish and mammals from the diet (because of no trees to build canoes to harpoon them), and the desperate resort to sugarcane scraps for fuel (because of disappearance of native plant fuel).  These and other types of evidence that have built up our current understanding of Easter Island history are denied.

The lesson of Easter Island. Sometimes, a new study does result in previously unappreciated facts and interpretations, which eventually convince experts in the field.  But we learn to be suspicious when a highly selective book claims to present an “iron-clad case” for a “definitive solution” that has hitherto escaped all experts, and when the book’s dust-jacket quotes and favorable reviews are not by experts in the field.

Some of us may be eager to embrace claims that those native Easter Islanders really were innocent wise stewards of their environment, and that evil Europeans destroyed their paradise.  But research on Easter Island published since my 2005 book, and now fairly summarized in Bahn’s and Flenley’s just published new third edition of their standard source book Easter Island, Earth Island, enrich and don’t overturn our previous understanding of Easter Island.  The islanders did inadvertently destroy the environmental underpinnings of their society.  They did so, not because they were especially evil or deprived of foresight, but because they were ordinary people, living in a fragile environment, and subject to the usual human problems of clashes between group interests, clashes between individual and group interests, selfishness, and limited ability to predict the future.  Does that remind you of any problems that we ourselves face today?  That’s why we find Easter’s story so gripping, and why it may offer us lessons.  You’ll find good coverage in Bahn’s and Flenley’s new book.


  1. stickman

    This has been a most informative debate. We possibly haven’t heard the last of this, but Diamond’s concluding paragraph is excellent:

    The islanders did inadvertently destroy the environmental underpinnings of their society. They did so, not because they were especially evil or deprived of foresight, but because they were ordinary people, living in a fragile environment, and subject to the usual human problems of clashes between group interests, clashes between individual and group interests, selfishness, and limited ability to predict the future. Does that remind you of any problems that we ourselves face today? That’s why we find Easter’s story so gripping, and why it may offer us lessons.

    Kudos for publishing the reply.

    1. bigcitylib

      Actually, it has only been an informative debate if you (like myself, admittedly) don’t know much about Easter Island. So when Mark slapped up some fringy research that most people didn’t recognize as such, it looked like there was a genuine debate in the field. And while the result may have been that us plebes got educated a bit, Mark hasn’t done the science any good, other than to give the fringe research prominence it would not otherwise have.

      One takeaway is: don’t ref E&E.

    2. Lewis Deane


      Infamous of old. As you know, this isn’t a matter of ‘fringy debate’ but one, rather, of your and other ‘big city libs’ central metaphors – that man is irremediably evil, left to himself, without God or, failing that, the ‘experts’ (your ‘experts’!). It is that, in your lights, democracy fails, because the public are to stupid, therefore you and your ‘experts’ must tell us how to behave!
      Idiot, do you think the historical forces that are overwhelming you and for which you only have specious understanding and even more infantile solutions, will not, in the end, wash you and your like away. In your guts, you know this, hence your absurdities!

    3. J Bowers

      Or you could just ask yourself, “How come it could only get published in E&E?”

    4. Bernard J.

      Lewis Deane.

      You are revealing your ideological underpinnings in your knee-jerk response to BigCityLib, but you’re not actually challenging any of Jarred Diamond’s refutation of Hunt and Lipo. What exactly is the archæological science that invalidates the Diamond/Bahn/Flenley/Mieth/Bork/et al view of the record?

      Are you seriously challenging the idea that humans caused the ‘commercial’ and/or the absolute extinction of species on Easter Island? We’ve done it countless times in other contexts: why is it apparently not posssible that the Islanders painted themselves into a natural resource corner?

      Nota bene, God and democracy are not reasons to discount human short-sightedness…

    5. Stewart Brand

      Easter Island really does look and feel like an eco-catastrophe. I was there a few years ago and felt devastated by what I saw. Since then I’ve gotten to know Jared Diamond and Mark Lynas, so I wound up in the middle of their back-and-forth. For me, Jared’s summary about Easter Island in his 2007 paper in Science remains definitive for now:

      “All parameters were stacked against Easter: It is relatively cold, dry, low, small, and isolated, with negligible nutrient inputs from atmospheric dust and volcanic ash, relatively old leached soils, and no uplifted-reef terrain. Thus, Easter became deforested not because its inhabitants were uniquely improvident, nor because its European visitors were uniquely evil, but because Easter Islanders had the misfortune to inhabit one of the Pacific’s most fragile environments.“

      My own sense as a onetime ecologist is that we overinterpret remote island events in whole-Earth terms. That’s most evident in the matter of alien invasive species. The remotest islands are the most sensitive to alien invasives, especially to predators, who cause what is called a “trophic cascade”, because remote islands are so depauperate of species. But continents absorb alien invasions and massive extinctions (such as the loss of megafauna, American Chestnuts, etc. in North America) with relative aplomb. (Daniel Janzen is right that Australia acts like an island rather than a continent.) I suspect the Earth as a whole has more the biotic resilience of a continent than of an island.

      Therefore I suspect that we use book titles like “Easter Island, Earth Island” to frighten ourselves unduly. There is plenty enough to be worried about accurately.

    6. Neven

      Stewart, Diamond makes it clear what the parallels between the Easter Island eco-catastrophe and the current global predicament is:

      “The islanders did inadvertently destroy the environmental underpinnings of their society. ”

      I suspect the Earth as a whole has more the biotic resilience of a continent than of an island.

      Yes, but does human society and civilisation?

    7. Bernard J.

      Stewart Brand.

      Neven makes a couple of important points, but I’d like to add two more.

      1) On a planetary scale, we are currently changing biotic and abiotic conditions to an extent that Easter Islanders could not even have comprehended. The sad fact is that most non-scientists in contemporary Western society seem to demonstrate a similar difficulty…

      2) With these profound changes comes a long lag time to full effect. It is not valid to say that we will not wring great disturbance on a continental or planetary scale, simply because we don’t observe such changes occurring on the same scale of time as would occur for a small island context.

