Friday, November 18, 2005

John Zerzan: Division of Labor

Di-vi-sion of la-bor n. 1. the breakdown into specific, circumscribed tasks for maximum efficiency of output which constitutes manufacture; cardinal aspect of production. 2. the fragmenting or reduction of human activity into separated toil that is the practical root of alienation; that basic specialization which makes civilization appear and develop.

The relative wholeness of pre-civilized life was first and foremost an absence of the narrowing, confining separation of people into differentiated roles and functions. The foundation of our shrinkage of experience and powerlessness in the face of the reign of expertise, felt so acutely today, is the division of labor. It is hardly accidental that key ideologues of civilization have striven mightily to valorize it. In Plato's Republic, for example, we are instructed that the origin of the state lies in that "natural" inequality of humanity that is embodied in the division of labor. Durkheim celebrated a fractionated, unequal world by divining that the touchstone of "human solidarity," its essential moral value is-you guessed it. Before him, according to Franz Borkenau, it was a great increase in division of labor occurring around 1600 that introduced the abstract category of work, which may be said to underlie, in turn, the whole modern, Cartesian notion that our bodily existence is merely an object of our (abstract) consciousness.

In the first sentence of The Wealth of Nations (1776), Adam Smith foresaw the essence of industrialism by determining that division of labor represents a qualitative increase in productivity. Twenty years later Schiller recognized that division of labor was producing a society in which its members were unable to develop their humanity. Marx could see both sides: "as a result of division of labor," the worker is "reduced to the condition of a machine." But decisive was Marx's worship of the fullness of production as essential to human liberation. The immiseration of humanity along the road of capital's development he saw as a necessary evil.

Marxism cannot escape the determining imprint of this decision in favor of division of labor, and its major voices certainly reflect this acceptance. Lukacs, for instance, chose to ignore it, seeing only the "reifying effects of the dominant commodity form" in his attention to the problem of proletarian consciousness. E.P. Thompson realized that with the factory system, "the character-structure of the rebellious pre-industrial labourer or artisan was violently recast into that of the submissive individual worker." But he devoted amazingly little attention to division of labor, the central mechanism by which this transformation was achieved. Marcuse tried to conceptualize a civilization without repression, while amply demonstrating the incompatibility of the two. In bowing to the "naturalness" inherent in division of labor, he judged that the "rational exercise of authority" and the "advancement of the whole" depend upon it - while a few pages later (in Eros and Civilization) granting that one's "labor becomes the more alien the more specialized the division of labor becomes."

Ellul understood how "the sharp knife of specialization has passed like a razor into the living flesh," how division of labor causes the ignorance of a "closed universe" cutting off the subject from others and from nature. Similarly did Horkheimer sum up the debilitation: "thus, for all their activity individuals are becoming more passive; for all their power over nature they are becoming more powerless in relation to society and themselves." Along these lines, Foucault emphasized productivity as the fundamental contemporary repression.

But recent Marxian thought continues in the trap of having, ultimately, to elevate division of labor for the sake of technological progress. Braverman's in many ways excellent Labor and Monopoly Capital explores the degradation of work, but sees it as mainly a problem of loss of "will and ambition to wrest control of production from capitalist hands." And Schwabbe's Psychosocial Consequences of Natural and Alienated Labor is dedicated to the ending of all domination in production and projects a self-management of production. The reason, obviously, that he ignores division of labor is that it is inherent in production; he does not see that it is nonsense to speak of liberation and production in the same breath.

The tendency of division of labor has always been the forced labor of the interchangeable cog in an increasingly autonomous, impervious-to-desire apparatus. The barbarism of modern times is still the enslavement to technology, that is to say, to division of labor. "Specialization," wrote Giedion, "goes on without respite," and today more than ever can we see and feel the barren, de-eroticized world it has brought us to. Robinson Jeffers decided, "I don't think industrial civilization is worth the distortion of human nature, and the meanness and loss of contact with the earth, that it entails."

Meanwhile, the continuing myths of the "neutrality" and "inevitability" of technological development are crucial to fitting everyone to the yoke of division of labor. Those who oppose domination while defending its core principle are the perpetuators of our captivity. Consider Guattari, that radical post-structuralist, who finds that desire and dreams are quite possible "even in a society with highly developed industry and highly developed public information services, etc." Our advanced French opponent of alienation scoffs at the naive who detect the "essential wickedness of industrial societies," but does offer the prescription that "the whole attitude of specialists needs questioning." Not the existence of specialists, of course, merely their "attitudes."

To the question, "How much division of labor should we jettison?" returns, I believe, the answer, "How much wholeness for ourselves and the planet do we want?"

(From Insurgent Desire.)

Richard Heinberg: The Critique of Civilization

(A paper presented at the 24th annual meeting of the International Society for the Comparative Study of Civilizations, June 15, 1995. Found at John Filiss' Primitivism web site.)

I. Prologue

Having been chosen - whether as devil's advocate or sacrificial lamb, I am not sure - to lead off this discussion on the question, "Was Civilization a Mistake?", I would like to offer some preliminary thoughts.

From the viewpoint of any non-civilized person, this consideration would appear to be steeped in irony. Here we are, after all, some of the most civilized people on the planet, discussing in the most civilized way imaginable whether civilization itself might be an error. Most of our fellow civilians would likely find our discussion, in addition to being ironic, also disturbing and pointless: after all, what person who has grown up with cars, electricity, and television would relish the idea of living without a house, and of surviving only on wild foods?

Nevertheless, despite the possibility that at least some of our remarks may be ironic, disturbing, and pointless, here we are. Why? I can only speak for myself. In my own intellectual development I have found that a critique of civilization is virtually inescapable for two reasons.

The first has to do with certain deeply disturbing trends in the modern world. We are, it seems, killing the planet. Revisionist "wise use" advocates tell us there is nothing to worry about; dangers to the environment, they say, have been wildly exaggerated. To me this is the most blatant form of wishful thinking. By most estimates, the oceans are dying, the human population is expanding far beyond the long-term carrying capacity of the land, the ozone layer is disappearing, and the global climate is showing worrisome signs of instability. Unless drastic steps are taken, in fifty years the vast majority of the world's population will likely be existing in conditions such that the lifestyle of virtually any undisturbed primitive tribe would be paradise by comparison.

Now, it can be argued that civilization per se is not at fault, that the problems we face have to do with unique economic and historical circumstances. But we should at least consider the possibility that our modern industrial system represents the flowering of tendencies that go back quite far. This, at any rate, is the implication of recent assessments of the ecological ruin left in the wake of the Roman, Mesopotamian, Chinese, and other prior civilizations. Are we perhaps repeating their errors on a gargantuan scale?

If my first reason for criticizing civilization has to do with its effects on the environment, the second has to do with its impact on human beings. As civilized people, we are also domesticated. We are to primitive peoples as cows and sheep are to bears and eagles. On the rental property where I live in California my landlord keeps two white domesticated ducks. These ducks have been bred to have wings so small as to prevent them from flying. This is a convenience for their keepers, but compared to wild ducks these are pitiful creatures.

Many primal peoples tend to view us as pitiful creatures, too - though powerful and dangerous because of our technology and sheer numbers. They regard civilization as a sort of social disease. We civilized people appear to act as though we were addicted to a powerful drug - a drug that comes in the forms of money, factory-made goods, oil, and electricity. We are helpless without this drug, so we have come to see any threat to its supply as a threat to our very existence. Therefore we are easily manipulated - by desire (for more) or fear (that what we have will be taken away) - and powerful commercial and political interests have learned to orchestrate our desires and fears in order to achieve their own purposes of profit and control. If told that the production of our drug involves slavery, stealing, and murder, or the ecological equivalents, we try to ignore the news so as not to have to face an intolerable double bind.

Since our present civilization is patently ecologically unsustainable in its present form, it follows that our descendants will be living very differently in a few decades, whether their new way of life arises by conscious choice or by default. If humankind is to choose its path deliberately, I believe that our deliberations should include a critique of civilization itself, such as we are undertaking here. The question implicit in such a critique is, What have we done poorly or thoughtlessly in the past that we can do better now? It is in this constructive spirit that I offer the comments that follow.

II. Civilization and Primitivism

What Is Primitivism?

The image of a lost Golden Age of freedom and innocence is at the heart of all the world's religions, is one of the most powerful themes in the history of human thought, and is the earliest and most characteristic expression of primitivism - the perennial belief in the necessity of a return to origins.

As a philosophical idea, primitivism has had as its proponents Lao Tze, Rousseau, and Thoreau, as well as most of the pre-Socratics, the medieval Jewish and Christian theologians, and 19th- and 20th-century anarchist social theorists, all of whom argued (on different bases and in different ways) the superiority of a simple life close to nature. More recently, many anthropologists have expressed admiration for the spiritual and material advantages of the ways of life of the world's most "primitive" societies - the surviving gathering-and-hunting peoples who now make up less than one hundredth of one percent of the world's population.

Meanwhile, as civilization approaches a crisis precipitated by overpopulation and the destruction of the ecological integrity of the planet, primitivism has enjoyed a popular resurgence, by way of increasing interest in shamanism, tribal customs, herbalism, radical environmentalism, and natural foods. There is a widespread (though by no means universally shared) sentiment that civilization has gone too far in its domination of nature, and that in order to survive - or, at least, to live with satisfaction - we must regain some of the spontaneity and naturalness of our early ancestors.

What Is Civilization?

There are many possible definitions of the word civilization. Its derivation - from civis, "town" or "city" - suggests that a minimum definition would be, "urban culture." Civilization also seems to imply writing, division of labor, agriculture, organized warfare, growth of population, and social stratification.

Yet the latest evidence calls into question the idea that these traits always go together. For example, Elizabeth Stone and Paul Zimansky's assessment of power relations in the Mesopotamian city of Maskan-shapir (published in the April 1995 Scientific American) suggests that urban culture need not imply class divisions. Their findings seem to show that civilization in its earliest phase was free of these. Still, for the most part the history of civilization in the Near East, the Far East, and Central America, is also the history of kingship, slavery, conquest, agriculture, overpopulation, and environmental ruin. And these traits continue in civilization's most recent phases - the industrial state and the global market - though now the state itself takes the place of the king, and slavery becomes wage labor and de facto colonialism administered through multinational corporations. Meanwhile, the mechanization of production (which began with agriculture) is overtaking nearly every avenue of human creativity, population is skyrocketing, and organized warfare is resulting in unprecedented levels of bloodshed.

Perhaps, if some of these undesirable traits were absent from the very first cities, I should focus my critique on "Empire Culture" instead of the broader target of "civilization." However, given how little we still know about the earliest urban centers of the Neolithic era, it is difficult as yet to draw a clear distinction between the two terms.

III. Primitivism Versus Civilization.

Wild Self/Domesticated Self.

People are shaped from birth by their cultural surroundings and by their interactions with the people closest to them. Civilization manipulates these primary relationships in such a way as to domesticate the infant - that is, so as to accustom it to life in a social structure one step removed from nature. The actual process of domestication is describable as follows, using terms borrowed from the object-relations school of psychology.

The infant lives entirely in the present moment in a state of pure trust and guilelessness, deeply bonded with her mother. But as she grows, she discovers that her mother is a separate entity with her own priorities and limits. The infant's experience of relationship changes from one of spontaneous trust to one that is suffused with need and longing. This creates a gap between Self and Other in the consciousness of the child, who tries to fill this deepening rift with transitional objects - initially, perhaps a teddy bear; later, addictions and beliefs that serve to fill the psychic gap and thus provide a sense of security. It is the powerful human need for transitional objects that drives individuals in their search for property and power, and that generates bureaucracies and technologies as people pool their efforts.

