Easter Island Can Teach Us a Lot About Nationalism and the Climate Crisis
Countries riven by inequality and xenophobia won’t be resilient to climate change—which means that the fight against nationalism and the fight against global warming are actually one and the same.
The scholar Jared Diamond argues that, on Easter Island, between 1400 and the 1600s, the chiefs and priests—the island’s elite—laid waste to the forests within a few hundred years using little more than stone axes, in part to create and move the famous giant heads and figures. Even as the island’s population plummeted, according to Diamond’s account (sometimes called the “ecocide” scenario), the elite would not stop building. In fact, Diamond says, they stepped up their efforts, hoping to propitiate the gods further. Collapse “followed swiftly upon the society’s reaching its peak of population, monument construction, and environmental impact,” Diamond writes in his 2005 book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. As Diamond notes, the inequality present in Easter Island—the collapse of which has come to signify human folly and ecological destruction—meant the rich had the honor of “being the last to starve.”
Whatever ecological and human factors led to the decline of the Rapa Nui people by the 19th century might well include disastrous mistakes by those in power, though anthropologists are still debating what those factors might be. The fact that they lived on a very isolated Pacific island, Diamond asserts, had to be one of them, since access to other lands, with other resources and possible assistance from other peoples, was severely limited.
Ideologies can also, in effect, create islands—by pitting one group or nation against others, and by stratifying a society against itself. Indeed, Easter Island, and the stories we tell about it, can teach us a lot about two of the wickedest problems facing us today.
A world divided along nationalistic lines, such as we are starting to see more and more these days, cannot easily accommodate egalitarianism or solve common goals that transcend borders. Climate change will increasingly require our attention in the coming years, while a continued pursuit of narrow interests will squander our collective resources and talents and dangerously delay necessary preparations for escalating extreme-weather events.
The increase of both nationalism and climate-related catastrophes in recent years may not be a coincidence. Long before wildfires and flooding all but forced the American public into accepting the inconvenient truth of climate change, less-newsworthy but hardly insignificant shifts were exacting a toll on communities everywhere. Droughts and other natural disasters test the ability of those already in power to respond appropriately, and can also create opportunities for despots to take over. When environmental crisis is exacerbated by failed leadership, it can compel thousands or even millions of citizens to flee their homes for safer shores. (Haiti is a perennial example, even before the 2010 earthquake, or even the two Duvalier regimes, as are some Middle Eastern and African countries, from Lebanon to Somalia to Yemen.) Feeling more than a little threatened by the sudden influx of so many desperate newcomers, residents of safer shores often respond with hostile protectionism, further deepening the divide between natives and newcomers.
If, as seems clear, climate change and ecological stress lead to nationalism, and if, as seems clear, nationalism leaves us unable to respond to climate change, how do we escape this hellish cycle? The most persuasive answers are to be found in avoiding the mistakes of the past, most centrally the folly of allowing societies to stratify along class and clannish lines.
According to George Orwell, in his 1945 essay “Notes on Nationalism,” a major characteristic of the nationalist cause is a romanticized focus on the past. The nationalist’s “thoughts always turn on victories, defeats, triumphs, and humiliations. He sees history, especially contemporary history, as the endless rise and decline of great power units, and every event that happens seems to him a demonstration that his own side is on the upgrade and some hated rival is on the downgrade.”
To maintain that vision, the nationalist also needs to maintain a story, one about heroes and villains in strictly opposing camps. If current events fail to suit the nationalist, that must mean that habits, values, laws, and even particular technologies have changed for the worse since some lost, lamented golden age. Had things only stayed the same, they—the right people—would be suffering less now. The solution, for the nationalist, is clear: Bring back the good old days, when the right people held the balance of power.
But this is just a bedtime story gift-wrapped as history. The German word for it is Ewiggestrige: a person stuck in yesterday.