    8. Ottar Vendel

      Blaming the rats for the deforestation is plasible, and if we do we can make this remark. Unilke the coconut palms in other parts of Polynesia, which have hard nuts to crack, the now extinct plams of Easter island had small nuts with at much easier to eat for the rats. What is lacking in the dabate is a botanic statement how long a Rapa Nui-plam lived. They were very thick wjth a stem up to a meter in diameter. Then we can estimate the the time span for rats to kill alla palms om the island (estimated to by around 15 millions at the arrival of the firsta settlers). After that we must concider the time span to the point where the remaining dead plams alla had rotten and we of no use but firewood to the natives. If this scenario was for exaeple 400 yrs we can count back from the point we know the islanders surely had no logs (around 1600 or so) and get a date which is likely the latest point when people came to the island. This is one scenario of many, but I think it’s a good one! Ottar Vendel. 14-05-28

    9. Heteromeles

      Not that I think Prof. Diamond is necessarily wrong, but I seem to recall that a great many scientists were initially dismissed as fringe-y. Louis Leakey does spring to mind. So do a lot of wackos, but we have to remember that claims of fringe-worthiness are a standard first defense in academia.

      The bigger problem is that Diamond screwed up rather annoyingly in Collapse, and here I’m referring to McAnany and Yoffee’s edited volume Questioning Collapse. Here’s one of Diamond’s cases for success: Tokugawa Japan, where after about 200 years they were close to revolution when the Americans arrived. Then they did, in fact, have their revolution.

      Here’s a case for failure: Greenland Vikings live in a marginal environment for 400 years. When things get bad, they apparently pack up and leave, rather than dying in place. They then disappear. Did their boats sink in the North Atlantic? We may never know, but we’re stuck with the fact that they lasted twice as long as Tokugawa did, but they’re considered a miserable failure.

      Here’s another case for failure. Easter Island. If Hunt and Lipo are totally wrong, then people arrived on Rapa Nui whenever. 100 AD? 600 AD? 1200AD? Around 1400 AD, the palms were gone.

      I’m sitting here scratching my head, because Diamond’s failures lasted longer than his successes.

      I’m not sure of the time scale of success or failure, but it is royally irritating that Diamond includes longevity o selectively. We don’t see the Rapa Nuians as a people who survived on 63 square miles for 1000-2000 years, or survived blackbirding, or survived the death of their forest, whatever caused. No, we see them as the poster children for environmental failure, thanks in part to Diamond’s efforts. That really is unfair, given their long history, the abuse they suffered from outsiders, and their continued survival regardless.

      Oh, and Hunt and Lipo actually did get a moai replica to walk, using only ropes, and filmed it for Nova, so it’s a lot less theoretical than Diamond claims.

  2. Graham Strouts

    I think Lomborg and others have pointed out that Easter Island is really exceptional because of its isolation. Other islands with similar technology at the time did not suffer the same ecological collapse as Easter island. This is Matte Ridley’s thesis as well- lack of access to trade resulted in stalling of innovation and specialization. So Easter Island is not really a good example from where to draw lessons for the modern globalized world.

    1. Colin

      so Earth trades its way out of ecological collapse through forging new economic partnerships with other planets in the solar system??

    2. Robert

      “I think Lomborg and others have pointed out that Easter Island is really exceptional because of its isolation.”

      No, no, no. Can we reason together for a moment?

      1. Do we share resources and trade products, labor, and services all across the world?

      2. Are we capable of making changes to our environment that affect the whole world, like the actions of the islanders affected all of Easter Island (via ozone depletion, GHGs, nuclear war, whatever examples you like).

      If #1 and #2 are true (and they are) then our global society is analogous to Easter Island in that we have certain resources and opportunities, certain challenges and potentials for harm.

      Is our global society as isolated as Easter Island? It’s more so! We have no practical means at the present time to leave the global and settle elsewhere, to bring resources to earth from outside, or to identify any other societies, if they exist, with which we could trade.

      We are much bigger than Easter Island, but just as isolated.

    3. Mark Lynas (Post author)

      Yes, but size matters. I think the point with islands is that they have very few resources (not a massive variety of resources which are limited – different thing) and that human populations can have an enormous impact with little prospect of advanced technology to ameliorate it. At the global scale it really is a very different story. We’ve barely touched the surface of many resources, which constantly renew themselves anyway in cycles (e.g. nitrogen, carbon, water) which hardly happens at the level of a single island.

    4. Bernard J.


      You appear to be ignoring the fact that Western impact on the environment is orders of magnitude more profound that was that of the Easter Islanders.

      Further, it matters not if most natural resources are being used in a ‘renewable’ fashoin (that in itself is a debatable contention), but if there are essential (that is, limiting) resources that are not being used in a way that they can be ‘renewed’.

      And at a very fundamental level, your optimistic interpretation appears to ignore thermodynamics. But that is a discussion for a whole thread (or blog) in itself…

    5. Bruce

      Try and remember the MWP ended around 1300 in the Pacific. If Easter Island was already a cooler than normal island, a drop in temperatures of 1-2C would have been devastating.

      Now I know deniers like Robert pretend the MWP didn’t exist, but it did. And when it ended the cold would have been destructive.

      When our warm period ends, it will cause a great deal of starvation.

    6. Bruce

      Another reference:

      “he AD 1300 even, or the main period of sea-level fall, is represented by the shaded gray bar. The beginning of the AD 1300 event coincides with the first burst of inland colonization, and by the end of the Event, the trend had caught on rapidly.

      Due to a combination of human factors and the change in climactic conditions, most of the woodland and plant life declined at this time. Around 1200, widespread slope wash began, consistent with increased rainfall, deforestation, and large swaths of land put to use for agricultural purposes. The Little Ice Age was a period of cold, rainy weather forcing the inhabitants of Easter Island to make major lifestyle changes in order to survive. These pressures led to group tensions, eventually erupting into violence.”

    7. Spence

      I just have to argue about this whole man-made global bio-disaster generally. And my point is merely that we are far to young scientifically and mentally to make a true judgement. If the earth is really billions of years old, and we as modern-type humans a quarter million, and as globally sentient beings a mere century or two (I’m referring more to the evolution of the scientific method than politically or culturally or technically, and still widely varied as to its spread) then how can we make judgments about time with only a century of experience? It seems to me that were really far too impressed with our modern age and gadgets, the nifty numbers and getting all worked up over an imperfection in the gloss that from even a thousand years away is imperceptible. Its not like we’re not gonna be able to deal with almost anything that could happen. Have a little faith in yourself, or at least your ever-evolving DNA to keep man safe, and let’s live and prosperous.

  3. bigcitylib

    Well, now there’s a thorough debunking.

  4. Colin


    It would be interesting to know if you stick by your original post or would modify any of your views based on Jared Diamonds input.

    1. Mark Lynas (Post author)

      Yes. But I’ll hold off commenting just for a while because I’m trying to solicit input from Lipo and Hunt. I’m not an archaeologist, and I haven’t been to Easter Island, so for me it’s more about whose work seems most persuasive and authoritative. I’m aware that one should look at this rigorously and not be persuaded merely by the worldview prejudice that comes along with ‘ecocide’ or not.