This process does not occur in the same way in the case of primitive childbearing, where the infant is treated with indulgence, is in constant physical contact with a caregiver throughout infancy, and later undergoes rites of passage. In primal cultures the need for transitional objects appears to be minimized. Anthropological and psychological research converge to suggest that many of civilized people's emotional ills come from our culture's abandonment of natural childrearing methods and initiatory rites and its systematic substitution of alienating pedagogical practices from crib through university.

Health: Natural or Artificial?

In terms of health and quality of life, civilization has been a mitigated disaster. S. Boyd Eaton, M.D., et al., argued in The Paleolithic Prescription (1988) that pre-agricultural peoples enjoyed a generally healthy way of life, and that cancer, heart disease, strokes, diabetes, emphysema, hypertension, and cirrhosis - which together lead to 75 percent of all mortality in industrialized nations - are caused by our civilized lifestyles. In terms of diet and exercise, preagricultural lifestyles showed a clear superiority to those of agricultural and civilized peoples.

Much-vaunted increases in longevity in civilized populations have resulted not so much from wonder drugs, as merely from better sanitation - a corrective for conditions created by the overcrowding of cities; and from reductions in infant mortality. It is true that many lives have been spared by modern antibiotics. Yet antibiotics also appear responsible for the evolution of resistant strains of microbes, which health officials now fear could produce unprecedented epidemics in the next century.

The ancient practice of herbalism, evidence of which dates back at least 60,000 years, is practiced in instinctive fashion by all higher animals. Herbal knowledge formed the basis of modern medicine and remains in many ways superior to it. In countless instances, modern synthetic drugs have replaced herbs not because they are more effective or safer, but because they are more profitable to manufacture.

Other forms of "natural" healing - massage, the "placebo effect," the use of meditation and visualization - are also being shown effective. Medical doctors Bernie Siegel and Deepak Chopra are critical of mechanized medicine and say that the future of the healing professions lies in the direction of attitudinal and natural therapies.

Spirituality: Raw or Cooked?

Spirituality means different things to different people - humility before a higher power or powers; compassion for the suffering of others; obedience to a lineage or tradition; a felt connection with the Earth or with Nature; evolution toward "higher" states of consciousness; or the mystical experience of oneness with all life or with God. With regard to each of these fundamental ways of defining or experiencing the sacred, spontaneous spirituality seems to become regimented, dogmatized, even militarized, with the growth of civilization. While some of the founders of world religions were intuitive primitivists (Jesus, Lao Tze, the Buddha), their followers have often fostered the growth of dominance hierarchies.

The picture is not always simple, though. The thoroughly civilized Roman Catholic Church produced two of the West's great primitivists - St. Francis and St. Clair; while the neo-shamanic, vegetarian, and herbalist movements of early 20th century Germany attracted arch-authoritarians Heinrich Himmler and Adolph Hitler. Of course, Nazism's militarism and rigid dominator organization were completely alien to primitive life, while St. Francis's and St. Clair's voluntary poverty and treatment of animals as sacred were reminiscent of the lifestyle and worldview of most gathering-and-hunting peoples. If Nazism was atavistic, it was only highly selectively so.

A consideration of these historical ironies is useful in helping us isolate the essentials of true primitivist spirituality - which include spontaneity, mutual aid, encouragement of natural diversity, love of nature, and compassion for others. As spiritual teachers have always insisted, it is the spirit (or state of consciousness) that is important, not the form (names, ideologies, and techniques). While from the standpoint of Teilhard de Chardin's idea of spiritual evolutionism, primitivist spirituality may initially appear anti-evolutionary or regressive, the essentials we have cited are timeless and trans-evolutionary - they are available at all stages, at all times, for all people. It is when we cease to see civilization in terms of theories of cultural evolution and see it merely as one of several possible forms of social organization that we begin to understand why religion can be liberating, enlightening, and empowering when it holds consistently to primitivist ideals; or deadening and oppressive when it is co-opted to serve the interests of power.

Economics: Free or Unaffordable?

At its base, economics is about how people relate with the land and with one another in the process of fulfilling their material wants and needs. In the most primitive societies, these relations are direct and straightforward. Land, shelter, and food are free. Everything is shared, there are no rich people or poor people, and happiness has little to do with accumulating material possessions. The primitive lives in relative abundance (all needs and wants are easily met) and has plenty of leisure time.

Civilization, in contrast, straddles two economic pillars - technological innovation and the marketplace. "Technology" here includes everything from the plow to the nuclear reactor - all are means to more efficiently extract energy and resources from nature. But efficiency implies the reification of time, and so civilization always brings with it a preoccupation with past and future; eventually the present moment nearly vanishes from view. The elevation of efficiency over other human values is epitomized in the factory - the automated workplace - in which the worker becomes merely an appendage of the machine, a slave to clocks and wages.

The market is civilization's means of equating dissimilar things through a medium of exchange. As we grow accustomed to valuing everything according to money, we tend to lose a sense of the uniqueness of things. What, after all, is an animal worth, or a mountain, or a redwood tree, or an hour of human life? The market gives us a numerical answer based on scarcity and demand. To the degree that we believe that such values have meaning, we live in a world that is desacralized and desensitized, without heart or spirit.

We can get some idea of ways out of our ecologically ruinous, humanly deadening economic cage by examining not only primitive lifestyles, but the proposals of economist E. F. Schumacher, the experiences of people in utopian communities in which technology and money are marginalized, and the lives of individuals who have adopted an attitude of voluntary simplicity.

Government: Bottom Up or Top Down?

In the most primitive human societies there are no leaders, bosses, politics, laws, crime, or taxes. There is often little division of labor between women and men, and where such division exists both gender's contributions are often valued more or less equally. Probably as a result, many foraging peoples are relatively peaceful (anthropologist Richard Lee found that "the !Kung [Bushmen of southern Africa] hate fighting, and think anybody who fought would be stupid").

With agriculture usually come division of labor, increased sexual inequality, and the beginnings of social hierarchy. Priests, kings, and organized, impersonal warfare all seem to come together in one package. Eventually, laws and borders define the creation of the fully fledged state. The state as a focus of coercion and violence has reached its culmination in the 19th and 20th centuries in colonialism, fascism, and Stalinism. Even the democratic industrial state functions essentially as an instrument of multinational corporate-style colonial oppression and domestic enslavement, its citizens merely being given the choice between selected professional bureaucrats representing political parties with slightly varying agendas for the advancement of corporate power.

Beginning with William Godwin in the early 19th century, anarchist social philosophers have offered a critical counterpoint to the increasingly radical statism of most of the world's civilized political leaders. The core idea of anarchism is that human beings are fundamentally sociable; left to themselves, they tend to cooperate to their mutual benefit. There will always be exceptions, but these are best dealt with informally and on an individual basis. Many anarchists cite the Athenian polis, the "sections" in Paris during the French Revolution, the New England town meetings of the 18th century, the popular assemblies in Barcelona in the late 1930s, and the Paris general strike of 1968 as positive examples of anarchy in action. They point to the possibility of a kind of social ecology, in which diversity and spontaneity are permitted to flourish unhindered both in human affairs and in Nature.

While critics continue to describe anarchism as a practical failure, organizational and systems theorists Tom Peters and Peter Senge are advocating the transformation of hierarchical, bureaucratized organizations into more decentralized, autonomous, spontaneous ones. This transformation is presently underway in - of all places - the very multinational corporations that form the backbone of industrial civilization.

Civilization and Nature.

Civilized people are accustomed to an anthropocentric view of the world. Our interest in the environment is utilitarian: it is of value because it is of use (or potential use) to human beings - if only as a place for camping and recreation.

Primitive peoples, in contrast, tended to see nature as intrinsically meaningful. In many cultures prohibitions surrounded the overhunting of animals or the felling of trees. The aboriginal peoples of Australia believed that their primary purpose in the cosmic scheme of things was to take care of the land, which meant performing ceremonies for the periodic renewal of plant and animal species, and of the landscape itself.

The difference in effects between the anthropocentric and ecocentric worldviews is incalculable. At present, we human beings - while considering ourselves the most intelligent species on the planet - are engaged in the most unintelligent enterprise imaginable: the destruction of our own natural life-support system. We need here only mention matters such as the standard treatment of factory-farmed domesticated food animals, the destruction of soils, the pollution of air and water, and the extinctions of wild species, as these horrors are well documented. It seems unlikely that these could ever have arisen but for an entrenched and ever-deepening trend of thinking that separates humanity from its natural context and denies inherent worth to non-human nature.

The origin and growth of this tendency to treat nature as an object separate from ourselves can be traced to the Neolithic revolution, and through the various stages of civilization's intensification and growth. One can also trace the countercurrent to this tendency from the primitivism of the early Taoists to that of today's deep ecologists, ecofeminists, and bioregionalists.

How We Compensate for Our Loss of Nature.

How do we make up for the loss of our primitive way of life? Psychotherapy, exercise and diet programs, the vacation and entertainment industries, and social welfare programs are necessitated by civilized, industrial lifestyles. The cumulative cost of these compensatory efforts is vast; yet in many respects they are only palliative.

The medical community now tells us that our modern diet of low-fiber, high-fat processed foods is disastrous to our health. But what exactly is the cost - in terms of hospital stays, surgeries, premature deaths, etc.? A rough but conservative estimate runs into the tens of billions of dollars per year in North America alone.

At the forefront of the "wellness" movement are advocates of natural foods, exercise programs (including hiking and backpacking), herbalism, and other therapies that aim specifically to bring overcivilized individuals back in touch with the innate source of health within their own stressed and repressed bodies.

Current approaches in psychology aim to retrieve lost portions of the primitive psyche via "inner child" work, through which adults compensate for alienated childhoods; or men's and women's vision quests, through which civilized people seek to access the "wild man" or "wild woman" within.

All of these physically, psychologically, and even spiritually-oriented efforts are helpful antidotes for the distress of civilization. One must wonder, however, whether it wouldn't be better simply to stop creating the problems that these programs and therapies are intended to correct.

IV. Questions and Objections.

Isn't civilization simply the inevitable expression of the evolutionary urge as it is translated through human society? Isn't primitivism therefore regressive?

We are accustomed to thinking of the history of Western civilization as an inevitable evolutionary progression. But this implies that all the world's peoples who didn't spontaneously develop civilizations of their own were less highly evolved than ourselves, or simply "backward." Not all anthropologists who have spent time with such peoples think this way. Indeed, according to the cultural materialist school of thought, articulated primarily by Marvin Harris, social change in the direction of technological innovation and social stratification is fueled not so much by some innate evolutionary urge as by crises brought on by overpopulation and resource exhaustion.

Wasn't primitive life terrible? Would we really want to go back to hunting and gathering, living without modern comforts and conveniences?

Putting an urban person in the wilderness without comforts and conveniences would be as cruel as abandoning a domesticated pet by the roadside. Even if the animal survived, it would be miserable. And we would probably be miserable too, if the accouterments of civilization were abruptly withdrawn from us. Yet the wild cousins of our hypothetical companion animal - whether a parrot, a canine, or a feline - live quite happily away from houses and packaged pet food and resist our efforts to capture and domesticate them, just as primitive peoples live quite happily without civilization and often resist its imposition. Clearly, animals (including people) can adapt either to wild or domesticated ways of life over the course of several generations, while adult individuals tend to be much less adaptable. In the view of many of its proponents, primitivism implies a direction of social change over time, as opposed to an instantaneous, all-or-nothing choice. We in the industrial world have gradually accustomed ourselves to a way of life that appears to be leading toward a universal biological holocaust. The question is, shall we choose to gradually accustom ourselves to another way of life - one that more successfully integrates human purposes with ecological imperatives - or shall we cling to our present choices to the bitter end?

