Why the world is headed the way of Easter island

Petros Sekeris. 19 November 2014. Violence ahead as tragedies of the commons spread. NewScientist.

The world risks heading the way of Easter Island – a spiral into conflict as depleted natural resources are plundered.

There is a growing feeling that resources vital to sustain human life, such as fresh water, land and fossil fuels, are being used too fast to ensure our long-term presence on the planet. It seems obvious that nations should cooperate on this problem, and yet successful cross-border solutions and agreements are hard to find. Why don’t we act for the common good more often?

Look around the world and you can see instances of water-related inter-state tension and conflicts in many regions, including the Middle East (Jordan river basin, Tigris-Euphrates basin), Asia (Indus river), and Africa (the Nile).

“Fish wars” have erupted sporadically, such as Europe’s cod wars, and while these have been more contained, they could resurge amid decreasing stocks. In the same way, the shared resource of global climate continues to be threatened by the relentless burning of fossil fuels.

Our degradation of the environment is ominous and much evidence points to a clear link between the scarcity of vital resources and conflict. One wonders, then, why world leaders failed to reach a substantive agreement on climate change at the Copenhagen summit in 2009; or why fishing and hunting quotas for endangered species are so hard to implement; or why the use and pollution of river basins is not better regulated.

Explanations such as poor forecasting of resources, the short-term mindset of politicians, or simply the refusal to recognize the problem are usually given.

However, what if these are not the real reasons and something more fundamental is at work?

For example, imagine a depletable natural resource – such as a water basin – jointly owned by two countries. Both drain it for drinking, sanitation, irrigation and so on. Draining too quickly will result in it drying out. Most game theory work says that working for the common good is the optimum choice for both nations. But this does not square with conflicts we see, or the widely held view that more are inevitable.

To address this, I designed a simulation that allowed the use of violence to control resources (The Rand Journal of Economics, vol 45, p 521). In a world where force is a very real option and history suggests it is used or threatened more often than we might hope, this seemed reasonable.

The outcome offers an explanation for the gap between theory and reality. Having constructed a game-theoretical model, I found that when conflict is allowed it always occurred, but only when resources become heavily depleted.

And, crucially, the very expectation of impending conflict led to non-cooperation in the short term and sped up depletion of the common resource. I would argue that this resource-grabbing tallies with what we see in much of the world, be it disputes over fossil fuels, fresh water, land or marine resources.

Are there any historical examples that illustrate this effect of “conflict expectation” and more rapid resource use? Possibly. The demise of the first society on Easter Island is salient. It is thought Polynesians were first to colonize this isolated, 160-square-kilometre Pacific island around AD 900. At its peak, 30,000 people may have lived there.  Their society was organized in hierarchical clans, peacefully competing for supremacy by displaying vast stone statues. To move them, the tallest trees needed to be felled and used as rollers. Deforestation resulted, says Diamond. Instead of reaching agreements, the islanders rapidly devastated their lands, and by the time the first Europeans arrived in 1722, no tree taller than 3 meters stood there.

An ecological disaster and dramatic deprivation must have occurred. According to Diamond, a sort of military coup took place, sparking prolonged conflict. It is reasonable to imagine that the clans realized that trees – also vital for things like fishing boats – were in short supply, and so grabbed what they could before the inevitable violence.

The conclusions I’ve drawn on the impact of over-use of resources today on future conflict are purely theoretical. So with economists Giacomo De Luca and Dominic Spengler of the University of York, UK, I am designing a lab experiment to see whether humans in a controlled environment do deplete resources faster when given the possibility to use violent control. Our early findings point that way. Such evidence would shed new light on the failure of international cooperation over the preservation of the environment.

What’s next? I have not yet considered human ingenuity in adapting to a changing environment. Whether that will be sufficient to achieve a sustainable path depends on the rate of depletion versus adaptation.

Inevitable conflict and accelerated use of depleted resources may be more likely to become a reality within weak states and in the international arena, where weak institutions are more likely. For example, signing a carbon emissions treaty today does not commit a country beyond mild sanctions that the global community may or may not impose. In addition, a change in government in a powerful country is sufficient for a treaty to be revised, curbing the incentives of others to join.

All this reinforces the need for stronger institutions and international bodies if we are to avert a tragedy of the commons in a violent world. Sadly, this will require overcoming the very problem we are trying to solve: a lack of international cooperation.

Petros Sekeris is an economist at the University of Portsmouth, UK

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6 Responses to Why the world is headed the way of Easter island

  1. K Klein says:

    “Make America Great Again.” – DJT

    We will take what we need. That’s the point of nuclear weapons, isn’t it?

    Humans. Smarter than yeast?

    Ha ha ha.


  2. Ivo says:

    Does this dismal and uninformed author of the dismal science understand the concept of a ‘self-serving narrative’? What utter bs.

    “All this reinforces the need for stronger institutions and international bodies if we are to avert a tragedy of the commons in a violent world.”

    Right…the only real sources of systemic and highly organized violence against humans and the environment emanates from nation-state structures of highly advanced industrial societies who are determined to maintain power over others and their resources. Civilizationists are so full of shit, projecting their psychosis backward and forwards onto everything and anything that moves, trying to keep the sheep corralled and calm for another round of fleecing.

    It should be noted that Diamond’s account of Easter Island has largely been discredited by Lipo and Hunt:


    Easter Island was destroyed largely because of conquest by civilization, as was Turtle Island. As was/is most places on the planet – but this is not a diatribe singling out western civ, which is just an incarnation and continuation of a very ancient phenomenon.

