In a recent New York Times column, Nicholas Kristof misleads us about the awful history of Easter Island, which lost much of its vegetation in the cold and drought of the Little Ice Age. In doing so, he blinds us to the inevitable abrupt and icy climate change that lies in our own culture’s foreseeable future.
Kristof repeats the archaeological myth that Easter Island’s natives committed ecological suicide by cutting down all their palm trees. They supposedly used the logs as rollers to move their famous huge statues. Then, afterward, they could no longer build canoes to catch the fish that were their key protein source.
Worse, clearing the trees incurred so much soil erosion that most of the population starved and/or killed each other in famine-driven desperation.
This myth disguises the impacts of the Little Ice Age on Easter. Worse, it ignores the inevitable reality that our coming generations will relatively soon face another icy age that will harshly test our technologies. The cold centuries may even make man-made global warming look positively welcome!
Easter islanders never cut their palm trees at all! When the Polynesians’ canoes reached Easter about 1000 AD, their cultural legends say the island was covered in grasses. There were only a few palms. Modern pollen studies say the island did have palm trees in the ancient past— but most died in the cold droughts of the Dark Ages (600–950 AD). The few surviving palms died during the Little Ice Age after the Polynesians colonized the island. (The last palm died about 1650.) Kristof seems not to understand the killing power of the cold and chaotic climate in those “little ice ages.”
The islanders wouldn’t have used palm logs for canoes in any case. The Polynesians knew that palm logs are far too heavy. Canoes need to skim on top of the waves, even when carrying heavy loads. The Polynesians made their canoes out of sewn planks from the much-lighter toromiro trees, whose seedlings they’d brought with them from the Marquesas Islands to the west.
Soil erosion? The Easter Islanders didn’t need to clear trees from their land to grow their crops of taro, yams, and sweet potatoes. They planted the tubers between the stumps of smaller trees cut for occasional house-building. The cut trees regrew from their living stumps; their root systems remained alive and continued to protect the soil. The islanders’ system protected soil even more effectively than mainland farms (until the advent of modern no-till farming).
No fish to eat? A U.S. Navy lieutenant, who visited Easter in 1886 (shortly after the Little Ice Age ended) reported the natives ate huge amounts of seafood! Most of the fish were caught from small inshore canoes, with rockfish being a favorite. The natives also speared dolphins, after confusing the animals’ famed “sonar” by clapping rocks together. Crayfish and eels abounded in the shoreline’s rocky crevices, and flying fish flung themselves onto the beaches. Turtles and shellfish were plentiful.
Nor did the islanders kill each other off in hunger wars—though the sweet potato crops were scanty and population numbers dropped during the droughts of the Little Ice Age.
What did happen to the Easter population? The truth is a sickening look at exploitation of some of the most vulnerable people on earth by some of the most powerful. Peruvian slave-raiders took most of the men to Peru in the 1800s, to dig shiploads of seabird dung from offshore islands to fertilize Europe’s fields. Terrible conditions, overwork, and European diseases killed most of the kidnapped slaves. Peruvian citizens’ outrage over their mistreatment eventually forced the authorities to return the few who’d survived. Unfortunately, they carried smallpox back to Easter. Only a few natives lived through the ensuing epidemic. Later, well-meaning missionaries brought tuberculosis.
The final disaster was Peru’s leasing of the island’s grasslands to absentee landlords for sheep-grazing. The sheep destroyed the last of the toromiro trees, while the surviving natives were penned behind barbed wire—until 1960—when worldwide condemnation finally intervened.
Kristof, who may have gotten his Easter myth from Jared Diamond’s misguided book Collapse, demeans the sustainable traditions of the South Pacific’s Polynesian settlers. Their tradition was not to use up a resource more rapidly than they could see it restoring itself.
Mother Nature, not the Polynesians, destroyed the trees. She did it over and over: in the Iron Age Cooling, in the cold Dark Ages and then in the Little Ice Age. Nor was Mother Nature being “careless.” She was responding to the age-old commands of the sun and the gravitational fields of the four biggest planets.
Those same planetary patterns also govern our future, whether we like it or not. Another “icy age” will inevitably replace our current and relatively supportive climate warmth and stability. That probably won’t arrive for several centuries yet; our warming is only 150 years old, and the shortest on record was the Medieval at 350 years.
Our ancestors were technologically gifted enough to keep humanity sustainable through Nature’s cycling during the past million years. For example, the nomads from the Black Sea region survived the Last Glacial Maximum by inventing mammoth-skin tents to survive the cold as they followed migrating mammoths. The mammoths were forced to migrate as the Ice Age turned the grass into less-nourishing tundra.
Our ancestors also made the key discovery in all human history- - farming - - and they hit upon it only about 10,000 years ago. Farming finally allowed humans to become more than scattered hunting bands carrying their babies and scant possessions on their backs. Farming ultimately transformed human existence, supporting larger populations that create languages, built temples, cities, and trading ships. The new human industries made copper, bronze and then iron.
Collective learning has now gotten us to the point where we create resources rather than just finding them. Think nitrogen fertilizer, which is taken from the air that’s 78 percent N, and then returned to the sky through natural processes. Think computer chips made from sand.
We no longer are doomed to thrive, only to collapse again. Our challenge today is not to retreat into a harsh and uncertain dependence on Mother Nature and her deadly “ice age” betrayals. Rather, we can and must prepare for the next “icy age” we know is coming by continuing our collective learning and using a matured wisdom.
Kristof leads back into ignorance, not forward.
Dennis Avery co-authored the New York Times best-seller Unstoppable Global Warming: Every 1,500 Years with astrophysicist Fred Singer. His forthcoming book is titled Climates of Collapse: the Deadly “Little Ice Ages.”