    2. Caspar Henderson

      Will be interesting to see how Hunt and Lippo respond. Diamond makes their case sound very flimsy indeed.

    3. Mark Lynas (Post author)

      Carl Lipo is in the process of contributing a response, so do check back in for that in a couple of days. I’ll post it on twitter etc as usual.


  5. Keith Kloor

    For those interested in an academic critique of the Easter Island collapse narrative portrayed in Diamond’s book, see the essay by Joseph Tainter that I link to in this post:

    1. Robin Whitlock

      But Tainter himself has written a great deal about societal collapse due to environmental factors such as desertification and deforestation, as far as I can see, so while this link may question Diamond’s Easter Island point, it doesn’t question the overall analogy…

  6. Bruce

    The Medieval Warm Period ended around 1300AD in the Pacific. The cooling probably caused big problems.

    “In the Pacific Basin, the main climatic manifestations of the A.D. 1300 Event were overall cooling, sea-level fall, and a possible increase in storminess.”

  7. john h

    I know very little about easter island other than what I’ve read here. but I think there are clear disanalogies between it and the current situation faced by the world.

    Most importantly, I doubt whether easter island had as fully developed a property right and market system as we do now. The main basis of the response to the malthusians is that property rights provide incentives for stewardship and that markets are an incredibly efficient rationing system. Both of these things are powerful mechanisms against running out of the resources that keep our economy going. For example, over the last 100 years or so, people have constantly predicted that we will run out of oil. they have always been wrong. this looks strange because it seems obvious that oil is finite and that we will run out of it eventually if we keep using it. the key point is that we have a market price for oil. thus, when supply falls, the signal is sent to millions of people to use less of it (which efficiently rations usage). and another signal is sent for millions of suppliers to find more of it (as happened with north sea oil and opec).

    The other key point is that we don;t want resources in and of themselves. we want the services they provide. we don’t want oil just for the sake of it: we want to be able to travel efficiently, or store food in durable containers or have lighting. thus, we can find substitutes for oil in these areas. once again, the market provides incentives to do this if there is scarcity. there are extremely strong incentives to come up with substitutes.

    that explains why the costs of all natural resources has been falling over the last two centuries. It is sufficient reason to reject the view that easter island is a parable for our current situation.

    competitive market capitalism may very well be responsible for other ecological problems and disasters. But civilisation-threatening resource-depletion is not one of them. quite the reverse in fact

    1. john h

      Specifically to mr diamond, I know it is tempting, but it is irresponsible for archaeologists and anthropologists – people without any expertise in the economics of resources – to make bold predictions about a complex issue like resource depletion. There are better qualified people to listen to.

    2. Eli Rabett

      Name them

    3. john h

      anyone with a phd in economics

    4. Nichol

      not sure what should argue for economists, that study our modern economy at timescales of a few years. Historians look at longer timescales .. and resource depletion tends to take some time. Geologists probably have more to say, sensibly, about fossil fuels, than economists.

      The price-mechanism can stimulate more efficient use of energy, and fossil fuels, but we will never drive efficiency beyond 100%, on average. We’ll need different sources of energy. We’ll also need to not mess up our air. We’ll also need to stop killing off biodiversity much faster than evolution will ever be able to cope by creating new species.

      More efficiency only allows us to stand ever closer to the precipice without all falling down it. Yet. There are many analogies with Easter Island. Easter Island is an awesome historical example. But we don’t live on Easter Island, obviously. It doesn’t really help to argue about the differences between Easter Island and modern earth. Of course there are differences. And of course we’d like human culture to survive in the long run .. and especially the next decades.

    5. Colin

      @ john h

      What about global commons such as the atmosphere? Property rights and the market system don’t seem to be creating the types of stewardship incentives that will do much to help The Maldives from sea-level rise.

    6. john h

      I did note that I was making a specific point about resource-depletion, as opposed to other environmental problems. You have raised a problem with externalities, as opposed to resource depletion. the atmosphere is not being depleted, it is being altered by greenhouse gas emissions. which is different to a resource like oil being depleted.

      my point was that market systems have very strong incentives for protections of resources that our economy depends upon. It may not do so for things like rare species of bird because they are not owned and there is no market for them (note that I’m not saying we should not be bothered about losing rare species of birds). i’m saying that where ownership of a thing is dispersed amongst various competitors and there is a market for that thing, there are good reasons to think it will not be depleted, and that it will not out.

      How many resources can you name that have run out over the past 200 years? and of those, has them running out had any detrimental impact on the lives of humans? Considering the world’s now enormous population, it is strange we haven’t seen at least a minor Easter Island-like impact with some resource. shouldn’t we expect this if the neo-malthusians are right?

    7. john h

      also, even if you say that the atmosphere is a resource (which I’m not sure is right on the technical definition of a resource used by most people), your example proves my point. Some emissions trading schemes aside, people do not own the atmosphere and there is not a market in it. hence, there are not incentives to look after it.

    8. Colin

      @ john h

      The atmosphere is definitely a resource providing essential services. Oxygen to support life, filtering UV radiation, maintaining temperature (for the moment) and a sink for our outputs. It’s capacity to deliver these services is being depleted and the market is not providing incentives for stewardship.

      I’m not arguing with the central logic of your argument around conservation and substitution as commodified resources become scarce but you should be more skeptical about its absolute ability to deliver nice smooth transitions. Consider what would be involved if phosphate production were to peak and start to decline in the next thirty years or so.

    9. Leopoldo

      For your last phrase, why civilization could cause a collapse?

      why not? this civilization is based on the combustion
      of fossil fuels. Do you have any doubts that fossil fuels are a finite resource? Oil and coal is not different to cut all the trees of an island.
      After the exhaustion of fossil fuels, a little before in
      fact, a great “global war” would come out, to grab the
      last remaining pockets of underground oil. In fact this
      process had already started, even if we seem not to be yet conscious of it. For how long do you think the actual 7 billion people would be able to live in the planet?
      The theory of Duncan says that the present state of this civilization would look like short flash all light in a geological scale of time. He postulate that a technological civilization last 100 years. Perhaps he is exaggerating a little for he says that it would span from the year 1930 to the year 2030, years in which the per capita consume of oil was 30% of the peak oil moment.
      Let’s assume the end of the world of oil would not be so short, a little larger, as large as 120 years. This put the end of this technical wonderland in the year 2020. If all the fossil fuels are not exhausted by the year 2020, a great Armageddon would ensue to grab the last hot reserves not yet exhausted.