Obviously, we cannot turn back the clock. But we are at a point in history where we not only can, but must pick and choose among all the present and past elements of human culture to find those that are most humane and sustainable. While the new culture we will create by doing so will not likely represent simply an immediate return to wild food gathering, it could restore much of the freedom, naturalness, and spontaneity that we have traded for civilization's artifices, and it could include new versions of cultural forms with roots in humanity's remotest past. We need not slavishly imitate the past; we might, rather, be inspired by the best examples of human adaptation, past and present. Instead of "going back," we should think of this process as "getting back on track."

Haven't we gained important knowledge and abilities through civilization? Wouldn't renouncing these advances be stupid and short-sighted?

If human beings are inherently mostly good, sociable, and creative, it is inevitable that much of what we have done in the course of the development of civilization should be worth keeping, even if the enterprise as a whole was skewed. But how do we decide what to keep? Obviously, we must agree upon criteria. I would suggest that our first criterion must be ecological sustainability. What activities can be pursued across many generations with minimal environmental damage? A second criterion might be, What sorts of activities promote - rather than degrade - human dignity and freedom?

If human beings are inherently good, then why did we make the "mistake" of creating civilization? Aren't the two propositions (human beings are good, civilization is bad) contradictory?

Only if taken as absolutes. Human nature is malleable, its qualities changing somewhat according to the natural and social environment. Moreover, humankind is not a closed system. We exist within a natural world that is, on the whole, "good," but that is subject to rare catastrophes. Perhaps the initial phases of civilization were humanity's traumatized response to overwhelming global cataclysms accompanying and following the end of the Pleistocene. Kingship and warfare may have originated as survival strategies. Then, perhaps civilization itself became a mechanism for re-traumatizing each new generation, thus preserving and regenerating its own psycho-social basis.

What practical suggestions for the future stem from primitivism? We cannot all revert to gathering and hunting today because there are just too many of us. Can primitivism offer a practical design for living?

No philosophy or "-ism" is a magical formula for the solution of all human problems. Primitivism doesn't offer easy answers, but it does suggest an alternative direction or set of values. For many centuries, civilization has been traveling in the direction of artificiality, control, and domination. Primitivism tells us that there is an inherent limit to our continued movement in that direction, and that at some point we must begin to choose to readapt ourselves to nature. The point of a primitivist critique of civilization is not necessarily to insist on an absolute rejection of every aspect of modern life, but to assist in clarifying issues so that we can better understand the tradeoffs we are making now, deepen the process of renegotiating our personal bargains with nature, and thereby contribute to the reframing of our society's collective covenants.

V. Some Concluding Thoughts.

In any discussion of primitivism we must keep in mind civilization's "good" face - the one characterized (in Lewis Mumford's words) by "the invention and keeping of the written record, the growth of visual and musical arts, the effort to widen the circle of communication and economic intercourse far beyond the range of any local community: ultimately the purpose to make available to all [people] the discoveries and inventions and creations, the works of art and thought, the values and purposes that any single group has discovered."

Civilization brings not only comforts, but also the opportunity to think the thoughts of Plato or Thoreau, to travel to distant places, and to live under the protection of a legal system that guarantees certain rights. How could we deny the worth of these things?

Naturally, we would like to have it all; we would like to preserve civilization's perceived benefits while restraining its destructiveness. But we haven't found a way to do that yet. And it is unlikely that we will while we are in denial about what we have left behind, and about the likely consequences of what we are doing now.

While I advocate taking a critical look at civilization, I am not suggesting that we are now in position to render a final judgment on it. It is entirely possible that we are standing on the threshold of a cultural transformation toward a way of life characterized by relatively higher degrees of contentment, creativity, justice, and sustainability than have been known in any human society heretofore. If we are able to follow this transformation through, and if we call the result "civilization," then we will surely be entitled to declare civilization a resounding success.

Jared Diamond: The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race

(Originally published in the May 1987 issue of Discover magazine, found at Iowa State University Agronomy 342 course materials, Ricardo J. Salvador, Associate Professor.)

To science we owe dramatic changes in our smug self-image. Astronomy taught us that our earth isn't the center of the universe but merely one of billions of heavenly bodies. From biology we learned that we weren't specially created by God but evolved along with millions of other species. Now archaeology is demolishing another sacred belief: that human history over the past million years has been a long tale of progress. In particular, recent discoveries suggest that the adoption of agriculture, supposedly our most decisive step toward a better life, was in many ways a catastrophe from which we have never recovered. With agriculture came the gross social and sexual inequality, the disease and despotism, that curse our existence.

At first, the evidence against this revisionist interpretation will strike twentieth century Americans as irrefutable. We're better off in almost every respect than people of the Middle Ages, who in turn had it easier than cavemen, who in turn were better off than apes. Just count our advantages. We enjoy the most abundant and varied foods, the best tools and material goods, some of the longest and healthiest lives, in history. Most of us are safe from starvation and predators. We get our energy from oil and machines, not from our sweat. What neo-Luddite among us would trade his life for that of a medieval peasant, a caveman, or an ape?

For most of our history we supported ourselves by hunting and gathering: we hunted wild animals and foraged for wild plants. It's a life that philosophers have traditionally regarded as nasty, brutish, and short. Since no food is grown and little is stored, there is (in this view) no respite from the struggle that starts anew each day to find wild foods and avoid starving. Our escape from this misery was facilitated only 10,000 years ago, when in different parts of the world people began to domesticate plants and animals. The agricultural revolution spread until today it's nearly universal and few tribes of hunter-gatherers survive.

From the progressivist perspective on which I was brought up, to ask "Why did almost all our hunter-gatherer ancestors adopt agriculture?" is silly. Of course they adopted it because agriculture is an efficient way to get more food for less work. Planted crops yield far more tons per acre than roots and berries. Just imagine a band of savages, exhausted from searching for nuts or chasing wild animals, suddenly grazing for the first time at a fruit-laden orchard or a pasture full of sheep. How many milliseconds do you think it would take them to appreciate the advantages of agriculture?

The progressivist party line sometimes even goes so far as to credit agriculture with the remarkable flowering of art that has taken place over the past few thousand years. Since crops can be stored, and since it takes less time to pick food from a garden than to find it in the wild, agriculture gave us free time that hunter-gatherers never had. Thus it was agriculture that enabled us to build the Parthenon and compose the B-minor Mass.

While the case for the progressivist view seems overwhelming, it's hard to prove. How do you show that the lives of people 10,000 years ago got better when they abandoned hunting and gathering for farming? Until recently, archaeologists had to resort to indirect tests, whose results (surprisingly) failed to support the progressivist view. Here's one example of an indirect test: Are twentieth century hunter-gatherers really worse off than farmers? Scattered throughout the world, several dozen groups of so-called primitive people, like the Kalahari bushmen, continue to support themselves that way. It turns out that these people have plenty of leisure time, sleep a good deal, and work less hard than their farming neighbors. For instance, the average time devoted each week to obtaining food is only 12 to 19 hours for one group of Bushmen, 14 hours or less for the Hadza nomads of Tanzania. One Bushman, when asked why he hadn't emulated neighboring tribes by adopting agriculture, replied, "Why should we, when there are so many mongongo nuts in the world?"

While farmers concentrate on high-carbohydrate crops like rice and potatoes, the mix of wild plants and animals in the diets of surviving hunter-gatherers provides more protein and a better balance of other nutrients. In one study, the Bushmen's average daily food intake (during a month when food was plentiful) was 2,140 calories and 93 grams of protein, considerably greater than the recommended daily allowance for people of their size. It's almost inconceivable that Bushmen, who eat 75 or so wild plants, could die of starvation the way hundreds of thousands of Irish farmers and their families did during the potato famine of the 1840s.

So the lives of at least the surviving hunter-gatherers aren't nasty and brutish, even though farmers have pushed them into some of the world's worst real estate. But modern hunter-gatherer societies that have rubbed shoulders with farming societies for thousands of years don't tell us about conditions before the agricultural revolution. The progressivist view is really making a claim about the distant past: that the lives of primitive people improved when they switched from gathering to farming. Archaeologists can date that switch by distinguishing remains of wild plants and animals from those of domesticated ones in prehistoric garbage dumps.

How can one deduce the health of the prehistoric garbage makers, and thereby directly test the progressivist view? That question has become answerable only in recent years, in part through the newly emerging techniques of paleopathology, the study of signs of disease in the remains of ancient peoples.

In some lucky situations, the paleopathologist has almost as much material to study as a pathologist today. For example, archaeologists in the Chilean deserts found well preserved mummies whose medical conditions at time of death could be determined by autopsy. And feces of long-dead Indians who lived in dry caves in Nevada remain sufficiently well preserved to be examined for hookworm and other parasites.

Usually the only human remains available for study are skeletons, but they permit a surprising number of deductions. To begin with, a skeleton reveals its owner's sex, weight, and approximate age. In the few cases where there are many skeletons, one can construct mortality tables like the ones life insurance companies use to calculate expected life span and risk of death at any given age. Paleopathologists can also calculate growth rates by measuring bones of people of different ages, examine teeth for enamel defects (signs of childhood malnutrition), and recognize scars left on bones by anemia, tuberculosis, leprosy, and other diseases.

One straight forward example of what paleopathologists have learned from skeletons concerns historical changes in height. Skeletons from Greece and Turkey show that the average height of hunger-gatherers toward the end of the ice ages was a generous 5' 9" for men, 5' 5" for women. With the adoption of agriculture, height crashed, and by 3000 B.C. had reached a low of only 5' 3" for men, 5' for women. By classical times heights were very slowly on the rise again, but modern Greeks and Turks have still not regained the average height of their distant ancestors.

Another example of paleopathology at work is the study of Indian skeletons from burial mounds in the Illinois and Ohio river valleys. At Dickson Mounds, located near the confluence of the Spoon and Illinois rivers, archaeologists have excavated some 800 skeletons that paint a picture of the health changes that occurred when a hunter-gatherer culture gave way to intensive maize farming around A.D. 1150. Studies by George Armelagos and his colleagues then at the University of Massachusetts show these early farmers paid a price for their new-found livelihood. Compared to the hunter-gatherers who preceded them, the farmers had a nearly 50 percent increase in [tooth] enamel defects indicative of malnutrition, a fourfold increase in iron-deficiency anemia (evidenced by a bone condition called porotic hyperostosis), a threefold rise in bone lesions reflecting infectious disease in general, and an increase in degenerative conditions of the spine, probably reflecting a lot of hard physical labor. "Life expectancy at birth in the pre-agricultural community was about twenty-six years," says Armelagos, "but in the post-agricultural community it was nineteen years. So these episodes of nutritional stress and infectious disease were seriously affecting their ability to survive."

The evidence suggests that the Indians at Dickson Mounds, like many other primitive peoples, took up farming not by choice but from necessity in order to feed their constantly growing numbers. "I don't think most hunger-gatherers farmed until they had to, and when they switched to farming they traded quality for quantity," says Mark Cohen of the State University of New York at Plattsburgh, co-editor with Armelagos, of one of the seminal books in the field, Paleopathology at the Origins of Agriculture. "When I first started making that argument ten years ago, not many people agreed with me. Now it's become a respectable, albeit controversial, side of the debate."

