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Friday, August 26, 2005

Ecological suicide trumps genocide?

Why is the once well-known reason for the destruction of Easter Island's population now replaced with ecological suicide? One author takes issue with the affair and Jared Diamond in particular. I have to say that by and large I've generally been unimpressed with Diamond, who seems to have axes to grind other than popularising "science".

While the theory of ecocide has become almost paradigmatic in environmental circles, a dark and gory secret hangs over the premise of Easter Island's self-destruction: an actual genocide terminated Rapa Nui's indigenous populace and its culture. Diamond ignores, or neglects to address the true reasons behind Rapa Nui's collapse. Other researchers have no doubt that its people, their culture and its environment were destroyed to all intents and purposes by European slave-traders, whalers and colonists - and not by themselves!

After all, the cruelty and systematic kidnapping by European slave-merchants, the near-extermination of the Island's indigenous population and the deliberate destruction of the island's environment has been regarded as "one of the most hideous atrocities committed by white men in the South Seas" (Metraux, 1957:38), "perhaps the most dreadful piece of genocide in Polynesian history" (Bellwood, 1978:363).

So why does Diamond maintain that Easter Island's celebrated culture, famous for its sophisticated architecture and giant stone statues, committed its own environmental suicide? How did the once well-known accounts about the "fatal impact" (Moorehead, 1966) of European disease, slavery and genocide - "the catastrophe that wiped out Easter Island's civilisation" (Metraux, ibid.) - turn into a contemporary parable of self-inflicted ecocide?

In short, why have the victims of cultural and physical extermination been turned into the perpetrators of their own demise? This paper is a first attempt to address this disquieting quandary. It describes the foundation of Diamond's environmental revisionism and explains why it does not hold up to scientific scrutiny.

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Posted by Chefen | 8/26/2005 08:44:00 pm


Blogger Keith said...

Yeah--his "Guns, Germs and Steel" was little better than a lefty rant.

8/26/2005 09:20:00 pm  
Blogger JamesP said...

In "Collapse" the ecological suicide argument relates to what happened to Easter Island society before their discovery by Europeans. He mentions the slave trade / disease etc. but his argument is that the society that the Europeans found was significantly inferior to what had existed prior to deforestation. Before all the large trees are were cut down the Islanders were capable of building craft for long distance travel, erect the Moai, and ate a lot of meat. When the Europeans first arrived they found no large trees, rafts barely suitable for inshore fishing, no Moai construction, and very little meat.

I had no problems accepting his argument about what happened to Easter. The problem I had was accepting that the conclusions he drew from a tiny island with a stone age culture could be adapted on a global scale with 21st century technology and knowledge. I thought the case studies were interesting, plausible, and they occupied most of the book. The bits where he tried to draw present day conclusions from those studies were less plausible, lacking evidence, and thankfully quite short.

As for Guns, Germs and Steel, I thought it was a better book than Collapse as the leftist themes weren't so prominent. The TV series though was a travesty. The theme that got repeated ad infinitum there was that "There was nothing intrinsically superior about Europeans or their culture, they just got lucky".

I think Diamond gives his ideas too much credit and ignores other causes. For instance, I can see why Eurasia was better positioned to invade America and Africa than vice versa but his theories do not explain why it was the Europeans and not the Chinese, Indians, or Arabs who did the invading.

8/27/2005 12:14:00 am  
Blogger Antarctic Lemur said...

Did you guys see the local branch of the Animal Liberation Front kidnapped some sick dogs from Massey today?

I think the ALF is listed by the FBI as a terrorist organisation, but not sure if the NZ version is linked to the US one.

8/27/2005 12:17:00 am  
Blogger Berend de Boer said...

Chefen, I also thought Easter Island was destroyed by environment means. I had seen a BBC 2 documentary, 15 years ago or so, that made that claim.

It would be great if I could simply forget everything I've ever heard on the BBC...

8/27/2005 12:54:00 pm  
Blogger JamesP said...

Just in case I came across as too negative last night. One of the good aspects of Collapse is how he demolishes the myth that native people have some inherent gift(s) for looking after their environment better than Europeans do. Something DOC would do well to consider...

8/27/2005 03:26:00 pm  
Blogger Xavier said...

Leaving Diamond's popular books alone (I have Guns Germs and Steel and I thought it was terrible) his work in Island Biogeography and Equilibrium theory is seminal - I don't think it's necessarily fair to dismiss him entirely out of hand. In saying that, his comments about ecological suicide aren't particularly strong.

8/27/2005 03:30:00 pm  

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