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Is History So Boring We Keep On Repeating The Same Mistakes?

By John James

04 September, 2008

I will tell you the story of Easter Island. It is a woeful tale, caused by human actions, and a possible scenario for us. The island is now a wind-swept barren wasteland capable of supporting only a couple of thousand people. Yet only a few centuries ago it had ten or twelve times that number. Ninety percent died. Now, why was that?

This is the question that Jared Diamond asks in Collapse, how societies choose to fail or survive.

The island was once covered by dense forests, with trees 30 meters tall and thick undergrowth. It was so rich in food that it was able to support the immense labour of carving and erecting enormous statues around the coastline. We usually know only a few of them from photos, but over 800 were carved and erected all around the seashore looking inwards to protect the land and its people.

They were enormous. The largest weighed over 75 tonnes and would have taken years to carve out of the hillside and drag into place.

The trees that once grew all over the island were so large they carved ocean-going dugouts from them so they could fish for deep-sea dolphin. We know this from the middens that are full of dolphin bones and from the woodworking tools left behind where the forests once grew.

But to carve the statues and transport them from the volcanic quarry to the coast forced them to chop down the great trees as runners while they were dragged across the country. Gradually the forests were axed, and as the trees fell the wind tore away the topsoil and stunted the pawpaw and taro that this rich culture had depended on.

As the trees fell the undergrowth died, there was less fuel for cooking and for keeping people warm in the chilly winters. The competition for what remained would have been fierce, for they still needed material for thatching, clothing and for the complex rituals of cremation.

Most sources of food were lost without the forests to protect the fields. Without seagoing canoes they could no longer catch the great fish. Easter Island was once one of the most dense nesting places for seabirds, and all were consumed as the islanders struggled to feed themselves.

The middens show how palm nuts, apples and many other fruits dropped out of their diets. The shellfish became smaller and, as Diamond wrote “the only wild food whose availability remained unchanged was rats”.

Agriculture diminished as wind and rain eroded the soil and leached the nutrients that could no longer be replenished from the forest litter.

I quote Diamond again: as the trees are chopped down “the consequences started with starvation, a population crash and, finally, a descent into cannibalism”, all evidenced in the middens.

The tall stone ancestors around the coast who were supposed to protect the community were in the end their nemesis, their doom.

Today conspicuous consumption is statues of our culture, and the felling of the great forests in Borneo and the Amazon is eroding our ability to feed ourselves. For both together are placing such levels of stress on the planet that we at risk of following the Easter Islanders.

At the end the Easter Islanders fought each other until there were only enough left to survive on the small crops that could be grown. We could easily end up doing this too, fighting wars over refugees and oil and water.

This need not be, not if we can find ways the world can work together. Tony Kevin wrote to me that “Survival in a warmer, flooded and petrol-short world will depend on the best of humanity working together regardless of prior geographical situation, wealth, race or creed”.

He is right. George Monbiot’s recently wrote in the Guardian that peasant farmers have always produced more food per hectare than large combines as they cultivate their land more intensely. If this is what we need to do, I can’t do better than quote Tony again:
“There are a lot of skills we will need that we simply do not have in this country. I would rather depend on a Philippine or Balinese mountain terrace rice farmer as a neighbour, or son-in-law, to work with to help feed our families after global warming, than on any Australian petrol-dependent farmer ... or North Coast dilettante commune-dweller.”

The UN has warned that people in 40 countries are now in danger of food shortage. It wasn’t thirty years ago that this was thought impossible. I remember my youthful discussions on how easily we could feed the whole planet. We had so much surplus food that the growing population was welcomed as a good thing for mankind.
Now that we know this is not true, so we have to act on a global scale. What is needed to make sure we do act? Or are we going to be seduced by the incredible pleasures of our richness that we cannot bear to see it under threat?

Global warming presents the greatest moral question of our age – does the human race have the fibre and capacity to save itself? Will we massively cut over-consumption and retrofit our dirty technology? And will those with money pay to refit those without, for it is unlikely to happen otherwise?

Here is one study made a few weeks ago on how the governments of the world could find a resolution. These were to be presented as politically realistic models. The Stockholm Network think-tank considered three scenarios and their eventual impacts on the earth's climate. They were then run through the climate models at the Met Office Hadley Centre in the UK. The results were profoundly disturbing.