There are at least three sets of reasons to explain the findings that agriculture was bad for health. First, hunter-gatherers enjoyed a varied diet, while early farmers obtained most of their food from one or a few starchy crops. The farmers gained cheap calories at the cost of poor nutrition. (Today just three high-carbohydrate plants - wheat, rice, and corn - provide the bulk of the calories consumed by the human species, yet each one is deficient in certain vitamins or amino acids essential to life.) Second, because of dependence on a limited number of crops, farmers ran the risk of starvation if one crop failed. Finally, the mere fact that agriculture encouraged people to clump together in crowded societies, many of which then carried on trade with other crowded societies, led to the spread of parasites and infectious disease. (Some archaeologists think it was the crowding, rather than agriculture, that promoted disease, but this is a chicken-and-egg argument, because crowding encourages agriculture and vice versa.) Epidemics couldn't take hold when populations were scattered in small bands that constantly shifted camp. Tuberculosis and diarrheal disease had to await the rise of farming, measles and bubonic plague the appearance of large cities.

Besides malnutrition, starvation, and epidemic diseases, farming helped bring another curse upon humanity: deep class divisions. Hunter-gatherers have little or no stored food, and no concentrated food sources, like an orchard or a herd of cows: they live off the wild plants and animals they obtain each day. Therefore, there can be no kings, no class of social parasites who grow fat on food seized from others. Only in a farming population could a healthy, non-producing elite set itself above the disease-ridden masses. Skeletons from Greek tombs at Mycenae circa 1500 B.C. suggest that royals enjoyed a better diet than commoners, since the royal skeletons were two or three inches taller and had better teeth (on the average, one instead of six cavities or missing teeth). Among Chilean mummies from circa A.D. 1000, the elite were distinguished not only by ornaments and gold hair clips but also by a fourfold lower rate of bone lesions caused by disease.

Similar contrasts in nutrition and health persist on a global scale today. To people in rich countries like the U.S., it sounds ridiculous to extol the virtues of hunting and gathering. But Americans are an elite, dependent on oil and minerals that must often be imported from countries with poorer health and nutrition. If one could choose between being a peasant farmer in Ethiopia or a bushman gatherer in the Kalahari, which do you think would be the better choice?

Farming may have encouraged inequality between the sexes, as well. Freed from the need to transport their babies during a nomadic existence, and under pressure to produce more hands to till the fields, farming women tended to have more frequent pregnancies than their hunter-gatherer counterparts - with consequent drains on their health. Among the Chilean mummies for example, more women than men had bone lesions from infectious disease.

Women in agricultural societies were sometimes made beasts of burden. In New Guinea farming communities today I often see women staggering under loads of vegetables and firewood while the men walk empty-handed. Once while on a field trip there studying birds, I offered to pay some villagers to carry supplies from an airstrip to my mountain camp. The heaviest item was a 110-pound bag of rice, which I lashed to a pole and assigned to a team of four men to shoulder together. When I eventually caught up with the villagers, the men were carrying light loads, while one small woman weighing less than the bag of rice was bent under it, supporting its weight by a cord across her temples.

As for the claim that agriculture encouraged the flowering of art by providing us with leisure time, modern hunter-gatherers have at least as much free time as do farmers. The whole emphasis on leisure time as a critical factor seems to me misguided. Gorillas have had ample free time to build their own Parthenon, had they wanted to. While post-agricultural technological advances did make new art forms possible and preservation of art easier, great paintings and sculptures were already being produced by hunter-gatherers 15,000 years ago, and were still being produced as recently as the last century by such hunter-gatherers as some Eskimos and the Indians of the Pacific Northwest.

Thus with the advent of agriculture an elite became better off, but most people became worse off. Instead of swallowing the progressivist party line that we chose agriculture because it was good for us, we must ask how we got trapped by it despite its pitfalls.

One answer boils down to the adage, "Might makes right." Farming could support many more people than hunting, albeit with a poorer quality of life. Population densities of hunter-gatherers are rarely over one person per ten square miles, while farmers average 100 times that. Partly, this is because a field planted entirely in edible crops lets one feed far more mouths than a forest with scattered edible plants. Partly, too, it's because nomadic hunter-gatherers have to keep their children spaced at four-year intervals by infanticide and other means, since a mother must carry her toddler until it's old enough to keep up with the adults. Because farm women don't have that burden, they can and often do bear a child every two years.

As population densities of hunter-gatherers slowly rose at the end of the ice ages, bands had to choose between feeding more mouths by taking the first steps toward agriculture, or else finding ways to limit growth. Some bands chose the former solution, unable to anticipate the evils of farming, and seduced by the transient abundance they enjoyed until population growth caught up with increased food production. Such bands outbred and then drove off or killed the bands that chose to remain hunter-gatherers, because a hundred malnourished farmers can still outfight one healthy hunter. It's not that hunter-gatherers abandoned their life style, but that those sensible enough not to abandon it were forced out of all areas except the ones farmers didn't want.

At this point it's instructive to recall the common complaint that archaeology is a luxury, concerned with the remote past and offering no lessons for the present. Archaeologists studying the rise of farming have reconstructed a crucial stage at which we made the worst mistake in human history. Forced to choose between limiting population or trying to increase food production, we chose the latter and ended up with starvation, warfare, and tyranny. Hunter-gatherers practiced the most successful and longest-lasting life style in human history. In contrast, we're still struggling with the mess into which agriculture has tumbled us, and it's unclear whether we can solve it.

Suppose that an archaeologist who had visited from outer space were trying to explain human history to his fellow spacelings. He might illustrate the results of his digs by a 24-hour clock on which one hour represents 100,000 years of real past time. If the history of the human race began at midnight, then we would now be almost at the end of our first day. We lived as hunter-gatherers for nearly the whole of that day, from midnight through dawn, noon, and sunset. Finally, at 11:54 p. m. we adopted agriculture. As our second midnight approaches, will the plight of famine-stricken peasants gradually spread to engulf us all? Or will we somehow achieve those seductive blessings that we imagine behind agriculture's glittering facade, and that have so far eluded us?

Jared Diamond: Why Societies Collapse

(The following is a transcript of an Australian Broadcasting Corporation Radio National Background Briefing program: "Jared Diamond at Princeton University: Why Societies Collapse". Kristen Garrett is the program host.)

Kristen Garrett: Throughout human history, societies, civilizations have prospered and collapsed over time. The reasons, obviously, have lessons for the whole of our intricately interlinked planet today. At Princeton University in America, earlier this month, eminent professor Jared Diamond, Professor of Physiology at UCLA, gave a speech about the collapse of ancient societies. ... He spoke of once-vibrant societies such as the ones that built Angkor Wat, the Mayan civilization, the Easter Islands, Greater Zimbabwe, and the Indus Valley.

Jared Diamond: Why did these ancient civilizations abandon their cities after building them with such great effort? Why these ancient collapses? This question isn't just a romantic mystery. It's also a challenging intellectual problem. Why is it that some societies collapsed while others did not collapse?

But even more, this question is relevant to the environmental problems that we face today; problems such as deforestation, the impending end of the tropical rainforests, over-fishing, soil erosion, soil desalinization, global climate change, full utilization of the world's fresh water supplies, bumping up against the photosynthetic ceiling, exhaustion of energy reserves, accumulation of toxics in water, food and soil, increase of the world's population, and increase of our per capita input. The main problems that threaten our existence over the coming decades. What if anything, can the past teach us about why some societies are more unstable than others, and about how some societies have managed to overcome their environmental problems. Can we extract from the past any useful guidance that will help us in the coming decades?

There's overwhelming recent evidence from archaeology and other disciplines that some of these romantic mystery collapses have been self-inflicted ecological suicides, resulting from inadvertent human impacts on the environment, impacts similar to the impacts causing the problems that we face today. Even though these past societies like the Easter Islanders and Anasazi had far fewer people, and were packing far less potent destructive practices than we do today.

It turns out that these ancient collapses pose a very complicated problem. It's not just that all these societies collapsed, but one can also think of places in the world where societies have gone on for thousands of years without any signs of collapse, such as Japan, Java, Tonga and Tikopea. What is it then that made some societies weaken and other societies robust? It's also a complicated problem because the collapses usually prove to be multi-factorial. This is not an area where we can expect simple answers.

What I'm talking about is the collapses of societies and their applications to the risks we face today. This may sound initially depressing, but you'll see that my main conclusions are going to be upbeat.

Kirsten Garrett: The first example he gave to illustrate the sorts of problems communities accumulate was the American state of Montana. Not many years ago, it was one of the wealthiest in America, wealth based on copper mining, forestry and agriculture. Now it's very poor. Mining has gone, leaving terrible environmental damage, 70% of the children in Montana are on Food Aid, logging and farming are in decline. What happened was that the mining, forestry and agriculture which earned so much wealth, became destructive. Montana now has terrible forest fires, desalinization, erosion, weeds and animal diseases, and population decline.

Jared Diamond: If Montana were an isolated country, Montana would be in a state of collapse. Montana is not going to collapse, because it's supported by the rest of the United States, and yet other societies have collapsed in the past, and are collapsing now or will collapse in the future, from problems similar to those facing Montana. The same problems that we've seen throughout human history, problems of water, forests, topsoil, irrigation, desalinization, climate change, erosion, introduced pests and disease and population; problems similar to those faced by Montanans today are the ones posing problems in Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, Australia, Nepal, Ethiopia and so on. But those countries, Afghanistan, Pakistan etcetera have the misfortune not to be embedded within a rich country that supports them, like the United States.

Visiting Montana again just brought home to me that these problems of ancient civilizations are not remote problems of romantic mysterious people, they're problems of the modern world including of the United States. I mentioned then that there's a long list of past societies that did collapse, but there were also past societies that did not collapse. What is it then that makes some societies more vulnerable than others? Environmental factors clearly play a role, archaeological evidence accumulated over the last several decades has revealed environmental factors behind many of these ancient collapses. Again, to appreciate the modern relevance of all this, if one asked an academic ecologist to name the countries in the modern world that suffer from most severe problems of environmental damage and of over-population, and if this ecologist never read the newspapers and didn't know anything about modern political problems, the ecologist would say "Well that's a no-brainer, the countries today that have ecological and population [problems], there are Haiti, Somalia, Rwanda, Burundi, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, the Philippines, Indonesia, Solomon Islands." Then you ask a politician who doesn't know, or a strategic planner who knows or cares nothing about ecological problems, what you see is the political tinderboxes of the modern world, the danger spots, and the politician or strategic planner would say "It's a no-brainer; Haiti, Somalia, Rwanda, Burundi, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, the Philippines, Indonesia, Solomon Islands", the same list. And that simply makes the point that countries that get into environmental trouble are likely to get into political trouble both for themselves and to cause political troubles around the world.

In trying to understand the collapses of ancient societies, I quickly realized that it's not enough to look at the inadvertent impact of humans on their environment. It's usually more complicated. Instead I've arrived at a checklist of five things that I look at to understand the collapses of societies, and in some cases all five of these things are operating. Usually several of them are.

The first of these factors is environmental damage, inadvertent damage to the environment through means such as deforestation, soil erosion, desalinization, over-hunting etc.

The second item on the checklist is climate change, such as cooling or increased aridity. People can hammer away at their environment and get away with it as long as the climate is benign, warm, wet, and the people are likely to get in trouble when the climate turns against them, getting colder or drier. So climate change and human environmental impact interact, not surprisingly.

