The Tragedy of Easter Island
Easter Island, hidden in the recesses of the South Pacific Ocean, is the most isolated inhabited island on the planet. It’s also an enigmatic contrast to the other South Pacific islands. Where the others are verdant and gem-like, Easter Island is sandy — in fact, most flora is scraggly, low-lying grass or bushes.
The intriguing moai, or statues, of Easter Island
When admiring the craftsmanship of the heads or the desolate beauty of the island, the fact that Easter Island is unusually barren is usually glossed right over. Hadn’t the island always been that way – a fluke of climate or geography causing its strange landscape? The answer is no: Easter Island once flourished with life. Tropical ferns, shrubs, grasses, and more once towered over the island. Palm trees grew in excess of 50 feet. Dazzling birds endemic to the island lighted through the sky. An amazing variety of life graced this Polynesian hideaway. The Rapa Nui people, native to Easter Island, had an impressive and sophisticated civilization.
Then one day, the island was stripped of all its glory. Even its human inhabitants were reduced to starvation; the majesty of their former civilization was taken from them. What could cause such a dramatic change?
The answer is environmental degradation from non-native animals [rats] and overpopulation. That may be a hot-button topic, but the downfall of Easter Island can be attributed to the human population outstripping the renewal of the small island’s resources. They took advantage of the island’s rich supply of trees. The islanders used them for everything from building homes to crafting boats, a necessity for a pillar of their society — fishing.
Such activity is absolutely sustainable – if done carefully. But as the island’s population grew, the need for the material grew as well. More forests were removed to supply the need for timber. Deforestation changed the climatic patterns of the island, decreasing rainfall. Animals endemic to the island vanished as their only home was destroyed. Rats, introduced to the island probably by Europeans, had no natural predators. They used the trees too and destroyed habitats for endemic animals.
The human population eventually outstripped Easter’s carrying capacity. This can only be maintained for so long on a small island.
What makes this story tragic is that it was preventable – yet we repeat many of the mistakes the islanders did hundreds of years ago. It may seem strange that humans can have such an impact on the environment. But we’re not insignificant and our numbers even less so.
The tragedy of Easter Island is a lesson to safeguard the Earth, our island in space.