Questions about Jared Diamond's Collapse

First, I would note that I think Jared Diamond is a fabulous scientist, and a brilliant man. His work in Guns, Germs and Steel was genius, and well qualifies him in my book as someone we should all listen to.

However, Terry Hunt, writing in the American Scientist, questions one of the arguments he forwarded in his more recent book Collapse.

One of the core arguments in the book is the example of the people of Easter Island or Rapa Nui. Diamond attempts to document how the people who settled the island exhausted all their resources, and he uses this as a parable for the environmental paradox that modern societies now face. Setting aside whether this example can be generalized to larger societies, Hunt takes issue with some of the facts. First, Diamond had argued that the population of the island rose dramatically only to collapse due to lack of resources. Hunt argues that there is really no evidence that the inhabitants of the island had reached such numbers and that the collapse was probably due more to the introduction of new diseases by European visitors. Furthermore, the vast deforestation that Diamond cites as indicative of the exhaustion of resources was probably as much a result of an invasive species of rat as it was because of poor management.

Here is the money quote by Hunt:

There is no reliable evidence that the island's population ever grew as large as 15,000 or more, and the actual downfall of the Rapanui resulted not from internal strife but from contact with Europeans. When Roggeveen landed on Rapa Nui's shores in 1722, a few days after Easter (hence the island's name), he took more than 100 of his men with him, and all were armed with muskets, pistols and cutlasses. Before he had advanced very far, Roggeveen heard shots from the rear of the party. He turned to find 10 or 12 islanders dead and a number of others wounded. His sailors claimed that some of the Rapanui had made threatening gestures. Whatever the provocation, the result did not bode well for the island's inhabitants.

Newly introduced diseases, conflict with European invaders and enslavement followed over the next century and a half, and these were the chief causes of the collapse. In the early 1860s, more than a thousand Rapanui were taken from the island as slaves, and by the late 1870s the number of native islanders numbered only around 100. In 1888, the island was annexed by Chile. It remains part of that country today.

In the 1930s, French ethnographer Alfred Metraux visited the island. He later described the demise of Rapa Nui as "one of the most hideous atrocities committed by white men in the South Seas." It was genocide, not ecocide, that caused the demise of the Rapanui. An ecological catastrophe did occur on Rapa Nui, but it was the result of a number of factors, not just human short-sightedness.

I believe that the world faces today an unprecedented global environmental crisis, and I see the usefulness of historical examples of the pitfalls of environmental destruction. So it was with some unease that I concluded that Rapa Nui does not provide such a model. But as a scientist I cannot ignore the problems with the accepted narrative of the island's prehistory. Mistakes or exaggerations in arguments for protecting the environment only lead to oversimplified answers and hurt the cause of environmentalism. We will end up wondering why our simple answers were not enough to make a difference in confronting today's problems. (Emphasis mine.)

Like Hunt, I believe that as a species we have a serious resource management issue. But also like Hunt, I think that we will not solve that issue with oversimplification. The plain fact is that using Easter Island as a model to solve the rest of World's problems confuses more than it helps. Intelligent discussion of complex issues is better championed by complex and accurate examples. It would appear that the Easter Island example is not one of them.

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Diamond did have many more examples though even if the Easter Islands weren't the best example. I especially liked the Greenlanders who were too stupid to fish for food. Ha!

Also, I'm not sure this European extinction hypothesis (though believeable) explains the environmental problems they faced, nor necessarily discounts the problems that environmental mismanagement may have created. It may explain part of their population decline, but from what I remember from the book the larger problem was that the islanders totally decimated the islands forests thereby destroying their ecosystem and spent way too much time erecting big stone heads to survive successfully. These problems may have occurred in addition to decimation from European invaders and disease, and may have been synergistic in the destruction of their civilization. One hypothesis or the other may explain their demise, but both are compatible with the data.

Ironically, if the demise of the Easter Islanders was caused by the Europeans and not their own environmental practices, it would fit in perfectly with the theme of Guns, Germs, and Steel, if not Collapse.

So Diamond has his bases covered :-)

By Ick of the East (not verified) on 27 Aug 2006 #permalink

quitter: according to Hunt's article, rats were the main reason for the forest's decline. They (once introduced by the islanders) multiplied rapidly in the absence of predators. The rats ate the nuts of the main forest tree, a palm, faster than palms could produce them. As a consequence, new palms were not being produced to replace those destroyed by logging and natural events.

I'm fairly certain that Diamond acknowledges the role the rats played (if I had my copy here at the cube farm, I'd cite a page number) in the decline of the palm tree population. Additionally, the prehistory of Easter Island is murky at best, and Diamond acknowledges this several times.

Essentially, there are three arguments being presented to Diamond's narrative by Hunt here: rats played a large role in the island's deforestation; the first colonists didn't arrive until 1200 A.D; and the population was never greater than the sustainable limits of the island. The first two are essentially minor nits to Diamond's work: the rats and time-frame. Whether it was rats or humans that caused deforestation, the trees were still cut down past the point of recovery. Also, the date of the first arrival doesn't make or break Diamond's argument. People arrived, started using resources, the population grew - this is agreed to by both authors.

The third point, which could make or break Diamond's argument, he makes almost offhandedly. Hunt doesn't provide any evidence in the article for his estimate that "The human population probably reached a maximum of about 3,000, perhaps a bit higher... ". While Diamond bases his estimate on a few published estimates, which were based on the available housing. Thus, going with Hunt's assertion, if the population never exceeded the sustainable limits (regardless of the time-frame or reason for defrestation), then there can be no collapse before the introduction of guns, germs (and steel) regardless of what the primary cause of deforestation was or whether it occured over 400 years or 800 years. And a minor nit of my own, Hunt bases his date conclusions on the apparently shared assumption that the first settlers would have arrived at Anakena, therefore the dates from Anakena represent the first settlements.

While I do think that because of the veiled historical record of the Easter Islanders there is reason to challenge conclusions, I don't think that Diamond's argument is invalidated or is a poor one. Hunt provides a lot of evidence for his human arrival dates and on the rats contributing to the deforestation, but none for the seemingly most important point he makes.

"Whether it was rats or humans that caused deforestation, the trees were still cut down past the point of recovery."

The forests certainly declined past the point of recovery, but had the Islanders been on an island where rats had natural enemies (and thus been held in check) the Islanders may have continued cutting the forest at the same rate without fatal consequences. Seems to me that is a huge point. Indeed, the rats alone might have lead to the collapse of Island society, regardless of forest husbandry practices.

There is still room for a lot of conjecture, but I wonder if Diamond would have included Easter Island in his book had the rats' impact been more fully considered. God knows, he had lots of other examples.

...the Islanders may have continued cutting the forest at the same rate without fatal consequences.

But Hunt's conclusion is that there were no fatal consequences from deforestation. The population rose to around 3,000, give or take, and stayed within the sustainable limits until the arrival of Roggeveen. He argues, "There is no reliable evidence that the island's population ever grew as large as 15,000 or more, and the actual downfall of the Rapanui resulted not from internal strife but from contact with Europeans."

I have a hard time accepting that without additional evidence other than rats played a greater part in deforestation and the first settlers arrived in 1200 A.D.