Still a third consideration is that one has to look at a society's relations with hostile neighbors. Most societies have chronic hostile relations with some of their neighbors and societies may succeed in fending off those hostile neighbors for a long time. They're most likely to fail to hold off the hostile neighbors when the society itself gets weakened for environmental or any other reasons, and that's given rise for example, to the long-standing debate about the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Was the conquest by Barbarians really a fundamental cause, or was it just that Barbarians were at the frontiers of the Roman Empire for many centuries? Rome succeeded in holding them off as long as Rome was strong, and then when Rome got weakened by other things, Rome failed, and fell to the Barbarians. And similarly, we know that there were military factors in the fall of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. So relations with hostiles interacts with environmental damage and climate change.

Similarly, relations with friendlies. Almost all societies depend in part upon trade with neighboring friendly societies, and if one of those friendly societies itself runs into environmental problems and collapses for environmental reasons, that collapse may then drag down their trade partners. It's something that interests us today, given that we are dependent for oil upon imports from countries that have some political stability in a fragile environment.

And finally in addition to those four factors on the checklist, one always has to ask about people's cultural response. Why is it that people failed to perceive the problems developing around them, or if they perceived them, why did they fail to solve the problems that would eventually do them in? Why did some peoples perceive and recognize their problems and others not?

I'll give you four examples of these past societies that collapsed. One is Easter Island, I'll discuss it first because Easter is the simplest case we've got, the closest approximation to a collapse resulting purely from human environmental damage.

The second case are the collapses of Henderson and Pitcairn Island in the Pacific, which were due to the combination of self-inflicted environmental damage, plus the loss of external trade due to the collapse of a friendly trade partner.

Third I'll discuss, closer to home, the Anasazi in the U.S. southwest whose collapse was a combination of environmental damage and climate change.

And then finally I'll mention the Greenland Norse who ended up all dead because of a combination of all five of these factors.

So let's take then the first of these examples, the collapse of Easter Island society. Any of you here in this room, have any of you had the good fortune to have visited Easter Island? Good for you, you lucky person, I'm going there next month, I've wanted for decades to go there. And Easter is the most remote habitable scrap of land in the world; it's an island in the Pacific, 2,000 miles west of the coast of Chile, and some 1,300 miles from the nearest Polynesian island. It was settled by other Polynesians coming from the west, sometime around AD800 and it was so remote that after Polynesians arrived at Easter Island, nobody else arrived there. Nobody left Easter as far as we know, and so the Easter story is uncomplicated by relations with external hostiles or friendlies. There weren't any. Easter Islanders rose and fell by themselves.

Easter is a relatively fragile environment, dry with 40 inches of rain per year. It's most famous because of the giant stone statutes - those big statues weighing up to 80 tons - stone statues that were carved in a volcanic quarry and then dragged up over the lift of the quarry and then 13 miles down to the coast and then raised up vertically onto platforms, all this accomplished by people without any draught animals, without pulleys, without machines. These 80-ton statues were dragged and erected under human muscle power alone. And yet when Europeans arrived at Easter in 1722, the statues that the islanders themselves had erected at such great personal effort, the islanders were in the process of throwing down their own statues, Easter Island society was in a state of collapse. How, why and who erected the statues, and why were they thrown down?

Well the how, why and who has been settled in the last several decades by archaeological discoveries. Easter Islanders were typical Polynesians, and the cause of the collapse became clear from archaeological work in the last 15 years, particularly from paleo-botanical work and identification of animal bones in archaeological sites. Today Easter Island is barren. It's a grassland, there are no native trees whatsoever on Easter Island, not a likely setting for the development of a great civilization, and yet these paleo-botanical studies, identifying pollen grains and lake cores show that when the Polynesians arrived at Easter Island, it was covered by a tropical forest that included the world's largest palm tree and dandelions of tree height. And there were land birds, at least six species of land birds, 37 species of breeding sea-birds - the largest collection of breeding sea-birds anywhere in the Pacific.

Polynesians settled Easter, they began to clear the forest for their gardens, for firewood, for using as rollers and levers to raise the giant statues, and then to build canoes with which to go out into the ocean and catch porpoises and tuna. In the oldest archaeological sites one sees the bones of porpoises and tuna that the people were eating. They ate the land birds, they ate the sea-birds, they ate the fruits of the palm trees. The population of Easter grew to an estimated about 10,000 people, until by the year 1600 all of the trees and all of the land birds and all but one of the sea-birds on Easter Island itself were extinct. Some of the sea-birds were confined to breeding on offshore stacks.

The deforestation and the elimination of the birds had consequences for people. First without trees, they could no longer transport and erect the statues, so they stopped carving statues. Secondly, without trees they had no firewood except of their own agricultural wastes. Thirdly, without trees to cover the ground, they suffered from soil erosion and hence agricultural yields decreased, and then without trees they couldn't build canoes, so they couldn't go out to the ocean to catch porpoises. There were only a few sea-birds left. Because they didn't have pigs the largest animal left to eat with the disappearance of porpoises and tuna were humans. And Polynesian society then collapsed in an epidemic of cannibalism. The spear points from that final phase still litter the ground of Easter Island today. The population crashed from about 10,000 to an estimated 2,000 with no possibility of rebuilding the original society because the trees, most of the birds and some of the soil were gone.

I think one of the reasons that the collapse of Easter Island so grabs people is that it looks like a metaphor for us today. Easter Island, isolated in the middle of the Pacific Island, nobody to turn to to get help, nowhere to flee once Easter Island itself collapsed. In the same way today, one can look at Planet Earth in the middle of the galaxy and if we too get into trouble, there's no way that we can flee, and no people to whom we can turn for help out there in the galaxy.

I can't help wondering what the Islander who chopped down the last palm tree said as he or she did it. Was he saying, "What about our jobs? Do we care more for trees than for our jobs, of us loggers?" Or maybe he was saying, "What about my private property rights? Get the big government of the chiefs off my back." Or maybe he was saying, "You're predicting environmental disaster, but your environmental models are untested, we need more research before we can take action." Or perhaps he was saying, "Don't worry, technology will solve all our problems."

Kirsten Garrett: After speaking about several other Pacific Island nations and what happened to them, Professor Jared Diamond went on to talk of the Anasazi, an Indian nation later called the Pueblo, in what is now the United States.

Jared Diamond: My next example involves the Anasazi in our southwest, in the four corners area of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah. How many of you here have been to either Mesa Verde or Chaco Canyon? OK, looks like nearly half of you. It's very striking to visit say Chaco Canyon where there are still the ruins of the biggest skyscrapers erected in the United States until the Chicago skyscrapers erected in Chicago's loop in the 1870s and 1880s. But the skyscrapers of Chaco Canyon were erected by native Americans, the Anasazi. Up to 6-story buildings, with up to 600 rooms. The Anasazi build-up began around AD600 with the arrival of the Mexican crops of corn, squash and beans, and in that relatively dry area. Again it's very striking today to drive through an area where today either nobody is living at all, or nobody's living by agriculture. At Chaco Canyon itself there are a couple of houses of National Park Rangers importing their food, and then nobody else living within 20 or 30 miles. And yet to realize, and to see the remains on the ground, this used to be a densely populated agricultural environment.

The Anasazi were ingenious at managing to survive in that environment, with low fluctuating, unpredictable rainfall, and with nutrient-poor soils. The population built up. They fed themselves with agriculture, in some cases irrigation agriculture, channeled very carefully to flood out over the fields. They cut down trees for construction and firewood. In each area they would develop environmental problems by cutting down trees and exhausting soil nutrients, but they dealt with those problems by abandoning their sites after a few decades and moving on to a new site.

It's possible to reconstruct Anasazi history in great detail for two reasons: tree rings, because this is a dry climate, the Southwest. From tree-rings you can identify from the rings on the roof beams, what year - 1116, not 1115 AD - what year the tree in that roof was cut down. And also those cute little rodents in the Southwest, pack rats, that run around gathering bits of vegetation in their nests and then abandoning their nests after 50 years, a pack rat midden is basically a time capsule of the vegetation growing within 50 yards of a pack rat midden over a period of 50 years. My friend Julio Betancourt was near an Anasazi ruin and happened to see a pack rat midden whose dating he knew nothing about. He was astonished to see in what's now a treeless environment, in this pack rat midden were the needles of pinion pine and juniper. So Julio wondered whether that was an old midden. He took it back, radio carbon-dated it, and lo and behold it was something like AD 800. So the pack-rat middens are time capsules of local vegetation allowing us to reconstruct what happened.

What happened is that the Anasazi deforested the area around their settlements until they were having to go further and further away for their fuel and their construction timber. At the end they were getting their logs, neatly cut logs, uniform, weighing on the average 600 pounds, 16 feet logs, were cut at the end on tops of mountains up to 75 miles away and about 4,000 feet above the Anasazi settlements, and then dragged back by people with no transport or pack animals, to the Anasazi settlements themselves. So deforestation spread. That was the one environmental problem.

The other environmental problem was the cutting of arroyos. In the Southwest, when water flow gets channeled for example in irrigation ditches, vast water flow is run off in desert rains [that] digs a trench in the channel, and digs a trench deeper and deeper so those of you who've been to Chaco Canyon will have seen those arroyos up to 30 feet deep. And today, if the water level drops down in the arroyos, that's not a problem for farmers, because we've got pumps, but the Anasazi did not have pumps, and so when the irrigation ditches became incised by arroyo cutting and when the water level in the ditches dropped down below the field levels, they could no longer do irrigation agriculture. For a while they got away with these inadvertent environmental impacts. There were droughts around 1040 and droughts around 1090, but at both times the Anasazi hadn't yet filled up the landscape, so they could move to other parts of the landscape not yet exploited. And the population continued to grow.

And then in Chaco Canyon when a drought arrived in 1117, at that point there was no more unexploited landscape, no more empty land to which to shift. In addition at that point, Chaco Canyon was a complex society. Lots of stuff was getting imported into Chaco - stone tools, pottery, turquoise, probably food was being imported into Chaco. Archaeologists can't detect any material that went out of the Chaco Valley, and whenever you see a city into which material stuff is moving and no material stuff is leaving, you think that the modern world - the model could be of New York City or Rome, or Washington and Rome - that is to say you suspect that city is having political control or religious control in return for which the peasants in the periphery are supplying their imported goods.

When the drought came in 1117 it was a couple of decades before the end. Again any of you who have been to Pueblo Benito, will have seen that Pueblo Benito was the six storey skyscraper. Pueblo Benito was a big, unwalled plaza, until about 20 years before the end, when a high wall went up around the plaza. And when you see a rich place without a wall, you can safely infer that the rich place was on good terms with its poor neighbors, and when you see a wall going up around the rich place, you can infer that there was now trouble with the neighbors. So probably what was happening was that towards the end, in the drought, as the landscape is filled up, the people out on the periphery were no longer satisfied because the people in the religious and political center, were no longer delivering the goods. The prayers to the gods were not bringing rain, there was not all the stuff to redistribute and they began making trouble. And then at the drought of 1117, with no empty land to shift to, construction of Chaco Canyon ceased, Chaco was eventually abandoned. Long House Valley was abandoned later. The Anasazi had committed themselves irreversibly to a complex society, and once that society collapsed, they couldn't rebuild it because again they deforested their environment.

In this case then, the Anasazi case, we have the interaction of well understood environmental impact and very well understood climate change from the tree rings - from the width of the tree rings, we know how much rainfall was falling in each year and hence we know the severity of the drought.

