Rapa Nui is the Earth writ small

One of my readers asked me why I had insisted upon focusing on world overpopulation in my last blog. Now, 171 words out of a 1,347 word essay is not what I would call focusing. However, this issue, overpopulation, has always been an important one to me. So this blog will focus on overpopulation. The following is my essay that the San Diego Union Tribune published on October 12, 1999. That was the day the sixth billionth person upon this planet was born. Now, the population is over seven billion.

Explaining or planet’s Y6B problem…

In October 1998, National Geographic magazine stated: “of all the issues we face as the new millennium nears, none is more important than population growth. The numbers speak for themselves. Earth’s population, which totaled 1.7 billion people in 1900, is now nearly six billion—and growing.”

“So what?” you say, “The earth is full of wide open spaces—room for lots more people” While our population has more than tripled in the last century, other species on this planet are becoming extinct at the alarming rate of, at least, 27,000 species per year. We are clearing rain forests at the rate of at least 60,000 square kilometers a year. Rather than preserving the few remaining North American forests, we allow more to be cut down in order to “save jobs.”

If you don’t care about “little critters and weeds,” consider this: at this moment some one billion people do not get enough to eat. “Science will find a way to feed the expanding population,” overconfident pundits advise, citing the “green revolution”. What those pundits always fail to mention is the damage that the fertilizers and pesticides of the “green revolution” have done, and continue to do to our environment. They do not mention that the impressive increase in global grain supplies was due to the doubling of irrigated land between 1950 and 1980, depleting our aquifers.

Sometime around 400 AD, a group of Polynesians colonized a small, very remote, volcanic island in the South Pacific, now called Easter Island. They found an island covered by palm forest, abundantly supplied with fresh water, large seabird colonies, and many species of land mammals and birds. The huge palm trees provided not only palm fruits, but were also ideal for the construction of boats that allowed the early Easter Islanders to hunt porpoises.

The population grew, their civilization flourished. Huge statues were carved from the volcanic rock. More palms were cut down and used to roll and lift the huge statues into place. More palms were cleared to create fields. The palm forests were completely gone by 1400. The delicate tropical soil eroded. With no forest to absorb the rain, springs and streams dried up. As resources became rare, warfare between islanders increased, as did cannibalism.

The population peaked at around 10,000 in 1600, while the quality of life continued to decline. Then the population crashed. When the island was “discovered” in 1722, it population was below 2,000.

As Jared Diamond stated: “Easter Island is Earth writ small. We too have no emigration valve.”

We too are depleting our natural resources much, much faster than they can be regenerated. In the last 100 years, humans have increased the level of CO2 in the atmosphere 30 percent. For nearly every month in the past ten years, the global mean land temperature has been above the long-term (1880-1998) mean. Maybe, global warming is just a random trend, but it seems far more likely to be the result of human activity on this planet.

What can we do? We can make a start, locally, by embracing “smart growth” plans. Since 1980, 100 million acres of farmland (two New Jerseys) have been swallowed by urban sprawl. Americans spend 2 billion hours in sprawl-related gridlocked traffic every year.

We can support national and international voluntary family planning initiatives. As Madeleine Albright stated, a family planning program “raises the status of women, stems the flow of refugees, protects the environment, promotes economic growth and reduces abortion.”

We can become active environmentalists “tree-huggers”. One can imagine a “tree-hugging” Easter Islander, in the year 1300, suggesting to his community leaders that cutting down so many trees was killing the native birds and mammals, and might be the reason the spring down the way disappeared. That tree-hugger might ask his leaders if it were truly necessary to erect more statues, just to outdo the neighbors. One can also imagine the community leaders ridiculing such notions as anti-social—after all, the statue-makers had to make a living. Perhaps, had there been more tree-hugging Easter Islanders, history would have told a different tale.

If we do not address the Y6B challenge now, we’ll be talking about the Y12B in just 50 years.

Looking at this, 15 years later, it’s hard to see that much progress. There are those who still oppose any measures to combat climate change as being too expensive—too hard on the economy. There are many who still believe overpopulation is a myth.

There have been some changes though. Easter Island is now called by its proper, Polynesian name, Rapa Nui, and an essay like this would never be published in the U-T San Diego.


3 thoughts on “Rapa Nui is the Earth writ small

  1. Lael Montgomery

    Another great commentary, Margaret. I very much appreciate reading your always-thoughtful and provocative works.


  2. Kent Smith

    Hi Margaret, Absolutely love that beautiful Easter Island natural philosopher’s story, analogy. It’s one I can use, in many different ways. Wonder if it’s just folklore, or if he/she, in 1300, had a real name. Hey, but those glorious, everlasting stone giants provided JOBS, and good jobs at that. Got all those happy party-goers, artists and poets off the beach and away from their frivolous games. After all, work is good in and of itself…you know, idle hands and all. Oh, yeah! Bye dear, Kent


  3. mmliles Post author

    Thank you so much Lael and Kent. I do this for the fun of it–especially observing the Escondido
    City Council, but your comments are really appreciated.



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