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A word about Easter Island and other calamitous feedback loops

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Stone faces of Easter Island gaze on as anthropologists, mythologists and space cadets endlessly debate their meaning. Measuring up to 28 feet high and more than 80 tons in some cases, the stones have elevated a ruined island paradise to the status of icon in the realm of cautionary tales.

Either Easter Island’s decline was brought on by smallpox and slave trade courtesy of Europeans who arrived there in the 1700s or else, shortly after sinking roots around 1200 CE, the islanders began destroying their own world by killing their verdant forests in a vain effort to avert disaster. 

It’s an article of faith among tree-huggers–including me until I read up–that Easter Island fell prey to a cult or three. For centuries, the natives built enigmatic stone heads in tribute to dead chiefs. Such ancestor worship helped ward off trouble, they believed, and grew their clans’ prestige, but transporting the stones and erecting them used up lots of logs, adding to the decline of forests. This caused a shortage of wood for building boats and a shortage of trees for birds to nest in, and so the seafood and fowl that provided sustenance began disappearing from their diets. Soon this once proud and accomplished civilization turned to eating rats, even to cannibalism, the record shows.

One theory goes that, as the decline began, leaders commanded their subjects to accelerate the building of statues. More than 1,000 have been counted, many left abandoned in quarries or by the roadside. The idol boom was a vain attempt to call down the favor of Gods. In short, by the middle of the last millennium, they’d mostly destroyed their own environment by creating a feedback loop that spiraled out of control. More cutting, less food, more cutting, even less food. Or so the story goes.

If true, we’re wise to embrace this cautionary tale, for our leaders ask us repeatedly to feed our sustenance to idols they erect.

Idols to commerce, high finance, fossil fuel, the military-industrial-media complex. All bask in dogmas bordering on religion.

Behold Wall Street, where numbers rise like stone edifices. Today we’ve passed 9,000. Can 10,000 be far away? Is 12,000 once again within our grasp? Now watch as towering numbers tumble.

“More capital!” implore keepers of the Dow. $700 billion should do. No, toss in 150 more to prop up that idol, 200 for the one down on Main Street.

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Be not deceived. We’ve rendered such sacrifice before. In the 1980s, the savings and loan industry failed, and we the people poured our sustenance into it. Behold! Wall Street recovered, then faltered. For a time leaders suggested feeding Social Security and perhaps, one day, all such safety-nets to Wall Street.

Yes, feed the mighty Dow your pensions.

Yes, feed it Medicaid.

Yes, let’s have another war–there’s a trillion we can feed Westinghouse and Boeing and General Electric and other makers of armaments. There’s how we’ll restore Halliburton and the Carlyle Group and other entities in which Bushes, Bakers, bin Ladens and others lay money on the bet that wars they insist we fund continue to pay dividends.

And so it goes.

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Hear the people chant, “Drill here! Drill now!” Drill anywhere at all!

Yet deep ecologists tell us the wealth of nations is founded on drawing down deposits of natural energy placed in this earth by the sun over billions of years. In this, “the last syllable of recorded time,” to quote Shakespeare, we’re drawing those deposits down, turning them into money and ruinous greenhouse gases.

England stripped her landscape of most primordial forests in a couple of centuries and then turned to coal, mostly in the 19th century. Then, along with America, Germany and many other countries, she discovered the power of oil, bestowing prosperity on millions, yet contributing to wars around the world. It’s been little noted that Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in part because of our oil embargo against that country.

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Don Williams is a prize-winning columnist, short story writer, freelancer, and the founding editor and publisher of New Millennium Writings, an annual anthology of literary stories, essays and poems. His awards include a National Endowment for the (more...)

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Unique approach, and informative. I had never hear... by William Whitten on Saturday, Dec 20, 2008 at 10:05:20 AM
There is a book called 'Collapse' by Jered... by Roger on Saturday, Dec 20, 2008 at 10:20:36 AM
and comments. I also recommend the above mentioned... by Daniel Geery on Saturday, Dec 20, 2008 at 10:42:36 AM
Anyone who visits Easter Island, as I did in 1997,... by Bill Cain on Saturday, Dec 20, 2008 at 11:20:39 AM
Crookism is always doomed to fail because it is ba... by John Hanks on Saturday, Dec 20, 2008 at 12:42:32 PM
Greed for money, power and control over others. Re... by nightgaunt on Saturday, Dec 20, 2008 at 1:20:30 PM
The continual need to buy/acquire material objects... by Bob Gormley on Saturday, Dec 20, 2008 at 2:50:13 PM
... than you let out with this; "Here’s... by Mr M on Saturday, Dec 20, 2008 at 10:37:08 PM
  Thanks Mr. M.   When I read that ... by io on Saturday, Dec 20, 2008 at 11:08:44 PM
You and Mr. M seem to belong to that band of looni... by Bryan Emmel on Sunday, Dec 21, 2008 at 3:34:25 AM
Great article Don.  It underlines what greed ... by Bryan Emmel on Sunday, Dec 21, 2008 at 3:21:08 AM
The lesson is clear: greed works..but not for long... by Perry Logan on Sunday, Dec 21, 2008 at 5:32:09 AM
Here's an article that refutes Diamond's s... by Aaron Aarons on Monday, Dec 22, 2008 at 6:27:58 AM
sitting around, telling a story, and then having s... by Margaret Bassett on Tuesday, Dec 23, 2008 at 7:33:32 PM
   Oh Brian,      Wh... by io on Saturday, Dec 27, 2008 at 2:40:36 AM