My next to last example involves Norse Greenland. As the Vikings began to expand over and terrorize Europe in their raids, [they] also settled six islands in the North Atlantic. So we have to compare not 80 islands as in the Pacific, but 6 islands. Viking settlements survived on Orkney, Shetland, Faroe and Iceland, albeit it with severe problems due to environmental damage on Iceland. The Vikings arrived in Greenland, settled Greenland AD 984, where they established a Norwegian pastoral economy, based particularly on sheep, goats and cattle for producing dairy products, and then they also hunted caribou and seal. Trade was important. The Vikings in Greenland hunted walruses to trade walrus ivory to Norway because walrus ivory was in demand in Europe for carving, since at that time with the Arab conquest, elephant ivory was no longer available in Europe.

Vikings [on Greenland] vanished in the 1400s. There were two settlements; one of them disappeared around 1360 and the other sometime probably a little after 1440. Everybody ended up dead.

The vanishing of Viking Greenland is instructive because it involves all five of the factors that I mentioned, and also because there's a detailed, written record from Norway, a bit from Iceland and just a few fragments from Greenland: a written record describing what people were doing and describing what they were thinking. So we know something about their motivation, which we don't know for the Anasazi and the Easter Islanders.

Of the five factors, first of all there was ecological damage due to deforestation in this cold climate with a short growing season, cutting turf, soil erosion. The deforestation was especially expensive to the Norse Greenlanders because they required charcoal in order to smelt iron to extract iron from bogs. Without iron, except for what they could import in small quantities from Norway, there were problems in getting iron tools like sickles. It got to be a big problem when the Inuit, who had initially been absent in Greenland, colonized Greenland and came into conflict with the Norse. The Norse then had no military advantage over the Inuit. It was not guns, germs and steel. The Norse of Greenland had no guns, very little steel, and they didn't have the nasty germs. They were fighting with the Inuit on terms of equality, one people with stone and wooden weapons against another.

So problem number one, ecological damage, problem number two, climate change. The climate in Greenland got colder in the late 1300s and early 1400s as part of what's called the Little Ice Age cooling of the North Atlantic. Hay production was a problem. Greenland was already marginal because it's high latitude short growing season, and as it got colder, the growing season got even shorter, hay production got less, and hay was the basis of Norse sustenance. Thirdly, the Norse had military problems with their neighbors the Inuit. For example, the only detailed example we have of an Inuit attack on the Norse is that the Icelandic annals of the years 1379 say, "In this year the scralings (which is an old Norse word meaning wretches, the Norse did not have a good attitude towards the Inuit), the wretches attacked the Greenlanders and killed 18 men and captured a couple of young men and women as slaves." Eighteen men doesn't seem like a big deal in this century of body counts of tens of millions of people, but when you consider the population of Norse Greenland at the time, probably about 4,000 people, 18 adult men stands in the same proportion to the Norse population then as if some outsiders were to come into the United States today and in one raid kill 1,700,000 adult male Americans. So that single raid by the Inuit did make a big deal to the Norse, and that's just the only raid that we know about.

Fourthly, there was the cut-off of trade with Europe because of increasing sea-ice, with a cold climate in the North Atlantic. The ships from Norway gradually stopped coming. Also as the Mediterranean reopened Europeans got access again to elephant ivory, and they became less interested in the walrus ivory, so fewer ships came to Greenland.

And then finally cultural factors - the Norse were derived from a Norwegian society that was identified with pastoralism, and particularly valued calves. In Greenland it's easier to feed and take care of sheep and goats than calves, but calves were prized in Greenland, so the Norse chiefs and bishops were heavily invested in the status symbol of calves.

The Norse, because of their bad attitude towards the Inuit did not adopt useful Inuit technology, so the Norse never adopted harpoons, hence they couldn't eat whales like the Inuit. They didn't fish, incredibly, while the Inuit were fishing. They didn't have dog sleighs, they didn't have skin boats, they didn't learn from the Inuit how to kill seals at breeding holes in the winter. So the Norse were conservative, had a bad attitude towards the Inuit, they built churches and cathedrals, the remains of the Greenland cathedral is still standing today at Gardar. It's as big as the cathedral of Iceland, and the stone churches, some of the three-stone churches in Greenland are still standing. So this was a society that invested heavily in their churches, in importing stained-glass windows and bronze bells for the churches, when they could have been importing more iron to trade to the Inuit, to get seals and whale meat in exchange for the iron.

So there were cultural factors also while the Norse refused to learn from the Inuit and refused to modify their own economy in a way that would have permitted them to survive. And the result then was that after 1440 the Norse were all dead, and the Inuit survived. Greenland then is particularly instructive in showing us that collapse due to environmental reasons isn't inevitable. It depends upon what you do. Here are two peoples and one did things that let them survive, and the other things did not permit them to survive.

There are a series of factors that make people more or less likely to perceive environmental problems growing up around them. One is misreading previous experience. The Greenlanders came from Norway where there's a relatively long growing season, so the Greenlanders didn't realize, based on their previous experience, how fragile Greenland woodlands were going to be. The Greenlanders had the difficulty of extracting a trend from noisy fluctuations. Yes we now know that there was a long-term cooling trend, but climate fluctuates wildly up and down in Greenland from year to year; cold, cold, warm, cold. So it was difficult for a long time perceive that there was any long-term trend. That's similar to the problems we have today with recognizing global warming. It's only within the last few years that even scientists have been able to convince themselves that there is a global long-term warming trend. And while scientists are convinced, the evidence is not yet enough to convince many of our politicians.

Problem No. 3, short time scale of experience. In the Anasazi area, droughts come back every 50 years, in Greenland it gets cold every 500 years or so; those rare events are impossible to perceive for humans with a life span of 40, 50, 70 years. They're perceptible today but we may not internalize them. For example, my friends in the Tucson area. There was a big drought in Tucson about 40 years ago. The city of Tucson almost over-draughted its water aquifers and Tucson went briefly into a period of water conservation, but now Tucson is back to building big developments and golf courses and so Tucson will have trouble with the next drought.

Fourthly, the Norse were disadvantaged by inappropriate cultural values. They valued cows too highly just as modern Australians value cows and sheep to a degree appropriate to Scotland but inappropriate to modern Australia. And Australians now are seriously considering whether to abandon sheep farming completely as inappropriate to the Australian environment.

Finally, why would people perceive problems but still not solve their own problems? A theme that emerges from Norse Greenland as well as from other places, is insulation of the decision making elite from the consequences of their actions. That is to say, in societies where the elites do not suffer from the consequences of their decisions, but can insulate themselves, the elite are more likely to pursue their short-term interests, even though that may be bad for the long-term interests of the society, including the children of the elite themselves.

In the case of Norse Greenland, the chiefs and bishops were eating beef from cows and venison and the lower classes were left to eating seals and the elite were heavily invested in the walrus ivory trade because it let them get their communion gear and their Rhineland pottery and the other stuff that they wanted. Even though in the long run, what was good for the chiefs in the short run was bad for society.

We can see those differing insulations of the elite in the modern world today. Of all modern countries the one with by far the highest level of environmental awareness is Holland. In Holland, a higher percentage of people belong to environmental organizations than anywhere else in the world. And the Dutch are also a very democratic people. There are something like 42 political parties but none of them ever comes remotely close to a majority, but this which would be a recipe for chaos elsewhere, in modern Holland are very good for reaching decisions. And on my last visit to Holland I asked my Dutch friends, "Why is it this high level of environmental awareness in Holland?" And they said, "Look around. Most of us are living in Polders, in these lands that have been drained, reclaimed from the sea, they're below sea level and they're guided by the dykes." In Holland everybody lives in the Polders, whether you're rich or poor. It's not the case that the rich people are living high up on the dykes and the poor people are living down in the Polders. So when the dyke is breached or there's a flood, rich and poor people die alike. In particular in the North Sea floods in Holland in the late '40s and '50s, when the North Sea was swept by winds and tides 50 to 100 miles inland, all Dutch in the path of the floods died whether they were rich or poor. So my Dutch friends explained it to me that in Holland, rich people cannot insulate themselves from consequences of their actions. They're living in the Polders and therefore there is not the clash between their short-term interests and the long-term interests of everybody else. The Dutch have had to learn to reach communal decisions.

Whereas in much of the rest of the world, rich people live in gated communities and drink bottled water. That's increasingly the case in Los Angeles where I come from. So that wealthy people in much of the world are insulated from the consequences of their actions.

Well, finally then. I've talked mostly about the past. What about the situation today? There are obvious differences between the environmental problems that we face today and the environmental problems in the past. Some of those differences are things that make the situation for us today scarier than it was in the past. Today there are far more people alive, packing far more potent per capita destructive technology. Today there are 6 billion people chopping down the forests with chains and bulldozers, whereas on Easter Island there were 10,000 people with stone axes. Today, countries like the Solomon Islands - wet, relatively robust environments, where people lived without being able to deforest the islands for 32,000 years - within the past 15 years the Solomon Islands have been almost totally deforested, leading to a civil war and collapse of government within the last year or two.

Another big difference between today and the past is globalization. In the past, you could get solitary collapses. When Easter Island society collapsed, nobody anywhere else in the world knew about it, nobody was affected by it. The Easter Islanders themselves, as they were collapsing, had no way of knowing that the Anasazi had collapsed for similar reasons a few centuries before, and that the Mycenaean Greeks had collapsed a couple of thousand years before and that the dry areas of Hawaii were going downhill at the same time. But today we turn on the television set and we see the ecological damage in Somalia and Afghanistan, or Haiti, and we pick up a book and we read about the ecological damage caused in the past. So we have knowledge both in space and time, that ancient peoples did not.

Today we are not immune from anybody's problems. Again, if 20 years ago you would ask someone in strategic assessments to mention a couple of countries in the world (in fact I was in on such a conversation) completely irrelevant to American interests. The two countries mentioned as most irrelevant to American interests were two countries that are remote, poor, landlocked, with no potential for causing the United States trouble: Somalia and Afghanistan. Which illustrates that today anybody can cause trouble for anybody else in the world. A collapse of a society anywhere is a global issue, and conversely, anybody anywhere in the world now has ways of reaching us.

We used to think of globalization as a way that we send to them out there our good things, like the internet and Coca Cola, but particularly in the time since September 11th we've realized that globalization also means that they can send us their bad things like terrorists, cholera and uncontrollable immigration. So those are things that are against us, but things that are for us is that globalization also means that exchange of information and that information about the past, so we are the only society in world history that has the ability to learn from all the experiments being carried out elsewhere in the world today, and all the experiments that have succeeded and failed in the past. And so at least we have the choice of what we want to do about it. Thank you.

Kirsten Garrett: That was Professor Jared Diamond from UCLA, speaking at Princeton University earlier this month. Then there were some questions from members of the audience.

Man: The impression I get is that you are talking about them primarily in relation to environmental factors, you're talking about an elite that becomes isolated, insular and operates without being affected by the consequences of environmental degradation. What about other cultural forces, such as the development of political instability, civil wars, people who are low down in the hierarchy that are challenging the order. And could it be the societies simply over time devolve towards political instability. What about other factors such as disease for example, could they play a role as well?