The first scenario was to "agree and ignore" in which governments made commitments on climate change but failed to comply. This is today’s situation.

A more optimistic scenario was termed "Kyoto plus" where governments made binding agreements and kept to them. This was the best plausible outcome from current international processes.

The third scenario was as far as this group of experts could envisage there being apolitical solution. They called it "step change" in which massive climate disasters so shocked world leaders that they went beyond Kyoto and stopped trying to regulate emissions at a national level. Instead, they set up through the UN international emission taxes and tradable permits on the fossil fuel companies themselves – on oil, gas and coal.

Companies would of course pass on their increased costs to consumers, and demand for carbon-intensive products would begin to fall. By auctioning carbon permits trillions of dollars would be raised for smoothing the transition to a low-carbon economy, to offset price rises for the poor and to give business a strong incentive to shift investment into renewable energy and low-carbon manufacturing.
The key was that this was being done on an international level. When we look at the speed with which countries adjusted and retooled for the last war, we know that if the pressure is there it can be done.

In 1942, one month after Pearl Harbour, President Roosevelt announced that the US would produce tens of thousands tanks, planes and other armaments. The scale he demanded was extraordinary. No one had ever seen production like this.

Then he called in the leaders of the auto industry and said, "Guys, guess what, we're going to ban the sale of private automobiles." The industry had no choice but to switch to producing arms, and once they got going produced four times Roosevelt’s goals.
However (returning to Stockholm), the Hadley Centre computer models showed that because there is a 20-year lag between emitting a greenhouse gas and its impact on temperature the heat continued to rise long after emissions had stopped.

The first "agree and ignore" option saw the temperature rise by 4.9 degrees by 2100; "Kyoto plus" saw a 3.4 degree rise; and "step change" 2.9 degrees.

This is the depressing bit. There was no politically plausible scenario that would keep the world below the danger threshold of two degrees.

This means that all scenarios saw that from where we are today, even with the most optimistic political agreements, all Arctic sea ice will disappear; deserts and water stress will increase; there will be more extreme weather and floods; and melting glaciers will raise water levels by at least 10 meters.

However, that is not nearly as bad as the “agree and ignore” policy under which nearly all living species would be driven to extinction by the magnitude and rapidity of warming, and much of the planet's surface left uninhabitable to humans. Billions, not millions, of people would be displaced and starved by loss of food or by war.

Hence, as I have argued before, governments and individuals need to consider adaptation – that is, how are we going to deal with what is coming and cannot now be stopped? What is needed to preserve civilization as international trade and contact becomes more difficult?

The great lesson from Jarod Diamond’s research and the Stockholm Network is that sticking with current policies is actually a very risky option. It is not a safe bet. Even the second option that most environment groups support means triggering the collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet and massive methane release from melting Siberian permafrost.

I believe this country can act and can survive, but we need to be quick about it, for there really is no time to be lost. It has been argued by Ross Garnaut and others that the best financial option is to change over to renewable technology now. It requires guidance and incentives from government.

Speaking in Canberra last June Professor Garnaut said "There is a chance - just a chance - that Australia and the world will manage to develop a position that strikes a good balance between the costs of dangerous climate change and the costs of mitigation, and that they will do this in the short period that remains before our options diminish fatefully."

He went on to say, pessimistically, that the daily debate and media reports suggest that "The issues are too complex, the vested interests surrounding it too numerous and intense, the relevant timeframes too long. Climate change policy remains a diabolical problem."

However, the one positive note in his speech was that the soaring price of oil, gas and coal will make the nation's greenhouse gas emissions fall below the limits set under the Kyoto Protocol. This is relying on anything but political will to save the day.

So, which way will we go? Ultimately it depends on this political will. Politics depends on the people, and that is us. Do we as individuals have the courage to demand that governments act, or do we watch and wait while current policies condemn us all to oblivion?

It is up to us, to you and me.

John James is a therapist, architect, philosopher and medieval historian. With his wife Hilary and partner Marg Garvan he founded the Crucible Centre to train therapists in Sandplay and in Transpersonal Psychology. Their exploration into soul and energy work has just been published as The Great Field. He assembled the site to share information on Climate Change.

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