      We are not any good to predict future events.

  8. Oliver Manuel

    Thank you for publishing Jared Diamond’s response.

    As noted in the first comment on Professor Curry’s blog:

    “The power of Jared Diamond’s book is in its simple narratives and effective writing…

    …and in the readers’ inability to comprehend that simple narratives and effective writing in a non-fiction book are more often than not obfuscators of truths.”

    Having witnessed such misinformation skills over my own research career**, I now question new research findings of ice as a source of heat:

    “Is ice a source of heat?
    Or is that another deceit?”

    **Video summary of research career

  9. Girma

    For a well-fed man who can live for the first time upto 80 years in human history (instead of 40 years before industrialisation) and believes the environment that man now lives has deteriorated is irrational.

    1. Matthew Perry

      Living beyond 80 “for the first time” huh?

      First of all, thats not true; paleolithic and preindustrial humans live past 80 years regularly. (surely you’re not using the mean as a true measure of life expectancy?)

      Secondly of all, so what? Quality of life is the only important factor, not quantity.

  10. Graham Strouts

    “Does that remind you of any problems that we ourselves face today? That’s why we find Easter’s story so gripping, and why it may offer us lessons”.
    Prof Diamond is ill-advised to extrapolate “lessons” even if the evidence is on his side re rats etc.- it makes it look like he is politicizing the science.
    @Robert- clearly Easter Island was a very small self-sufficient society, quite homogeneous; the global economy is quite different, -more a network of many very different economies with very different resource bases- and the capacity for innovation and specialization s orders of magnitude greater.

  11. Doug Bostrom


    Prof Diamond is ill-advised to extrapolate “lessons” even if the evidence is on his side re rats etc.- it makes it look like he is politicizing the science.

    By the same token, it would be “politicizing science” to suggest that situating pit latrines near shallow potable water wells is foolish. We’d be “extrapolating” that past infections caused by such arrangements might tell us what would happen should we do so again. That’s a very strange assertion, not remotely related to what we actually practice.

  12. Graham Strouts

    @Doug Bostrom
    er- no. The modern globalized economy is not like Easter Island for reasons Ive already given. That we dont do silly things like build latrines next to drinking water demonstrates this- we have global communications and science. You could actually argue that, yes there are lessons to learn, but we have learned them. We dont cut down all the forests until they are all gone unless we are like Haiti which is still perhaps at the level of Easter Island. This by Lomborg is good:

    1. Bernard J.

      Graham Strouts.

      Actually we do do silly things like building latrines next to drinking water.

      We pollute our terrestrial and marine environments with plastics, petrochemicals, and other noxious substances. We pollute our atmosphere with excessive carbon dioxide. We block rivers with dams. We overharvest fish stocks. We salinate our agricultural soils, and contrary to your rosy view on forestry, we do seriously overharvest our forests – ask any ecologist who has worked in South Africa, south-east Asia, or Africa if you doubt this. Leaving a few remnants doesn not count as sustainable use.

      And “This by Lomborg is good…” is an oxymoron.

  13. john h

    your initial point was about climate change not resource depletion.

    I don’t see how anything you have said about the atmosphere provides any reason to think anything i have said is false or exaggerated. I did not claim that there would be nice smooth transitions. I just said that there are incentives to look after the natural resources on which our prosperity depends where they are widely owner and there is a market in them. The transitions might be difficult, but experience strongly suggests that human ingenuity tends to overcome scarcity where certain conditions are in place.

    if there were (some kind of indirect) market in phosphates with dispersed ownership, we would not run out of phosphates. that is my claim

    As the Easter Island case does not have incentives for innovation on which the whole case against neo-malthusianism depends, it is disanalogous and provides no lessons for us at present. As I have said, if the Easter Island case were comparable to our case, we would expect to have started running out of some resources to the extent that this would badly affect our standard of living. the reverse of this has happened.

    1. john h

      that was to @colin

    2. Colin

      @john h

      I agree with you on commodities but not on resources. This is not splitting hairs but is an important distinction. Markets and incentives have dealt with commodity scarcity well in the past and will for many (but probably not all) others in the future. The atmosphere (along with many other eco-system services) as a resource is not being protected by these mechanisms.

      The human ingenuity tends to overcome scarcity narrative neglects the suffering and misery that can occur in the course of the transition. This needs more discussion and shouldn’t be crowded out by utilitarian views.

    3. john h

      When you say that the atmosphere is not being protected by market mechanisms I’m not sure what you mean. Either the mechanisms are not in place and the atmosphere is not being protected as a consequence, which seems plausible and is my position. Or the mechanisms are in place and they are failing to protect the atmosphere. this is not plausible because the atmosphere is not owned and is not subject to the market. The atmosphere is in a bad way precisely because the market mechanism is not in place.

      I don’t think i have expressed a utilitarian view. I have made empirical claims about what is the case, not about what theory of value is correct.

      “The human ingenuity tends to overcome scarcity narrative neglects the suffering and misery that can occur in the course of the transition”

      I don’t see how that follows. i am saying that human ingenuity and the market mechanism allows us to have ever-growing levels of consumption without running out of key resources. this leaves open the possibility that there could be misery in the transition for some people. e.g. many people’s lives might have been bad during the opec price spike, even though the market corrected for that spike in the medium term. I don’t see how this counts against anything i have said.

    4. Colin

      @ john h

      You argue that the market protects resources, I give you an example of a resource that is being depleted (the atmospheres ability to provide a stable, livable climate equivalent to pre-industrial times) and you declare it a non-resource.

      Your view that human ingenuity can overcome all even if many suffer in the course of transitions is utilitarian in its cost-benefit approach.

    5. john h

      @ colin.

      Er, no. What I said was that where there is dispersed ownership of a resources and a market in that resource, it is extremely unlikely that it will run out (given price increases) and it is very unlikely that its scarcity will damage medium term consumption.

      As I have said twice now, your example proves my point. the atmosphere is not owned and is not subject to the market. that is why it is being depleted. as i said in an earlier post:

      “also, even if you say that the atmosphere is a resource (which I’m not sure is right on the technical definition of a resource used by most people), your example proves my point.”

      so here i have granted that it might be a resource, but said it doesn’t make any difference to the argument. you then need to tell me why that is wrong not just pretend that i haven;t said it.

      “Your view that human ingenuity can overcome all even if many suffer in the course of transitions is utilitarian in its cost-benefit approach.”

