At some point in our youths, most of us were invited to ponder the "mystery" of the Easter Island statues. The fantasies may have varied from culture to culture, but the basic narrative, whether it involved visits from extraterrestrials or Thor Heyerdahl's colorful wars of conquest between long-eared and short-eared peoples, was probably the same romance about lost civilizations that still holds sway over some part of my own barnacled imagination. It's only recently that environmental history has given us the straight dope about Easter Island (and other "lost civilizations" to boot).
In the first chapter of A Green History of the World (Penguin, 1991), Clive Ponting presents Easter Island as a "lesson" in how hierarchical societies can turn their limited resource-bases into instruments of environmental collapse and self-destruction. The story is one of clan chiefs competing in symbolic self-aggrandizement through the erection of stone statues, which were transported around the island on vast tracks of felled tree trunks. The resulting deforestation leached the soil of nutrients, deprived the islanders of essentials like fishing nets, canoes, and timber huts, and eroded local belief systems. The first European visitors, in 1722, came upon an environmentally devastated land, its people in perpetual warfare, their food economy in a cannibalistic phase, and a state of amnesia prevailing among them about the origins and meanings of the statues. Surely, writes Ponting, the Easter Islanders must have seen what was happening to their forests and soils. And yet, far from devising ways of staving off ecocollapse, their leaders intensified the competition over available timber by carving more and more statues.
Perhaps, Ponting concludes, there is a lesson here for us today, facing ecological collapse on a planetary scale. Whatever you think of this lesson, it is by no means a simple story: the shift from mystery genre to didactic genre provides no opportunity to introduce the voice of the islanders, who are silenced in new ways, and cast, yet again, as exemplary types in the latest morality play about the survival of, mostly, Western civilization. Polynesians are long used to stepping in and out of the fantasy lives of Westerners. But this new, revisionist picture of their life before "first contact" is at least filled by peoples with histories, peoples with politics, and peoples with physical effects upon their habitats, so it is likely to replace other, more familiar stories about people without history: the European story, which started the whole Polynesian romance, about the noble savage living in a state of benevolent nature; or the equally reverent story favored by cultural nationalists all over the Pacific, about ecologically wise peoples living in respectful harmony with nature by practicing responsible resource management.
Right now, indigenous peoples are fixed in the limelight of environmentalists' concerns. (This is one way of ignoring the fact that most frontline victims of environmental violence live in our own inner cities, or in unspectacular rural communities.) Indeed, third world peoples have learned that they stand a better chance of having their claims heard by environmental groups if they present themselves as fourth worlders, members of traditional, "primitive" cultures, which is what the global tourist industry, for its own reasons, encourages them to do. And as for echt fourth worlders, they are increasingly under pressure to preserve their "authenticity." The injunction is to shut out the modern world, eschew all trade with cash economies, and shun postneolithic technologies.
If you hadn't already noticed, the pattern here is to reverse the neo-Darwinian order that used to govern thinking about the survival of cultures. In the new version, the less developed cultures are ecologically the fittest. Hence all other occupants of the great chain of being (now more like the food chain), but especially first worlders, have an investment in preserving these traditional cultures. …