Jared Diamond: Absolutely. In two minutes I did not do justice to cultural factors. There's a large literature on causes of instability and civil wars and collapse of states and civil unrest, and it turns out that you will go home and say Jared Diamond has a list of eight explanations for everything. There are eight variables that people have been able to identify: With risk of civil war, for example there's a data base of all cases of state failures and civil wars and violent government transitions in the last 30 years. People have mined this data base. Would anybody like to guess what is the single factor that is the best predictor of the collapse of societies in the last couple of decades? This is an unfair question because it's so surprising. The strongest predictor is infant and child mortality. Countries that have had high infant or child mortality are more likely to undergo state collapse, and there are many links, including difficulties in the workforce, high ratio of children to adults. But in brief, yes, there is a large literature of other cultural factors that contribute to the collapse of societies.

Woman: Talking about culture problems, is there any correlation between the level of conservatism in a society and the likelihood of it collapsing?

Jared Diamond: I don't know. This is something that we haven't measured, we haven't tried to measure. Interesting, but I don't know.

Kirsten Garrett: The next question was not miked, so Professor Jared Diamond responded and restated it.

Jared Diamond: Interesting question. For those of you who didn't hear it: Do I think that today there's more reliance that technology will come and somehow save us, even though we can't specify how? Yes there certainly is, and many of my friends, particularly in the technology sector don't take environmental problems so seriously. I'll give you a specific example. After Guns, Germs and Steel was published, it was reviewed by Bill Gates who liked it and gave it a favorable review, and the result was that I had a two-hour discussion with Bill Gates, who is a very thoughtful person, and he's interested in lots of things. He probes deeply and he has seriously considered positions of his own. The subject turned to environmental issues and I mentioned that that's the thing that most concerned me for the future of my children. Bill Gates has young children. He paused in his thoughtful way and he said, not in a dismissing way, "I have the feeling that technology will solve our environmental problems, but what really concerns me is biological terrorism." Look, that's a thoughtful response, but many people in the technology sector assume that technology will solve our problems. I disagree with that for two reasons.

One is that technology has created the explosion of modern problems while also providing the potential for solving them. But the first thing that happens is technology creates the problem and then maybe later it solves it, so at best there's a lag.

The second thing is that the lesson we've learned again and again in the environmental area is it's cheaper, much cheaper and more efficacious to prevent a problem at the beginning than to solve it by high technology later on. So it's costing billions of dollars to clean up the Hudson River, and it costs billions of dollars to clean up Montana, [but] it would cost a trivial amount to do it right in the beginning. Therefore, I do not look to technology as our savior.

Jared Diamond: Easter's End

In just a few centuries, the people of Easter Island wiped out their forest, drove their plants and animals to extinction, and saw their complex society spiral into chaos and cannibalism. Are we about to follow their lead?

(Originally published in Discover magazine, found at

Among the most riveting mysteries of human history are those posed by vanished civilizations. Everyone who has seen the abandoned buildings of the Khmer, the Maya, or the Anasazi is immediately moved to ask the same question: Why did the societies that erected those structures disappear?

Their vanishing touches us as the disappearance of other animals, even the dinosaurs, never can. No matter how exotic those lost civilizations seem, their framers were humans like us. Who is to say we won't succumb to the same fate? Perhaps someday New York's skyscrapers will stand derelict and overgrown with vegetation, like the temples at Angkor Wat and Tikal.

Among all such vanished civilizations, that of the former Polynesian society on Easter Island remains unsurpassed in mystery and isolation. The mystery stems especially from the island's gigantic stone statues and its impoverished landscape, but it is enhanced by our associations with the specific people involved: Polynesians represent for us the ultimate in exotic romance, the background for many a child's, and an adult's, vision of paradise. My own interest in Easter was kindled over 30 years ago when I read Thor Heyerdahl's fabulous accounts of his Kon-Tiki voyage.

But my interest has been revived recently by a much more exciting account, one not of heroic voyages but of painstaking research and analysis. My friend David Steadman, a paleontologist, has been working with a number of other researchers who are carrying out the first systematic excavations on Easter intended to identify the animals and plants that once lived there. Their work is contributing to a new interpretation of the island's history that makes it a tale not only of wonder but of warning as well.

Easter Island, with an area of only 64 square miles, is the world's most isolated scrap of habitable land. It lies in the Pacific Ocean more than 2,000 miles west of the nearest continent (South America), 1,400 miles from even the nearest habitable island (Pitcairn). Its subtropical location and latitude - at 27 degrees south, it is approximately as far below the equator as Houston is north of it - help give it a rather mild climate, while its volcanic origins make its soil fertile. In theory, this combination of blessings should have made Easter a miniature paradise, remote from problems that beset the rest of the world.

The island derives its name from its "discovery" by the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen, on Easter (April 5) in 1722. Roggeveen's first impression was not of a paradise but of a wasteland: "We originally, from a further distance, have considered the said Easter Island as sandy; the reason for that is this, that we counted as sand the withered grass, hay, or other scorched and burnt vegetation, because its wasted appearance could give no other impression than of a singular poverty and barrenness."

The island Roggeveen saw was a grassland without a single tree or bush over ten feet high. Modern botanists have identified only 47 species of higher plants native to Easter, most of them grasses, sedges, and ferns. The list includes just two species of small trees and two of woody shrubs. With such flora, the islanders Roggeveen encountered had no source of real firewood to warm themselves during Easter's cool, wet, windy winters. Their native animals included nothing larger than insects, not even a single species of native bat, land bird, land snail, or lizard. For domestic animals, they had only chickens.

European visitors throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries estimated Easter's human population at about 2,000, a modest number considering the island's fertility. As Captain James Cook recognized during his brief visit in 1774, the islanders were Polynesians (a Tahitian man accompanying Cook was able to converse with them). Yet despite the Polynesians' well-deserved fame as a great seafaring people, the Easter Islanders who came out to Roggeveen's and Cook's ships did so by swimming or paddling canoes that Roggeveen described as "bad and frail." Their craft, he wrote, were "put together with manifold small planks and light inner timbers, which they cleverly stitched together with very fine twisted threads. ... But as they lack the knowledge and particularly the materials for caulking and making tight the great number of seams of the canoes, these are accordingly very leaky, for which reason they are compelled to spend half the time in bailing." The canoes, only ten feet long, held at most two people, and only three or four canoes were observed on the entire island.

With such flimsy craft, Polynesians could never have colonized Easter from even the nearest island, nor could they have traveled far offshore to fish. The islanders Roggeveen met were totally isolated, unaware that other people existed. Investigators in all the years since his visit have discovered no trace of the islanders' having any outside contacts: not a single Easter Island rock or product has turned up elsewhere, nor has anything been found on the island that could have been brought by anyone other than the original settlers or the Europeans. Yet the people living on Easter claimed memories of visiting the uninhabited Sala y Gomez reef 260 miles away, far beyond the range of the leaky canoes seen by Roggeveen. How did the islanders' ancestors reach that reef from Easter, or reach Easter from anywhere else?

Easter Island's most famous feature is its huge stone statues, more than 200 of which once stood on massive stone platforms lining the coast. At least 700 more, in all stages of completion, were abandoned in quarries or on ancient roads between the quarries and the coast, as if the carvers and moving crews had thrown down their tools and walked off the job. Most of the erected statues were carved in a single quarry and then somehow transported as far as six miles - despite heights as great as 33 feet and weights up to 82 tons. The abandoned statues, meanwhile, were as much as 65 feet tall and weighed up to 270 tons. The stone platforms were equally gigantic: up to 500 feet long and 10 feet high, with facing slabs weighing up to 10 tons.

Roggeveen himself quickly recognized the problem the statues posed: "The stone images at first caused us to be struck with astonishment," he wrote, "because we could not comprehend how it was possible that these people, who are devoid of heavy thick timber for making any machines, as well as strong ropes, nevertheless had been able to erect such images." Roggeveen might have added that the islanders had no wheels, no draft animals, and no source of power except their own muscles. How did they transport the giant statues for miles, even before erecting them? To deepen the mystery, the statues were still standing in 1770, but by 1864 all of them had been pulled down, by the islanders themselves. Why then did they carve them in the first place? And why did they stop?

The statues imply a society very different from the one Roggeveen saw in 1722. Their sheer number and size suggest a population much larger than 2,000 people. What became of everyone? Furthermore, that society must have been highly organized. Easter's resources were scattered across the island: the best stone for the statues was quarried at Rano Raraku near Easter's northeast end; red stone, used for large crowns adorning some of the statues, was quarried at Puna Pau, inland in the southwest; stone carving tools came mostly from Aroi in the northwest. Meanwhile, the best farmland lay in the south and east, and the best fishing grounds on the north and west coasts. Extracting and redistributing all those goods required complex political organization. What happened to that organization, and how could it ever have arisen in such a barren landscape?

Easter Island's mysteries have spawned volumes of speculation for more than two and a half centuries. Many Europeans were incredulous that Polynesians - commonly characterized as "mere savages" - could have created the statues or the beautifully constructed stone platforms. In the 1950s, Heyerdahl argued that Polynesia must have been settled by advanced societies of American Indians, who in turn must have received civilization across the Atlantic from more advanced societies of the Old World. Heyerdahl's raft voyages aimed to prove the feasibility of such prehistoric transoceanic contacts. In the 1960s the Swiss writer Erich von Daniken, an ardent believer in Earth visits by extraterrestrial astronauts, went further, claiming that Easter's statues were the work of intelligent beings who owned ultramodern tools, became stranded on Easter, and were finally rescued.

Heyerdahl and von Daniken both brushed aside overwhelming evidence that the Easter Islanders were typical Polynesians derived from Asia rather than from the Americas and that their culture (including their statues) grew out of Polynesian culture. Their language was Polynesian, as Cook had already concluded. Specifically, they spoke an eastern Polynesian dialect related to Hawaiian and Marquesan, a dialect isolated since about A.D.400, as estimated from slight differences in vocabulary. Their fishhooks and stone adzes resembled early Marquesan models. Last year DNA extracted from 12 Easter Island skeletons was also shown to be Polynesian. The islanders grew bananas, taro, sweet potatoes, sugarcane, and paper mulberry - typical Polynesian crops, mostly of Southeast Asian origin. Their sole domestic animal, the chicken, was also typically Polynesian and ultimately Asian, as were the rats that arrived as stowaways in the canoes of the first settlers.

What happened to those settlers? The fanciful theories of the past must give way to evidence gathered by hardworking practitioners in three fields: archeology, pollen analysis, and paleontology.

Modern archeological excavations on Easter have continued since Heyerdahl's 1955 expedition. The earliest radiocarbon dates associated with human activities are around A.D. 400 to 700, in reasonable agreement with the approximate settlement date of 400 estimated by linguists. The period of statue construction peaked around 1200 to 1500, with few if any statues erected thereafter. Densities of archeological sites suggest a large population; an estimate of 7,000 people is widely quoted by archeologists, but other estimates range up to 20,000, which does not seem implausible for an island of Easter's area and fertility.

Archeologists have also enlisted surviving islanders in experiments aimed at figuring out how the statues might have been carved and erected. Twenty people, using only stone chisels, could have carved even the largest completed statue within a year. Given enough timber and fiber for making ropes, teams of at most a few hundred people could have loaded the statues onto wooden sleds, dragged them over lubricated wooden tracks or rollers, and used logs as levers to maneuver them into a standing position. Rope could have been made from the fiber of a small native tree, related to the linden, called the hauhau. However, that tree is now extremely scarce on Easter, and hauling one statue would have required hundreds of yards of rope. Did Easter's now barren landscape once support the necessary trees?