      Not it isn’t. As i said in the last post, you are failing to distinguish facts and values. I have said that consumption will keep increasing even though we are suing more resources. I didn’t say it would “overcome all” (whatever that means”, I made a factual claim about what will happen to consumption given our resource constraints. I haven’t said that increasing consumption is good or that we ought to increase consumption, so quite how i have committed myself to utilitarianism is beyond me.

  14. Ben Pile

    “Does that remind you of any problems that we ourselves face today? That’s why we find Easter’s story so gripping, and why it may offer us lessons.”

    The problem with such ecological moral story-telling is that it expects too much of archaeological evidence. In much the same way, climate science is burdened by the expectation that it will supply answers to moral and political questions. Scientific and archaeological evidence then become myths — in the sense that they become idealised, perfect and unimpeachable narratives. To challenge the ‘lesson’ contained in the story is seemingly to take issue with concrete fact, which is completely against the spirit of archaeological and scientific ‘value-free’ research: the desire for myths precedes it. Thus, one can’t offer an alternative account of the collapse of Easter Island without identifying oneself as an evil b**tard, because you can’t scrutinise the evidence without challenging the moral of the story. Provisional truth becomes moral absolute.

    The Easter Island story doesn’t remind me of any problem we face today, because the entire notion of an ‘island’ is entirely different, as are the individuals which inhabit them, as is the technology they are able to use against the problems they face (such as getting off an island). To say otherwise really is to challenge the material facts of the present: we have at our disposal the means which Easter Islanders lacked. If there is any lesson to be drawn from history, it is by its comparison to the present: we should be arguing for more technological development, for more people. And in many cases, we should be arguing for a greater transformation of our natural environment. To argue for the opposite is to argue for the recreation of the conditions experienced by Easter Islanders. Diamond’s myth looks to me like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    1. Leopoldo

      you mentioned more technology as a panacea. But technology cannot exist without huge amounts of energy. This is actually achieved with oil, coal and gas. But those fuels are finite. Even if someone people mention the fusion of hydrogen isotopes, deuterium and tritium, it is far from sure they would succeed. The sun on average only produces 276 watts per cubic meter
      I copy from the wikipedia:
      At the center of the Sun, fusion power is estimated by models to be about 276.5 watts/m3.[4]

      I copy a little more:
      Despite its intense temperature, the peak power generating density of the core overall is similar to an active compost heap, and is lower than the power density produced by the metabolism of an adult human. The Sun is much hotter than a compost heap due to the Sun’s enormous volume.

  15. john h

    @ Nichol

    I disagree that geologists will be better able to predict what’s going to happen to resources than economists. resource usage over time is very dynamic and tied in with economic mechanisms than geologists have no expertise in.

    Also, if you look at actual predictions that geologists and other scientists have made about resources running out in the past, they have been all been wrong. cornucopians have much better predictive accuracy than neo-malthusians. This does not necessarily prove that the theory they believe in is false, but surely poor predictive accuracy counts heavily against it. And we have to ask, why has it failed? Is it because the theory is false or have they just happened to pick the wrong empirical circumstances every single time they have tried to predict what will happen?

    Your say we are on a metaphorical precipice with respect to our resources. This is not correct. If resources were getting scarce to the extent that they could not service our consumption, one thing would happen: the cost of that resource would rise. so, if we were near a supply precipice, we would know: costs would be very high. In the world we live in, the cost of all natural resources has fallen continuously over the past 200 years.

    a more accurate analogy would be the following. we are on a mountain (representing one particular resource) with a precipice many thousands of meters away. every time we move closer to that precipice, we have an incentive not to move as fast or to move to a different mountain.

  16. Patrick

    Oh my, oh my, this argument seems to have devolved from the critique of Diamond’s analysis and conclusions to a discussion about market forces and their ability (or not) to prevent resource depletion . I kept checking the dates of the posts as this all seems so 2006 with John H channeling Milton Friedman and Julian Simon simultaneously.

    I am not an expert but have considerable knowledge of Rapa Nui. I researched, did most of the writing and producing for a 1 hour documentary on RN. Part of my research meant spending a week at the 5th Annual Conference on Easter Island and the Pacific. (a full fledged academic conference, with presentations discussions and workshops. All of the presenters were highly qualified and most were university affiliated.) I met John Flenley there and spent many hours with him discussing his research and the issues it had raised for him. Then I went to Rapa Nui for several weeks of field research of my own.

    My view of what I’ve read of Hunt and Lipo’s book is that much of what they say goes against the weight of the decades and even hundred years of research that has been done.

    Issues they raise. The most spurious in my mind and smacking of intellectual dishonesty is their self–righteous stance blaming Europeans for their collapse and not their self–inflicted eco–wounds. I never met anyone in the field of RN research who didn’t acknowledge and deplore the treatment the Rapa Nuians received at the hands of the Europeans, led by those wonderful folks of the Church. Diamond et al were talking about the condition of the island and its people at European contact.

    There is considerable amount of evidence that the Rapa Nuians met in the late 18th century were depleted, dispirited and having a difficult time surviving. One could argue that they’d reached a new lower population plateau and could have maintained a sustainable livelihood. But they didn’t have the nutritional or energetic wherewithal to climb that mountain of cultural and population florescence again.

    Jared Diamond did an excellent job of rebutting Hunt and Lipo on the rats ate my homework, excuse me, the seeds and walking the statues. (Having seen all of the statues, including El Gigante in situ, I find the idea that they “walked” them to be absurd.)

    There is evidence that RN had reached a population as high as 10,000, some say even much higher. At contact it’s estimated there were about 3,000 people living on the island.

    So is it a warning to us or just some intellectual politicking as some here have suggested? I would say it’s as clear a warning as one could get.

    Earth is that island we see in the beautiful picture from outer space. It is isolated and we are running out of resources. In the contemporary language we are approaching peak everything. The idea that economic drivers will somehow find just in time substitutes for all the things we use oil for is nonsense. We have fouled our nest, used up most of the energy that was a gift of nature and we continue unabated even while nature herself slaps us upside the head trying to get our attention.

    The thing I find most irritating about cornucopians is their smugness. Soon the thing they will find most irritating is just how wrong they were.

    1. john h

      to be fair mate, the debate about easter island is obviously indirectly about whether market forces will prevent resource depletion. indeed, the end of your post deals directly with arguments about resource depletion.

      In your neo-malthusian conclusion, you have not presented any arguments against the denial of your view, you have merely denied the denial. What are your arguments against it?

      the real issue is not technically whether we are running out of resources. it is whether we are running out of resources fast enough for that to damage our current level of consumption and the levels of consumption of future people. The answer is ‘no’. One way to tell whether we are getting even relatively nearer to such point would be if the cost of resources was progressively rising in the long term. in fact, the cost of resources has fallen. Why is this please?

