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August 11, 2005

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Gray MerriamLegaleseGeneral information and opinion on legal topics by Rural Legal ServicesNature Reflectionsby Jean GriffinNight Skiesby Leo Enright

Cutting the Last Tree

by Gray Merriam

On Easter Sunday 1722, a Dutch ship sighted what came to be called Easter Island. They found it remarkable because there were hundreds of stone statues, some thirty feet tall, and there was no sign of how these huge blocks of stone had been moved and hoisted into place.

Much later, studies of pollen preserved in the muds of Easter Island showed clearly that the island had been richly forested until about 1400 A.D. Further study showed that the (now extinct) islanders had split into clans and classes and that an extreme rivalry had developed among these social subgroups. Each group began to honour their ancestry by building huge statues. These stone images grew bigger with each generation.


To move these great blocks of stone from the quarries and to hoist them into place and display them required increasing amounts of timber and natural products for rope.

The cult of statue building became irrational and went out of control. One day, someone cut the last tree. No more statues were possible and the island was denuded. Food production was wiped out by erosion on the land and no boats could be built to harvest from the sea. The whole culture failed and the islanders became extinct.

This is just one of a long list of well-known failures of a culture, or a civilization, in historic times. Most of these failures follow a common pattern. A commonly held belief caused the people to overload their environmental support system until that system of environmental supports failed and the civilization failed as a result.

These many historic failures of civilizations and cultures have recently been taken as a signal that we, too, should look at our belief systems and their effects on our environment lest we, too, fall into the same trap.

First to point out this possibility and to document the roots of his concern was a Canadian, Ronald Wright, in his 2004 Massey Lectures, entitled "A Short History of Progress". These lectures are now available as a paperback with the same title from CBC and Anansi Press in Toronto. Working simultaneously, Jared Diamond, published his "Collapse" in 2005 from Viking Press and this book has caused intense discussion across the U.S.A.

Each author analyses the die-out of several cultures including the Sumerians, the Maya, the Vikings, the Easter Islanders and the Anasazi of New Mexico. As Wright puts it, each of these cultures believed they were making progress but as they climbed the ladder of progress, they were kicking out the rungs below.

These scholars are not interested only in the historic. They are trying to make us apply the lessons from history to our current situations. So they also bring to our attention current situations such as in Rwanda, developing China, industrialized Australia and even Montana, bordering on B.C., Alberta, and Saskatchewan. Wright points out "each time history repeats itself, the price goes up." Many other scholars support the concerns of these two.

Wright suggests that growth without thought may be one of the root problems. He illustrates the problem by pointing out " a small village on good land beside a river is a good idea; but when the village grows into a city and paves over the good land, it becomes a bad idea." Wright calls this a "progress trap". He adds the problem of growth of the world population of humans: 200 million in Roman times, 400 million in 1500 (time of European arrival in North America), one billion in 1825, 2 billion by 1925, and 6 billion in 2000. After Rome, adding 200 million took thirteen centuries but adding the last 200 million took only three years! And despite dropping population growth rates in some places there will be 3 billion more of us by 2050.

During the 20th century when the world population of humans multiplied by four, the world economy multiplied by 40. The economic resources available to each person should have increased by 10-fold. Yet many thousands still die each year because they must use contaminated water and 20 million children are mentally impaired by shortages of proper food. The gap between rich and poor is not being narrowed by the increased economic product. Wright summarizes succinctly: "The idea that the world should be run by the stock market is as mad as any other fundamentalist delusion…"

Diamond describes evident signs of delusions of false progress that could lead to cultural collapse in the U.S.A. Even in the richest country, some cultures are being marginalized and threatened. Montana, just across our border, is one of those. As with most cases of both recent and historical cultural collapse, Diamond sees damage to the environmental support system in Montana as the predictor of cultural collapse. The complex of damages from mining, poor forest management, soil degradation and loss, water quality, climate change, introduced pests and biodiversity losses in Montana are a microcosm of environmental damage plaguing much of the U.S.A. as Diamond sees it. There are many forms of extreme cultural behaviour rampant in the U.S. making that civilization a potential candidate for following the historic pattern of cultural collapse. But as Wright points out, despite the differing cultures and political systems, at the economic level, there is just one big civilization, feeding ravenously on the whole planet's natural capital. Logging everywhere, irrigating everywhere, building everywhere and depositing waste everywhere. If there is a collapse of civilization, it will not be just one culture that fails.

Those who cut that last tree on Easter Island clearly were not thinking. They were swept along by a socially acceptable belief that was irrational -- and deadly. Cutting our last tree will be a bit more complex. What have you witnessed? There are many cult-like beliefs in progress that could turn out to be 'progress traps'. The coming together of such irrational but widespread social and economic behaviours that damage our environmental support system could become our version of cutting the last tree.

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