Sooner or later, societies disappear and are replaced by new ones. As our own society enters a critical phase, what lessons can be learned from those that preceded us? One example that has been extensively studied is Easter Island in the Pacific Ocean. The island was once home to a flourishing civilization, which reached its peak in around 1500, but it subsequently experienced a rapid decline, losing four fifths of its population in just one century. According to the American expert Jared Diamond, the explanation lies principally in the fact that the people deforested their entire land. Without trees, they were no longer able to build fishing boats, and crucially the soil was eroded. As the situation worsened, the people began fighting among themselves, and developed bizarre religious practices. In an effort to erect increasingly gigantic statues, they cut down more and more trees, accelerating their demise.
Diamond also studied a number of other civilizations that vanished largely as a result of environmental factors, such as the Maya and Babylonians, who exhausted their land, and the Greenland Vikings, who could not adapt to the cooler climate. While these societies did not vanish because of environmental damage alone, it certainly weakened their economic and social structures and created vicious cycles that ultimately proved fatal. The same pattern could easily be applied to modern society.
In Diamond’s analysis, the factors leading to a society’s collapse seem to be quite clearly set out every time. But for political, religious, or social reasons, the society is incapable of reacting and taking adequate measures to ensure its survival. What would the Easter Islander who cut down the last tree have been thinking? Another expert in the history of civilizations, the British historian Arnold Toynbee, wrote that “civilizations die from suicide, not by murder” —in other words, from their inability to resolve their internal crises.
Today most people agree that we are facing an environmental catastrophe. We need to change the course in which our society is heading, and remove the obstacles to that change. It is too late to bury our heads in the sand. It is also too late to be pessimistic.