      I dispute the idea that cornucopians are smug. and anyway, is it worse to be smug or wrong? Neo-malthusians have a disastrously bad record of making predictions about what will happen. In fact, i would wager that it is worse than if we had simply flipped a coin between “will run out” and “won’t run out”. Why is it that your theory has had a predictive accuracy much worse than random?

  17. Patrick

    John the difficulty for both of us is that our opposing views are based on (in my case) decades of study on the issues. It is hard to distill the arguments into brief blog posts. Also, for myself, I have to consider is it worth my time at this stage to discuss issues which I believe are well settled, even if not well understood in the wider population.

    Are you familiar with the website The Oil Drum? If not it’s easy to find. Right now they have a critique of the EIA’s latest predictions for liquid fuels. Another post takes on Daniel Yergin’s recent WSJ article debunking peak oil. TOD (The Oil Drum) is typical of where I get my information. Their membership is heavily weighted towards scientists, engineers and others working in the energy field.

    Imagine a normal Bell curve. On the left is oil production coming on line, on the right are fields depleting. What is happening now is that as fields and regions deplete, such as the North Sea and Cantarell while others come on line. But there are 2 major problems with that: 1, the depletion side is overtaking the coming on line side, 2, much of the new oil is basically “alt–oil” e.g. the Alberta tar sands, the Bakken shale, deep–water fields etc. And the problem with them is that the net energy return is so much less. Are you familiar with EROEI, (energy return on energy invested)? All economies are functions of energy input so with the above concept what you see is less input = lower economic activity. Oil and oil derivative production has been flat since 2005. Should a major source, like Saudi Arabia stumble we will see a real dip to the right side.

    john h One way to tell whether we are getting even relatively nearer to such point would be if the cost of resources was progressively rising in the long term. in fact, the cost of resources has fallen. Why is this please?

    Which resources are you talking about? The cost of the most basic energy resource has risen substantially over the past decades and even recently. A quibble perhaps but I think you should say “price” and not “cost.” They are not the same. Cost would include things like environmental degradation which may not be immediately “priced in.”

    You keep saying that the neo–Malthusians (a laughable term btw) have always been proven wrong but you don’t say who they are nor specify how they’ve been wrong. Was M. King Hubbert wrong? Were the Club of Rome wrong? Who do you mean and what did they get wrong?

    Anyway John I can’t keep this up. It would require too much looking up references and I think we’re at a stage where it’s plainly obvious that we’re in deep doodoo. We are on the brink of a full on collapse led by those same wonderful folks who brought us capitalism and the worship of markets.

    But blame is futile. On a much larger level our problems are baked into the cake of our specieshood. We are simply following the arrow of our evolutionary biology. We’ve exploited our niche (the world), we’ve bloomed, (really study population graphs until the magnitude sinks in) and now we’ve overshot and next is dieoff. I’m not predicting human extinction, although that’s possible, but we will certainly have a very fast ride to a sustainable population of at most 2 billion people.

    1. john h

      re the flat production since 2005 and long term trends. Oil production was also flat for a similar period in the early 90s and fell over a similar length of period in the 80s. oil production increased after both of those periods. thus, it is safe to say that we can extrapolate almost nothing from such a short-term lull.

    2. Patrick

      The circumstances are vastly different. We have picked the low hanging fruit and are now going after the harder to get, less energy dense stuff. Tell me how you get around this. Since 1960 we have used 4 barrels of oil for each barrel of oil discovery. Do the math.

    3. john h

      We get around it the way we always have. price rises make exploitation of new fields possible our encourage finding substitutes. efficiency increases mean that we can get more oil from the same fields. efficiency increases mean we use less oil per unit of growth.

      I am completely confident that in 20 years, oil production will be higher than it is today. Do you want a bet on that?

    4. Patrick

      I won`t be around in 20 years. You must hope that you will be. The world will be well and truly on the other side of that curve by then. And it won`t be as shiny as now.

      Your belief in technological and innovative solutions is touching but misplaced. As for efficiency read up on Jevon`s Paradox.

      You might also have a look at Joseph Tainter`s The Collapse of Complex Societies. And realize we are not just approaching peak oil but `peak everything.` Check out this (well–researched) chart.

  18. john h

    I think it was very obvious that the term ‘cost’ as i have used it does not include environmental cost. I don;t think it even makes sense to talk about the environmental cost of a resource simpliciter. the process of extracting a resource might bring environmental costs but that is different.

    it is true that the real price of oil has risen over the past. but it has not risen by very much, and the cause of most of the price rise has been political decisions: wars, opec etc. note that 40 years the neo-malthusians were predicting the real price rise to be about 3/4 times this price/ for there to have been peak oil (not yet for some reason)/ for oil to have run out.

    the known reserves of oil have increased over time. as has oil production and supply. pointing to minor trends from 2005 is all very well, but the medium and long term trend is clearly of rising oil production. it might be the case that we’re reaching peak oil. but people have said the same before on precisely the same logic as you and have been wrong every time. what makes you different?

    This also brings us back to the key point that this is about servicing consumption as well. The real price of oil relative to real incomes has fallen considerably over the last 60 years.
    the real cost of energy has also fallen significantly over the last two hundred years.

    I don’t understand why ‘neo-malthusian’ is a laughable term for what you believe. You might not endorse the religious element, the sterilisation or population controls but you make the same empirical predictions on the same logic.

    Almost all neo-malthusian predictions i have ever read have been wrong. all those i have read about a resource running out have been false. all those i have read about the scale or direction of price rises have been false.

  19. Patrick

    John, the known reserves of oil have not increased over time. What has increased is the politically driven estimates of oil reserves–mustn’t spook the herd.

    Now let’s look at the fallacies inherent in your arguments here: The real price of oil relative to real incomes has fallen considerably over the last 60 years.
    the real cost of energy has also fallen significantly over the last two hundred years.

