Sooner or later, societies disappear and are replaced by others. What can we learn from the ones that came before us, just before the onset of the forthcoming climate crisis? A widely researched example is Easter Island, in the Pacific Ocean. Its inhabitants’ thriving civilization disappeared suddenly around 1500 and its population decreased 5-fold over a century. According to Jared Diamond, an American expert, the reason for this could be linked to the fact that its inhabitants cut down all the trees on their island. Without trees, they could no longer build boats to fish and, above all, their soil eroded. As the crisis gradually worsened, the island’s inhabitants waged protracted wars. In a bid to outdo each other, religiously-speaking, they built ever larger statues and had to cut down even more trees to move the monoliths. They were therefore on a deleterious collision course.
Jared Diamond has studied other civilisations that collapsed more or less because of the environment: the Mayas and the Babylonians who overexploited their soil and Greenland’s Vikings who were unable to adapt to cooling. All these societies did not only collapse because of environmental crises but they did weaken the economic and social bases and perpetuate certain vicious circles. This pattern could also apply to the world today.
Every time, at least from a historian’s point of view, the logic of collapse clearly falls into place. But for political, religious and social reasons, the society cannot react and take the necessary steps to ensure its survival. What did the Easter Islander who cut the last tree think? Another prominent expert on the history of civilizations, the British historian Arnold Toynbee wrote that “civilizations die from suicide, not murder”. This means that they collapse because they cannot overcome their internal crises.