That question can be answered by the technique of pollen analysis, which involves boring out a column of sediment from a swamp or pond, with the most recent deposits at the top and relatively more ancient deposits at the bottom. The absolute age of each layer can be dated by radiocarbon methods. Then begins the hard work: examining tens of thousands of pollen grains under a microscope, counting them, and identifying the plant species that produced each one by comparing the grains with modern pollen from known plant species. For Easter Island, the bleary-eyed scientists who performed that task were John Flenley, now at Massey University in New Zealand, and Sarah King of the University of Hull in England.

Flenley and King's heroic efforts were rewarded by the striking new picture that emerged of Easter's prehistoric landscape. For at least 30,000 years before human arrival and during the early years of Polynesian settlement, Easter was not a wasteland at all. Instead, a subtropical forest of trees and woody bushes towered over a ground layer of shrubs, herbs, ferns, and grasses. In the forest grew tree daisies, the rope-yielding hauhau tree, and the toromiro tree, which furnishes a dense, mesquite-like firewood. The most common tree in the forest was a species of palm now absent on Easter but formerly so abundant that the bottom strata of the sediment column were packed with its pollen. The Easter Island palm was closely related to the still-surviving Chilean wine palm, which grows up to 82 feet tall and 6 feet in diameter. The tall, unbranched trunks of the Easter Island palm would have been ideal for transporting and erecting statues and constructing large canoes. The palm would also have been a valuable food source, since its Chilean relative yields edible nuts as well as sap from which Chileans make sugar, syrup, honey, and wine.

What did the first settlers of Easter Island eat when they were not glutting themselves on the local equivalent of maple syrup? Recent excavations by David Steadman, of the New York State Museum at Albany, have yielded a picture of Easter's original animal world as surprising as Flenley and King's picture of its plant world. Steadman's expectations for Easter were conditioned by his experiences elsewhere in Polynesia, where fish are overwhelmingly the main food at archeological sites, typically accounting for more than 90 percent of the bones in ancient Polynesian garbage heaps. Easter, though, is too cool for the coral reefs beloved by fish, and its cliff-girded coastline permits shallow-water fishing in only a few places. Less than a quarter of the bones in its early garbage heaps (from the period 900 to 1300) belonged to fish; instead, nearly one-third of all bones came from porpoises.

Nowhere else in Polynesia do porpoises account for even 1 percent of discarded food bones. But most other Polynesian islands offered animal food in the form of birds and mammals, such as New Zealand's now extinct giant moas and Hawaii's now extinct flightless geese. Most other islanders also had domestic pigs and dogs. On Easter, porpoises would have been the largest animal available - other than humans. The porpoise species identified at Easter, the common dolphin, weighs up to 165 pounds. It generally lives out at sea, so it could not have been hunted by line fishing or spearfishing from shore. Instead, it must have been harpooned far offshore, in big seaworthy canoes built from the extinct palm tree.

In addition to porpoise meat, Steadman found, the early Polynesian settlers were feasting on seabirds. For those birds, Easter's remoteness and lack of predators made it an ideal haven as a breeding site, at least until humans arrived. Among the prodigious numbers of seabirds that bred on Easter were albatross, boobies, frigate birds, fulmars, petrels, prions, shearwaters, storm petrels, terns, and tropic birds. With at least 25 nesting species, Easter was the richest seabird breeding site in Polynesia and probably in the whole Pacific.

Land birds as well went into early Easter Island cooking pots. Steadman identified bones of at least six species, including barn owls, herons, parrots, and rail. Bird stew would have been seasoned with meat from large numbers of rats, which the Polynesian colonists inadvertently brought with them; Easter Island is the sole known Polynesian island where rat bones outnumber fish bones at archeological sites. (In case you're squeamish and consider rats inedible, I still recall recipes for creamed laboratory rat that my British biologist friends used to supplement their diet during their years of wartime food rationing.)

Porpoises, seabirds, land birds, and rats did not complete the list of meat sources formerly available on Easter. A few bones hint at the possibility of breeding seal colonies as well. All these delicacies were cooked in ovens fired by wood from the island's forests.

Such evidence lets us imagine the island onto which Easter's first Polynesian colonists stepped ashore some 1,600 years ago, after a long canoe voyage from eastern Polynesia. They found themselves in a pristine paradise. What then happened to it? The pollen grains and the bones yield a grim answer.

Pollen records show that destruction of Easter's forests was well under way by the year 800, just a few centuries after the start of human settlement. Then charcoal from wood fires came to fill the sediment cores, while pollen of palms and other trees and woody shrubs decreased or disappeared, and pollen of the grasses that replaced the forest became more abundant. Not long after 1400 the palm finally became extinct, not only as a result of being chopped down but also because the now ubiquitous rats prevented its regeneration: of the dozens of preserved palm nuts discovered in caves on Easter, all had been chewed by rats and could no longer germinate. While the hauhau tree did not become extinct in Polynesian times, its numbers declined drastically until there weren't enough left to make ropes from. By the time Heyerdahl visited Easter, only a single, nearly dead toromiro tree remained on the island, and even that lone survivor has now disappeared. (Fortunately, the toromiro still grows in botanical gardens elsewhere.)

The fifteenth century marked the end not only for Easter's palm but for the forest itself. Its doom had been approaching as people cleared land to plant gardens; as they felled trees to build canoes, to transport and erect statues, and to burn; as rats devoured seeds; and probably as the native birds died out that had pollinated the trees' flowers and dispersed their fruit. The overall picture is among the most extreme examples of forest destruction anywhere in the world: the whole forest gone, and most of its tree species extinct.

The destruction of the island's animals was as extreme as that of the forest: without exception, every species of native land bird became extinct. Even shellfish were overexploited, until people had to settle for small sea snails instead of larger cowries. Porpoise bones disappeared abruptly from garbage heaps around 1500; no one could harpoon porpoises anymore, since the trees used for constructing the big seagoing canoes no longer existed. The colonies of more than half of the seabird species breeding on Easter or on its offshore islets were wiped out.

In place of these meat supplies, the Easter Islanders intensified their production of chickens, which had been only an occasional food item. They also turned to the largest remaining meat source available: humans, whose bones became common in late Easter Island garbage heaps. Oral traditions of the islanders are rife with cannibalism; the most inflammatory taunt that could be snarled at an enemy was "The flesh of your mother sticks between my teeth." With no wood available to cook these new goodies, the islanders resorted to sugarcane scraps, grass, and sedges to fuel their fires.

All these strands of evidence can be wound into a coherent narrative of a society's decline and fall. The first Polynesian colonists found themselves on an island with fertile soil, abundant food, bountiful building materials, ample lebensraum, and all the prerequisites for comfortable living. They prospered and multiplied.

After a few centuries, they began erecting stone statues on platforms, like the ones their Polynesian forebears had carved. With passing years, the statues and platforms became larger and larger, and the statues began sporting ten-ton red crowns--probably in an escalating spiral of one-upmanship, as rival clans tried to surpass each other with shows of wealth and power. (In the same way, successive Egyptian pharaohs built ever-larger pyramids. Today Hollywood movie moguls near my home in Los Angeles are displaying their wealth and power by building ever more ostentatious mansions. Tycoon Marvin Davis topped previous moguls with plans for a 50,000-square-foot house, so now Aaron Spelling has topped Davis with a 56,000-square-foot house. All that those buildings lack to make the message explicit are ten-ton red crowns.) On Easter, as in modern America, society was held together by a complex political system to redistribute locally available resources and to integrate the economies of different areas.

Eventually Easter's growing population was cutting the forest more rapidly than the forest was regenerating. The people used the land for gardens and the wood for fuel, canoes, and houses - and, of course, for lugging statues. As forest disappeared, the islanders ran out of timber and rope to transport and erect their statues. Life became more uncomfortable - springs and streams dried up, and wood was no longer available for fires.

People also found it harder to fill their stomachs, as land birds, large sea snails, and many seabirds disappeared. Because timber for building seagoing canoes vanished, fish catches declined and porpoises disappeared from the table. Crop yields also declined, since deforestation allowed the soil to be eroded by rain and wind, dried by the sun, and its nutrients to be leeched from it. Intensified chicken production and cannibalism replaced only part of all those lost foods. Preserved statuettes with sunken cheeks and visible ribs suggest that people were starving.

With the disappearance of food surpluses, Easter Island could no longer feed the chiefs, bureaucrats, and priests who had kept a complex society running. Surviving islanders described to early European visitors how local chaos replaced centralized government and a warrior class took over from the hereditary chiefs. The stone points of spears and daggers, made by the warriors during their heyday in the 1600s and 1700s, still litter the ground of Easter today. By around 1700, the population began to crash toward between one-quarter and one-tenth of its former number. People took to living in caves for protection against their enemies. Around 1770 rival clans started to topple each other's statues, breaking the heads off. By 1864 the last statue had been thrown down and desecrated.

As we try to imagine the decline of Easter's civilization, we ask ourselves, "Why didn't they look around, realize what they were doing, and stop before it was too late? What were they thinking when they cut down the last palm tree?"

I suspect, though, that the disaster happened not with a bang but with a whimper. After all, there are those hundreds of abandoned statues to consider. The forest the islanders depended on for rollers and rope didn't simply disappear one day - it vanished slowly, over decades. Perhaps war interrupted the moving teams; perhaps by the time the carvers had finished their work, the last rope snapped. In the meantime, any islander who tried to warn about the dangers of progressive deforestation would have been overridden by vested interests of carvers, bureaucrats, and chiefs, whose jobs depended on continued deforestation. Our Pacific Northwest loggers are only the latest in a long line of loggers to cry, "Jobs over trees!" The changes in forest cover from year to year would have been hard to detect: yes, this year we cleared those woods over there, but trees are starting to grow back again on this abandoned garden site here. Only older people, recollecting their childhoods decades earlier, could have recognized a difference. Their children could no more have comprehended their parents' tales than my eight-year-old sons today can comprehend my wife's and my tales of what Los Angeles was like 30 years ago.

Gradually trees became fewer, smaller, and less important. By the time the last fruit-bearing adult palm tree was cut, palms had long since ceased to be of economic significance. That left only smaller and smaller palm saplings to clear each year, along with other bushes and treelets. No one would have noticed the felling of the last small palm.

By now the meaning of Easter Island for us should be chillingly obvious. Easter Island is Earth writ small. Today, again, a rising population confronts shrinking resources. We too have no emigration valve, because all human societies are linked by international transport, and we can no more escape into space than the Easter Islanders could flee into the ocean. If we continue to follow our present course, we shall have exhausted the world's major fisheries, tropical rain forests, fossil fuels, and much of our soil by the time my sons reach my current age.

Every day newspapers report details of famished countries - Afghanistan, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Somalia, the former Yugoslavia, Zaire - where soldiers have appropriated the wealth or where central government is yielding to local gangs of thugs. With the risk of nuclear war receding, the threat of our ending with a bang no longer has a chance of galvanizing us to halt our course. Our risk now is of winding down, slowly, in a whimper. Corrective action is blocked by vested interests, by well-intentioned political and business leaders, and by their electorates, all of whom are perfectly correct in not noticing big changes from year to year. Instead, each year there are just somewhat more people, and somewhat fewer resources, on Earth.

It would be easy to close our eyes or to give up in despair. If mere thousands of Easter Islanders with only stone tools and their own muscle power sufficed to destroy their society, how can billions of people with metal tools and machine power fail to do worse? But there is one crucial difference. The Easter Islanders had no books and no histories of other doomed societies. Unlike the Easter Islanders, we have histories of the past - information that can save us. My main hope for my sons' generation is that we may now choose to learn from the fates of societies like Easter's.