The value of story is a major motif of the historian Yuval Noah Harari’s 2014 bestseller on the rise of civilization, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Everything that groups people together, Harari argues, from religions to ethnic identities, relies on story. Common myths inspire, guide, and indoctrinate. Harari calls capitalism itself a myth—and a deceptive one at that. “Some religions, such as Christianity and Nazism, have killed millions out of burning hatred. Capitalism has killed millions out of cold indifference coupled with greed.” It is this very indifference that infuriates so many—but that everyday people rarely identify as capitalism. Nationalists prefer to scapegoat anyone who appears to threaten their sense of primacy, and to praise those who promise to return it, and to reinstate their story’s plot—what some may view as destiny.
Discussing our political behavior in the most general terms, Harari cites evolution to explain our proclivity for suspicion. “Having so recently been one of the underdogs of the savannah, we are full of fears and anxieties over our position, which makes us doubly cruel and dangerous. Many historical calamities, from deadly wars to ecological catastrophes, have resulted from this over-hasty jump.” In other words, we have not fully settled into our place at the top of the food chain, even after millennia—and constantly looking over our shoulders can make us liabilities, particularly to each other.
“Nationalism … is inseparable from the desire for power,” Orwell writes. “The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.” In this account of nationalism, a ruthless moral relativism takes hold: A thing is good if it advances the national cause and upholds the proper ideals, no matter what that entails.
Around the world in 2019, in places where democracy seems to be losing its way, a generalized insecurity prevails: the fear of ceding control or privilege to the Other. At its heart lies anger at the sometimes very real, sometimes wholly imagined erosion of once-easy privilege due to accidents of birth (race, gender, zip code) long taken for granted. Unscrupulous right-wing politicians have exploited that sense of violated entitlement to gain office and support in Hungary, Italy, Brazil, Poland, the Netherlands, the Canadian province of Ontario, and, of course, here in the United States. Their message: You are entitled to a better life than this, more like the one that used to exist before those people changed things. Little in the message of these reactionary leaders fosters cooperation.
The focus on divisions (and dividing) obscures signs of approaching decline.
Ed Simon, in an essay bluntly titled “Capitalism’s Final Solution Is Nothing Less Than Complete Ecological Collapse,” writes, “Limited perspective is the wage of any totalizing ideology, and all eras are structured by such paradigms.” Mainstream religions may have been the most widespread vehicles for ideology in the past, but “the cracked gods of our world differ in one important respect—only capitalism’s Mammon has the capability of bringing about the apocalypse.” It does so through an obsession with growth at any cost, including of the welfare of the people caught in its mythology, and of the resilience of the societies in which they reside.
Social inequality goes a long way back.
According to archeologists, it probably began around the time we invented agriculture then learned to store harvests for later use and to domesticate animals. Farmers planted extra crops to see them through lean times. Storing those surpluses reconfigured social structure. No one had to be a jack-of-all-trades anymore. The eventual proliferation of specialized, tradable skills, from weaving to metalworking, created a secondary, culture-forming web—the marketplace—that eventually pulled in almost everyone.
Two further cultural shifts ensued: 1.) the emergence of class (basically, workers and rulers), and 2.) the co-option of those critical surpluses by the ruling class to spend on lavish lifestyles, war, and public works that often stood as monuments to their own egos—statues, pyramids, palaces, and walls. Easter Island’s obsession with statues is hardly unique—but at least they didn’t try to get another country to pay for them.
As Stanford University history professor Walter Scheidel writes in The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality From the Stone Age to the 21st Century, inequality may be the price societies pay for stability on the medium term (i.e. a couple of centuries), which might explain why achieving equality has proven so challenging. The irony, Scheidel argues, is that stratified societies are fated to end by natural (e.g. pandemic) and/or human means (i.e. violent insurrection). Societies based on inequality are, therefore, inherently unstable over the long term.
