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Easter Island Can Teach Us a Lot About Nationalism and the Climate Crisis

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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.

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Thanks !

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