    Do you seriously suggest that filling up a car in 1951 was more expensive in real terms than today? Gas in 1951 was $0.27/gal. which in 2005 dollars was $2.01. Today the median price of gas across the US is $3.53. That’s a 57% increase. In addition incomes have been flat for the past 3 decades. This is masked by the fact that in 1951 there were mostly single earners per family it is now 2 plus earners to stay in the same place.(books have been written about that, one of the best being Elizabeth Warren’s The Two Income Trap, 2004, Basic Books. She also contributed a chapter to Poverty in America called The Vanishing Middle Class–please don’t tell me you don’t know who she is!) –family income –current gas prices US –yearly gas prices in constant dollars

    Your next point is absolutely risible. 200 years takes us back to 1811. The world’s first refinery was built in 1861 (producing kerosene) but it wasn’t until the invention of the internal combustion engine in the early 19th century that oil began its climb to prominence in the energy domain. Do I need to spell out the qualities of oil that make it unique as an energy source? Energy density, transportability, safety (stability) and in the early years abundance to name a few. As the cliche goes oil was a game changer–just as declining supplies will be.

    With all due respect John, I can’t keep this up. I’m arguing about things that are far back in my own history of learning about our currently impending disaster(s). I suggest you put down your 1973 Milton Friedman primer and broaden your scope. Start with the Oil Drum, go on to The Automatic Earth, maybe look at John Ward’s The Slog for a UK perspective. These are highly intelligent well thought out views. No, I don’t agree with everything but they are the meat on the plate. There’s a lot more–all websites btw–seek and ye shall find. One final thought, avoid the MSM like the plague. MSM = mainstream media.


  20. john h

    You appear to be furious with what I have written, yet all of this seems to come from not reading what i said.

    “Do you seriously suggest that filling up a car in 1951 was more expensive in real terms than today?”

    No I didn’t say that. If you read it carefully, you will note that I said that real incomes have increased faster than real oil prices. I said precisely that real oil prices have risen. and i said that real oil prices have not risen very much. neo-malthusians were betting on $200 a barrel and above.

    I don’t know where you get your stats from, but incomes have not been flat for the last 30 years. It is well-known that world incomes has grown massively over the last 30 years. there are far fewer people in poverty. we are not talking about america. we are talking about global incomes and global real oil prices.

    I also think your stats about american incomes are wrong and oyu misinterpret them, but i need not get into this. all that matters is that global per capita real incomes have been rising, which was my point, and is undeniable.

    “Your next point is absolutely risible. 200 years takes us back to 1811. The world’s first refinery was built in 1861 (producing kerosene) but it wasn’t until the invention of the internal combustion engine in the early 19th century that oil began its climb to prominence in the energy domain. Do I need to spell out the qualities of oil that make it unique as an energy source? Energy density, transportability, safety (stability) and in the early years abundance to name a few. As the cliche goes oil was a game changer–just as declining supplies will be.”

    It only appears risible because you have not read what i wrote properly. I said that real energy prices have fallen over the last 200 years. you have then spent a paragraph on telling me about the qualities of oil that make it unique. My point is, if you actually look, clearly true.

    It’s all very well tossing insults about milton friedman mate, but i’ve got a first class degree in economics. I think what i do because of evidence.

    It might be true that we are constantly on a supply precipice for oil and that we are nearing a crunch. However, you need to offer an account of why those who have made similar predictions in the past in similar conditions have been wrong. what is different?

    1. Patrick

      John, I am certainly not furious with what you wrote. As your`s is much closer to the mainstream opinions, I would spend all of my time in choleric fits if I allowed my disagreements with your (or anyone’s) opinions to upset me. I apologize for being insulting. Please don`t take it personally; I`m just a snarky old dude.

      Of course it’s true that the price of energy has dropped in the last 200 years; I understood you clearly. My point was that it was the advent of the the use of oil which made that so. And further, it will get much more expensive as it depletes. As an economist you understand curves.

      Yes, I was referring to American incomes. And middle–class incomes have been flat for 30 years; that is well–documented. As to the rest of the world, you are right but therein lies a huge problem. As Chindia and the other BRICs expand economically, engendering a huge increase in mid–income demand, resource depletion will accelerate.

      And as for Ph.Ds in economics we`ll have to disagree on their utility. I think most of them, especially the Friedmanites have done much more harm than good. Naomi Klein got it spot on in The Shock Doctrine.

    2. john h

      Yeah sorry the debate was maybe getting a bit too heated.

      I think we’ve maybe taken it as far as it’ll go, this probably isn’t the ideal forum in which to debate the minutiae of stats. I just find it difficult to believe in this neo-malthusian view. They are always based on a contention about will happen that has never come true in the past and has been based on the same logic. As we have much definite and already confirmed environmental problems like climate change and ocean acidification, we should focus on them. I also don’t see how the neo-malthusian view translates into any kind of policy prescription. The obvious thing to do seems to be to ration the goods that are supposed to be running out. But we already do that with the price system and it is widely agreed that it is a very efficient way of doing it. Perhaps population control would be a way of controlling demand. But again, we have an inbuilt mechanism for rationing a good according to increased demand: the price. State-mandated recycling of some sort might be suggested. But we have to trade-off the benefits of that against the increased carbon that would be produced if we recycle rather than get virgin supplies.

    3. Patrick

      Good by me. And yeah, we can agree on the environmental problems. My view is that we’ll see about the rest sooner rather than later. Cheers.

  21. Patrick

    John, I inadvertently posted the wrong link in a reply to you above. The correct one is
    This is a chart of (mostly) essential minerals and their years of supply remaining. You might quibble with some dates but you can`t challenge them all. Nor will it be simple to find substitutes for some: 2 examples copper, best case 39 years supply, molybdenum, 42 years supply.

    Yes, some elements can be substituted but not all and not quickly. Keep in mind also that if a product is made with say 9 components/elements then if you are missing only one element, you can’t make it.

    1. JohnB

      Patrick, thanks for the second link, I was quite confused by the first one. 🙂

      The Stock Check page appears to draw it’s info from the USGS, at least it uses the same figures as initial amounts. The actual USGS data is here;
      and is nowhere near as bad as the Stock check page appears. Copper, rather than a reserve of 630,000,000 tons is said to be closer to 5 billion tons in land based reserves alone. So your best case, and ignoring future recycling, becomes 200 years, not 39.

      The USGS says that “Resources of molybdenum are adequate to supply world needs for the foreseeable future.”

      Stock check also ignores recycling, which I think will be an enormous supply of materials in the future. 24% of Aluminium in the US already comes from recycling and 82% of US domestic lead consumption was from scrap.

      Another thing to consider is that demand levels off. If a nation has 10 million families that need refridgerators, then you need the resources to make 10 million fridges, but once they are made and assuming a life of 10 years for the appliance, the demand then drops to a replacement rate of 1 million fridges per year. Which means that there are 1 million fridges available each year for recycling, so the need for new resources drops.

      Similarly there is a high demand for steel when developing a nations rail infrastructure, but demand drops once the network is in place. There are physical restrictions on where you can run a railway line so it simply cannot be continually expanding.

