More On The Ecological Stimulus Package: Lessons From The Ancients

Ahu Tahai easter island photo

Ahu Tahai, Easter Island. Image credit:Charles Whitfield

Here's a not-so-Trivial Pursuit Question: what ancient society survived dire ecological circumstances for 500 years by reorganizing their production systems, restructuring their economy, reducing consumption levels, and maximizing limited resources?Answer: Easter Island (Rapa Nui).


Contrary to popular understanding, Rapa Nui society didn't just use up all their resources and then collapse. Instead, despite severe deforestation and general environmental degradation, from around 1350 CE (Current Era) onward, populations remained steady until Europeans introduced diseases in 1860, decimating the island's inhabitants.

When the going got tough on Rapa Nui, those tough islanders innovated.

Dr. Chris Stevenson, an archaeologist studying the Easter Island landscape with a Rapa Nui scientist, Sonia Haoa and dozens of Earthwatch volunteers, have literally dug up evidence that the ancients were systematically experimenting with new farming techniques and social relationships.

As Stevenson tells it, essentially the entire culture stopped being such hero-worshipping fashionistas and embraced organic farming instead. They halted construction of huge stone megaliths and went back to the land, mulching and blanketing their fields with rocks.

The Rapa Nui islanders did everything they could to add nutrients and moisture to the soil and keep the wind and sun out. They moved into garden-view condos (OK, actually, it was field huts) so they could live closer to their fields. And they reorganized their society, so that there were more producer-types and less chiefly do-nothing types.

Fast forward to today's world, where we all face climate change and a financial downturn, and where only one-third of us are farmers. How do we deal sustainably with both ecological and economic challenges?

Responding to the 2007/8 United Nations Human Development Report, the economics Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen noted:

"Development cannot be divorced from ecological and environmental concerns. Indeed, important components of human freedoms˜and crucial ingredients of our quality of life˜are thoroughly dependent on the integrity of the environment."

Last week I suggested we all think more like ecologists and enhance natural capital. This week I'm suggesting we think more like human ecologists, and work to enhance both natural and social capital.

Enhancing natural capital involves a more sustained effort to maintain and restore our ecosystems. Enhancing human capital includes a more sustained effort to provide educational and health care resources that result in higher quality social systems.

An ecological stimulus package that takes a human ecology approach would link ecosystem health with social welfare, in the best sense of the word.

Here's what I would like to see in our world: a growing, unstoppable recognition that everything truly is connected. Without healthy people, we cannot achieve healthy ecosystems. If we are not taking care of our planet, we cannot take care of our peoples.

A visionary, holistic book that came out of the Boston Women;s Health Collective in 1970 was entitled "Our Body, Ourselves." The text-revised several times over in the past 35 years - recognized the connections between education, health care, and institutional reform, while focusing on informing, inspiring, and empowering women.

We can apply the same principles to addressing our current ecological and economic situation. Instead of putting ecosystems in one set of boxes, and social systems in another set of boxes, I suggest can connect the care of our ecology with the care of our humanity. We could title this coming decade as "Our Earth, Our Body, Ourselves".

By: Jeanine Pfeiffer

More posts on Easter Island
Video: Jared Diamond on Why Societies Collapse
Learning From the Past
Adapting To Global Warming: A Half-Baked Idea

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