Are we not rats?

Ecocide or genocide or a plague of rats: Coming late to the party on Easter Island.

Published October 23, 2006 9:25PM (EDT)

In August, anti-environmentalists of all stripes pounced upon the publication, in the American Scientist, of University of Hawaii anthropologist Terry Hunt's account of why Jared Diamond ("Collapse," "Guns, Germs and Steel") was wrong about what really happened to the inhabitants of Easter Island. The executive summary: human-caused "ecocide" didn't result in the destruction of Eastern Island's civilization; instead, rats deforested the island and Western genocide wiped out the people.

For the usual suspects who enjoy spending their off hours coming up with new ways to equate environmentalism with totalitarian dictatorship, the assault on Diamond was nectar and ambrosia. Diamond is as responsible as anyone for promulgating Easter Island as the ur-metaphor for human-induced ecological collapse, and I recall thinking in August that the conservative blogosphere was going to have a field day with Hunt's findings. But I was on summer vacation, and forgot all about the plight of Rapa Nui until I was reminded today by Energy Bulletin. Given that the basic question of whether humans are capable of destroying their own civilizations by trashing their environments is of clear relevance to the narrative of globalization and the environment, well, better late than never.

Hunt's research is difficult to fault, though not impossible. He bases his analysis on his own physical research on the island. He uses new carbon-dating numbers to dispute established theories as to when Polynesians first colonized the island. He proposes that a booming population of rats brought to the island by the new colonizers ate all the palm tree seeds, and he contends that the crimes against humanity committed by slavers and whalers and the good old nemesis of smallpox were more devastating to the island's inhabitants than deforestation and ecological devastation. (He does not, however, like some of Diamond's more unhinged critics, charge Diamond with being a racist for preferring ecocide over genocide as an explanation of what happened.)

In response, Diamond was quoted in the New Zealand Herald as saying that rats arrived on every other island colonized by Polynesians, and none of them suffered the same kind of near-complete deforestation as Easter Island. For my part, the dispute over whether the forest disapeared because humans cut down the trees or rats brought by humans ate all the nuts is slicing matters rather fine. For that matter, one could also argue that genocide committed by Westerners is just another form of extreme environmental catastrophe. The real question, which no amount of clarity on Easter Island will answer, is whether humans are like rats, and will end up inflicting some form of genocide on ourselves as a species by chewing through our global ecology. (Personally, I'm an optimist. I think we're smarter than rats. But I'm not sure.)

In any event, most of the gleeful conservative critics who seized upon Hunt's article as ideological ammunition failed to give adequate heed to Hunt's reasonably worded conclusion:

It was genocide, not ecocide, that caused the demise of the Rapanui. An ecological catastrophe did occur on Rapa Nui, but it was the result of a number of factors, not just human short-sightedness.

I believe that the world faces today an unprecedented global environmental crisis, and I see the usefulness of historical examples of the pitfalls of environmental destruction. So it was with some unease that I concluded that Rapa Nui does not provide such a model. But as a scientist I cannot ignore the problems with the accepted narrative of the island's prehistory. Mistakes or exaggerations in arguments for protecting the environment only lead to oversimplified answers and hurt the cause of environmentalism. We will end up wondering why our simple answers were not enough to make a difference in confronting today's problems.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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