The last tree on Easter Island

2010-03-15

in Politics, Rants, Science, The environment

One section of Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed has been haunting me a bit of late. He refers repeatedly to the person who cut down the last tree on Easter Island, effectively completing the undermining the basis of their society. He ponders what the person thought while doing it – in particular, whether they had a sense of the magnitude of the progression that they were completing.

Up to this point, I have thought it highly probable that worsening climate-related disasters would eventually be sufficient to produce major mitigation effort, on the part of humanity (even if simple discussion of the facts at hand might not). From this perspective, the risk arises from lags in the climate system and feedback effects; by the time we are seeing the consequences of our emissions being manifest in the world to a frightening extent, we may no longer have time to prevent catastrophic or runaway climate change.

The Easter Island scenario presents an alternative possibility: that we might keep accelerating towards the cliff face even long after the full consequences of doing so are blatantly obvious to all but the most deluded. If there is a danger of humanity as a whole replicating that situation, then perhaps even the great majority of climate change campaigners are excessively complacent about the scale of the task before us.

To go a bit ‘meta’ for a minute, I recognize that people are of mixed views about all the recent posts about abrupt and runaway climate change scenarios, both here and on BuryCoal. Some people think they are so far outside the mainstream discussion that they confuse people and put them off, rather than making them more supportive of climate change mitigation. Partly, the increased prominence of these posts is reflective of the dire state of the climate policy debate at the moment. A well organized smear campaign against the science has combined with the paralysis of the Obama administration, ongoing concerns about jobs and the economy, and the failure of the Copenhagen talks. Together, these naturally make one pessimistic about the prospects of getting started on serious mitigation in the next few years, which is deeply troubling given how important the peak date for emissions is, in determining how aggressive a pathway we will need to follow afterward.

The best pathway forward remains unclear. That said, it seems almost tautologically true that it will involve the extension of three tracks: working with the level of public and elite support that exists to enact whatever effective policies that allows, working to build greater public and elite support for more ambitious efforts, and preparing strategies to put in place for when that level of support exists.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Tristan March 17, 2010 at 9:49 am

“perhaps even the great majority of climate change campaigners are excessively complacent about the scale of the task before us.”

This seems true. For example:

“it seems almost tautologically true that it will involve the extension of three tracks: working with the level of public and elite support that exists to enact whatever effective policies that allows, working to build greater public and elite support for more ambitious efforts, and preparing strategies to put in place for when that level of support exists.”

It is not tautologically true that what is required is not political change greater than convincing the existing genocidal elite to care about the fate of their grand children. If the deniers are in denial about what is required, we can reasonably assume the elite are in an even greater state of denial. It’s foolhardy to think they don’t know the science – it seems reasonable to me to assume they know what is required but the required action is politically impossible.

It’s important to remember that “politically impossible” doesn’t mean unpopular with the general public. the US public has been in favour of public health care for 30 years, but it only became “politically possible” when major corporations started demanding it – i.e. General Motors.

So, if you want educating the public to matter, you need to make the state democratic. If you want educating the elite to matter – you’re wasting your time, they are already educated. What prevents action is “political impossibility”, and this has everything to do with the corruption inherent in the system, not with public belief etc…

Milan March 17, 2010 at 10:00 am

All that seems to fall under: “working to build greater public and elite support for more ambitious efforts.”

Milan March 17, 2010 at 10:00 am

Building support and increasing understanding are not necessarily one and the same, as you indicate.

. March 24, 2014 at 6:20 pm

Collapse of Easter Island theory
By Keith Kloor

The accepted view that the islanders degraded their environment so much that they destroyed its ability to provide for them now appears to be wrong.

. March 24, 2014 at 6:21 pm

“The evidence against ecocide continues to mount. In a paper published last year in the Journal of Archaeological Science, anthropologist Mara Mulrooney presented radiocarbon data that shows the island to be utilised from its early settlement, “continuing right through to European contact and the post-contact period”. (Easter Island got its name when the first European traveller visited on Easter in 1722.) Only after Europeans arrived, bringing germs and guns, did the population begin to fall.

“There is very little evidence for the collapse scenario” advanced by Diamond, says Mulrooney, although this does not appear to be a judgment Diamond is prepared to accept, given the testy online exchange he had with Hunt and Lipo shortly after their book was published.”

. March 24, 2014 at 6:23 pm

Historical Dynamics: Why States Rise and Fall
by Peter Turchin

Review by Joseph A. Tainter

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