At the height of the now cooling debate on global warming, activists sometimes pointed to remote Easter Island as a society that deliberately destroyed its environment. Unless we lifted our game, we were told, we will devastate this world, just like the Easter Islanders devastated their island – in particular, by cutting down all the trees as part of the effort to carve, transport and erect the statues that are a feature of the island.
After this short sighted exploitation, the islanders fought a series of civil wars in medieval times over what resources remained, with those wars and their aftermath eventually destroying the culture that built the statues.
This rather grim story is colourful and, for those pre-disposed to believe in the evils of industrial development, it has the ring of truth. As a cautionary tale it has the additional advantage that the general public are aware of the Easter Island statues, but only a handful of scholars know anything much else about the island, let alone anything about the theories concerning the statues. So this version of events was seldom questioned What happened on Easter Island will happen to us all, so why don't we have a carbon tax?
The trouble with this argument is that the above scenario depends heavily on the ideas of Jared Diamond, a professor of geography and physiology at the University of California, and those ideas should properly be seen more as contested speculation, with recent discoveries making them look shaky indeed. This is not to say that Professor Diamond is wrong. As I'm not an archeologist and have never been to the island, I am not in a position to pronounce on any theory concerning it. But I am entitled to complain about the way Professor Diamond has presented his theories - as if they are established fact, rather than his own ideas which require a lot more evidence before being allowed into the text books.
I was certainly fooled when I encountered them in Diamond's popular book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive (Viking Press, 2005). In this book, a follow on from his best selling Guns, Germs and Steel, (Vintage, 1997). Diamond presents a number of examples of known collapses of civilisations, including the Norse colonies on Greenland, the Mayas in Central America, the Anasazi in what is now the American South West, and the society on Easter Island.
There is a lot more in the book including some material on Australia which is there mostly because Diamond has spent some time in Australia, including a sabbatical at the Australian National University, and says that he likes the place. Despite the title of the book he does not think we about to collapse but believes we are doing various things wrong. However, while his observations on soil and agriculture have some value some of his comments on politics and history in that chapter can only be described as nutty.
To examine that chapter briefly, at one point he says that Australia's agricultural productivity was so poor that it had to subsist on "regular food subsidies" sent from Britain which did not cease until the 1840s. What? A quick check of any history text shows that the first governor, Captain Arthur Phillip, faced immense difficulties in getting agriculture established in a different climate and different continent and with an understandably sullen workforce. He hoped that the first and second fleets would have more food instead of, as it turned out, sick convicts. He had to send out twice for supply ships – once from what is now South Africa and another from India – before the stituation stabilised. Diamond seems to have confused all subsequent shipments of convicts, which did end in the 1840s, with food shipments. The suggestion that the British authorities regularly exported food in any quantities all the way to Australia in that period is absurd.
At another point, he says that the "Australian constitution gives a disproportionate vote to rural areas". Again, what? The Federal rural gerrymander, which was swept away by the newly elected Whitlam government in the early 1970s, never had anything directly to do with the constitution. It was arranged through government instructions to the Australian Electoral Office. Perhaps Diamond is confusing the West Australian state constitution, which still deliberately gerrymanders the state upper house towards rural interests, with the Federal constitution.
There is a great deal more I could say. Diamond does not seem aware of the detailed rural production and farm income statistics kept by the Australian Bureau of Agriculture Resources Economics and Sciences, or international comparisons of agricultural subsidies, or of the agriculture trade figures collected by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Nor does he understand that agricultural economics often dictates that certain products (such as orange juice, which he mentions) are best produced in different countries. If he had taken time to study any of those sources, the reader might have been spared some of his lectures on how agriculture in Australia is too costly to be economic, and that really we should not bother with it.
The problems cited above are not just slips, they are howlers. As a journalist who has written on agribusiness from time to time over the years, I was unimpressed. And this is a best seller?
The chapter on Australia dissuaded me from reading parts of the book dealing with present-day matters, or from reading his popular Guns, Germs and Steel, but I did look at the chapters in Collapse on Greenland, Easter Island, the Anasazi and the Maya civilisations believing, like all his other readers, that Diamond was simply retelling what is generally understood about those collapsed civilisations. As he is also an engaging writer, this was no great task.
At first glance his summary of the rise and then extinction of the Norse colonies on Greenland, accorded with what I understood to be the orthodoxy. The Norse settled Greenland during what is now known as the Medieval Warm Period (temperatures around those of present times), but then would not or could not adapt to the much colder conditions of the Little Ice Age, including adapting the clothing and hunting techniques of the Inuits.