Is there an alternative? In a 2014 paper in the journal Ecological Economics, authors Safa Motesharrei et al. build on classic predator-prey equations to model “thought-experiments” of societal collapse where humans are the “predator,” and nature is the “prey.” They model two common features of many kinds of collapse: the depletion of resources as a society approaches carrying capacity, and stratification into “elites” and “commoners.” (The authors’ originality turns on the use of a double “predator” in their equations, instead of the single one common in other studies, positing both a ruler-predator and a laborer-predator relationship between people and the Earth. Since different human beings interact with nature in different ways, this perspective acknowledges various groups’ qualities of interaction with the natural world.)
In the scenario modeling an economically stratified society, for example, when natural resources become limited, the authors write:
This buffer of wealth allows Elites to continue “business as usual” despite the impending catastrophe. … While some members of society might raise the alarm that the system is moving toward an impending collapse and therefore advocate structural changes to society in order to avoid it, Elites and their supporters, who oppose making these changes, could point to the long sustainable trajectory “so far” in support of doing nothing.
In stratified societies, wealth grants elites material and psychological buffers against scarcity. Whether it involves living in a gated community or paying premiums to purchase disappearing commodities, the privileged are able to buy themselves distance from crime, extreme weather events, and poor harvests. This socioeconomic architecture leads to the further exploitation both of laborers (referred to in the study as commoners) and of nature. It is therefore persuasive that a more level playing field—less inequality—would lead to wiser decisions, if only because all will enjoy or suffer the same outcomes together.
In his 1968 paper, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Garrett Hardin examines the ecology and psychology of limited resources. “Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush,” he writes, “each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons.” The commons can be anything from a field where farmers allow their cattle to graze to a vast marine region where ships from multiple nations pursue whales or fish: more gains for one participant sooner or later means fewer for the others. The way to solve the problem of declining yields is not to develop bigger nets, but to establish mutually agreed-upon limits to individual takes.
Hardin establishes two types of technical solutions: those that demand “little or nothing in the way of change in human values or ideas of morality,” and those requiring moral considerations. Dealing with overpopulation (as he indicates in his essay), or masses of climate refugees, or climate change itself: each requires a sort of moral brainstorming.
If we do a bit of this moral brainstorming, we’ll begin to see the hollowness of our post-Industrial habit of fixating on technical solutions. While technology has obvious utility and allure, the belief that it can solve all problems is a sign of the “arrogance of humanism,” as David Ehrenfeld calls it in his book of the same name—the arrogance to expect some lone genius will come along and save the day, thus relieving most of us of any responsibility to contribute. We should know by now there is no magic bullet for problems as large and as wicked as climate change, and, as part of that problem, we are all likewise part of the solution.
“Thanks to globalization, international trade, jet planes, and the Internet,” Diamond writes:
all countries on Earth today share resources and affect each other, just as did Easter [Island]’s dozen clans. Polynesian Easter Island was as isolated in the Pacific Ocean as the Earth is today in space. When [they] got into difficulties, there was nowhere to which they could flee, nor to which they could turn for help; nor shall we modern Earthlings have recourse elsewhere if our troubles increase. Those are the reasons why people see the collapse of Easter Island society as a metaphor, a worstcase scenario, for what may lie ahead of us in our own future.
No matter where scholars land in the debate over Easter Island’s history, the island’s isolation in the Pacific—and, therefore, the world—is as touchingly symbolic as it is real. It represents our need for cooperation and connection, and our responsibilities as the preeminent planet-shaping species.
The only true isolation that now remains is moral—the walls we choose to build between our own interests and those of others whom we perceive to be less important. Leaning toward nationalism in response to planetary stresses is a step in precisely the wrong direction.
We need to tell another, more inclusive, story, and stand under a single flag. Perhaps we would do well to use the iconic Apollo 8 Earthrise image as our beacon. We will never solve climate change—or any other problem of a similar scale—if we focus on our own clan, instead of on the entire planet. After all, we are all in this together.
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