      I find that these sorts of factors are often ignored in projections of future resource needs.

      I won’t argue on Peak Oil because I think it is a valid point. How big a valid point and how bad it will be I’m still unsure, so I’m a bit of a fence sitter there.

  22. Fred Spier

    Does anybody remember that it was not Jared Diamond, but Clive Ponting, who was the first to draw an extensive parallel between what happened on Easter Island and what may happen to the world in the beginning of his book of 1991 A Green History of The World?

  23. Paul Kingsnorth

    Fred, you are quite right about Ponting. I remember reading about Easter island in that book when I was at university. Same story that Diamond later updated.

    What I find funny about this whole discussion is that it is transparently not about Easter Island at all. Mark has openly admitted it’s a subject he knows nothing about (which makes the ideologically-flavoured certainty expressed in the original post rather … suspect, to say the last). Most of the posters clearly know nothing about it either, whatever their view. But everyone has very strong views on whether we’re headed today towards collapse or cornutopia. Maybe you should all just ditch the metaphors on both sides, and be honest about what you’re arguing about.

  24. JohnB

    Damn, I should have looked at the dates.

  25. Damien Cook

    Wow. Jared Diamond is apparently lying face-first, down on the ground, having had the most basic premises of his flawed argument smashed. And his response? I’m right because I say I’m right.

    Um, it’s called actual science, Jared. Hunt and Lipo have you cold.

    When the paradigm dies, the ones left holding the old theories always shout and scream – rather than just admit that a new idea is better.

    Hunt and Lipo have nailed it. You are dead wrong.

    1. Toby

      Not in my view. Diamond by a knockout. It also seems to me that Diamond is closer to the consensus view, and my own experience of a small Indian Ocean island convinces me he is right about the deforestation.

      Easter Island is only a chapter of Diamond’s more extensive work Collapse, which examines other Pacific Islands where society collapsed (to extinction in one case) and others where it come close to collapse but survived. There are lessons here .. the island that survived (Tikopia) had a much more egalitarian societal structure than Easter Island, where the leading chieftains may have been insulated from the real problems of the ordinary people until it was too late.

      Here is Diamond giving a TED talk about his book:

      And here is a documentary about Easter Island where some leading archaeologists give their opinion:

    2. Mark Lynas (Post author)

      Actually, watching the Diamond Ted talk is illuminating… I was particularly struck by his sweeping declaration that “some societies may be close to collapse, such as Nepal, Indonesia and Colombia” – I’m not sure what it is about these countries which makes them closer to collapse than anywhere else (indeed Indonesia and Colombia are growing rapidly, and doing better than ever before), and Diamond does not back up this rather peculiar assertion. I think this is at the heart of it, actually – sweeping statements which make superficial sense to some, but do not stand up to rigorous examination.

  26. Peter Marsh

    Looks like the discussion is over, but I would like to bring up another aspect of Easter Island that also reflects what is happening in todays society.
    As most of you know, there were two societies on Easter Island – the Long Ears – who are believed by many to be red heads and the later arrivals – the black haired Polynesians. Recent studies regarding the DNA of the red heads confirms they are Native Americans (I can get a reference for that ) – these people were most likely similar to the red haired Paracas Mummies and the blond cloud people of Keulap, Chachapoya. The red heads of Easter Island also have been shown in DNA studies to be very similar to the ancient Cro Magnon man DNA seen in the Basque, Brittany, Welsh and Irish DNA. All these people are possibly descended from a caucasian population that was once much more widespread in America (viz; Kennwick man)
    OK now with that in mind, it seems from the oral history of Easter Island, it tells of a civil war between the fanatical and controlling long ears who were attempting to enslave the easy going Polynesian population to make statues and clear more land during a time of drought and famine. As predicted the Polynesians rose up against the controlling tyrants and the long ears got what they deserved – all but three were slaughtered – thrown into a fiery ditch of their own making. Maybe this story should be told again to the controlling tyrants of today – be warned all ye warmongering fanatical right wing fascists!

  27. Janet Camp

    I don’t think Diamond is an anthropologist (archaeology is a subfield in the US) and Mark has already noted his lack of that specialty. Diamond does a good job of citing the literature, however, and seems to have developed a good working understanding of archaeological techniques in the course of his own research. I wouldn’t rule out some of Hope and Lipo’s work being verified, especially the dating stuff, but only time and further work will tell.

    I came here looking for further information on Mark’s evolving environmental stances and stumbled into my own onetime area of study. I think Mark’s comments in an interview I read earlier, coupled with this article (and I very much admire his courage and integrity in posting the rebuttal) demonstrate the difficulty of the non-scientist writing about science. Anthropology is a “harder” science than many might think–especially archaeology and physical anthropology-the ethnography area, not so much. Archaeology is constantly revised, based on new work, but rarely on the evidence of only one investigation’s conclusions.

    I look forward to further news and I really must start reading the anthropological literature again! Had I not read Diamond’s rebuttal, I may have accepted the new work without checking further (although I usually do follow up on things that claim to overturn accepted thinking).

  28. quizmasterchris

    “The only reasonable solution, to avoid their tipping and breaking during transport, is to transport them horizontally and then lever them into an upright position.”

    Well… NO. Not at all. You can see for yourself that horizontal isn’t “the only reasonable solution” when we have contemporary video of teams of people moving the statues vertically. You can prefer something else if you like but stating that a method that has been shown to work is not “reasonable” is pure denial.

    From a physics standpoint rather more leverage is gained from the vertical “walking” moving.

    Beyond this the islanders might well have had a social taboo against moving the statues horizontally. I am not aware of any religious or spiritual procession in the world that moves its icons on their backs or faces because this is easier than an alternative.

  29. Carl Larks

    Very interesting. Thankyou Mark. But neither Hunt or Lipo responded to Jared’s very convincing response even though Mark reports they had promised him they would in “a couple of days”. Obviously, this failure pretty much settles it.

  30. Thomas Sobieck

    I’m surprised that Lipo’s excellent response isn’t linked in this article. It can be found here

    It is a pretty comprehensive and persuasive rebuttal of Diamond.

  31. Nichole

    The statues all face inwards of the island. Did they worship the actual volcano they were carved from? And the pebbles from the beach aligned perfectly, was this some significance to them seeing the island rise from the waters, or rumors of such a volcanic event?
    I have no idea as to the statue itself, but these two things rise to my small mind from the readings and documentaries I have seen on this subject.

  32. Nichole

    PS: They also look as though they have a South American influence, just look at the head dress. JMPO


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