    Nothing we are experiencing is new, in fact, ecological crises trail societies like ours like a slime trail….

    Origins of the One Percent: the Bronze Age

    The idea of an ecologically benign civilization, e.g. ‘sustainable’, is radically ahistorical. They all require growth – that is the constant, ceaseless transformation of all things that it can lay its grubby paws on into. The question of limits only relates to methods of managing resources (increasing the levels of control over everything) and not tampering with the core dynamic of the ceaseless transformation of shit.

    While game theory may apply to individual behavior, the real question is about the behavior of the collective enterprise that has us all trapped within in field of force. A force no one controls and is not amendable to human control…it can not be directed to ends other than to which it has evolved to. Those who claim is can are full of shit.

    We are stuck with growth, accumulation and the ceaseless transformation of everything into grist for its mill until such time either the planet comes to resemble the surface of Mars (probable) or an ancient Mayan ruin over run by the jungle (preferred).

    • energyskeptic says:

      What matters are these statements:

      The world risks heading the way of Easter Island – a spiral into conflict as depleted natural resources are plundered.
      There is a growing feeling that resources vital to sustain human life, such as fresh water, land and fossil fuels, are being used too fast to ensure our long-term presence on the planet.

      You will never ever see this in mainstream media, or even reporting on the connection between resources and conflict, because the economists have brainwashed the public into thinking there are no limits to growth. And it’s too depressing for most people, some of them so brainwashed they’ll stop their subscription perhaps. Even when magazines like Scientific American and a few others have articles about resources and conflict, they tend to be sugar-coated. I also wish Easter Island weren’t always used as the metaphor, but it’s the only short-cut example that immediately registers with people not familiar with scholarly studies of collapse.

      • Ivo says:

        Alice…always appreciate your efforts at maintaining a sobering take on things and relentless commitment to paying attentions to the details and not getting subsumed in the Pollyanna fantasies that infest much of the thinking in the resilience crowd.

        Regarding Easter Island, I suggest that the use of a popular but discredited narrative is far more dangerous. The thought that just because the message between accounts sound similar they are not and the that difference has very deep implications for any action on the crises. Two very different sets of behaviors manifest depending on which view you hold.

        Ecological devastation by humans as a natural constant vs ecological devastation by a phenomenological force that drives humans to destroy their environment are two fundamentally different understandings of the situation and world views. The former serves to attribute blame on ‘human nature’, it is a dispositional perspective of the human animal (the problem lies in each one of us due to DNA or something). Terms like antropogenic, etc are remarkably disingenuous since the overwhelming majority of humans have no power to alter their circumstances beyond what is proscribed by the structures of power that they are constrained in. And that is largely why those with power want us to see and believe that the causes of societies ills – be they CC or ecological destruction, heroin addiction or poverty – are all rooted in individual failings attributable to biology or morality and not in the systemic structures that enslave humans for the purpose of extraction and accumulation.

        Society largely transformed us into something largely against our will – an basic understanding most children have in regards to schooling and parents. Civilization has always been violently imposed on the un-civilized and that violence – which we see manifest as the destruction of the planet – is so fundamental to the dynamic but we are conditioned not to see it as such.

        The latter view that it is the circumstances that largely determine our behavior is the situational view. It is not hard to understand or see this at work – the whole social system of civilization is a manufacturing process the product of which is the solitary unit of social production – the hermetically sealed mind of your average educated middle class person whose role in the machine is to perpetuate the material conditions of its existence by competently staffing the managerial and technocratic layers of the vast bureaucracy of power. It in itself has no autonomy of action or any real power over the circumstance.

        Very few, if any, who are ensconced in this reality can escape it – they prefer the comforting narratives of ‘making choices’, voting, faith in markets, buying technology, etc ad nauseum – where they do not have recognize their captivity or their complicity.

        Depending on which view you hold flows a set of actionable beliefs. Dispostionalists almost always believe governance by elites is necessary because, at base, the over-whelming majority of us are ignorant animals who would kill each and loot the planet faster if it were not for the veneer of ‘civilization’. It does not matter whether you are liberal or conservative, you still believe the same story. This is a widely held assumption that almost all civilized humans subscribe to. Much of the myths of conquest and domination are about the savage vs the civilized. It is the long discredited Hobbesian world view and, surprisingly, a view held by many in the resilience community such a Heinberg, Cobb, et al.

        Embedded in this is the idea that civilization is rational, purpose directed, controllable, etc and the earth is there for us to master (turn into grist for the mill). The savage, on the other hand, is just a mindless animal largely a slave to his/her biology, ignorant with no meaningful knowledge about the world and lives largely at the mercy of nature. By perpetuating that idea, the very cause of the crises is allowed to continue – the world system does not care about the world we live in, it cares about its own survival and expansion.

        When it comes to sustainability, the very first question you must ask is what exactly is it that you wish to sustain? The nature of the discourse has changed dramatically over the last several decades to one largely dominated and framed by industry and vested interested in maintaining the status quo. A sustainable world for the world system does not require ‘nature’ at all – I could easily see a planet devastated and transformed into some sort of Island of Dr. Moreau run by Monsanto, the MIC and the energy industries…if we are not already there.

        As I previously noted – an ecological benign civilization is radically ahistorical…they have never existed. No one controls the Leviathan – it control us. Find me the Bureau of Civilization and its director(s). When we talk about markets, technology, growth, etc…we are really talking about spirits but mask these irrational articles of faith in rational, scientific sounding jargon.

        And that is an element of the discussion that is taboo to bourgeois psychology. It will never acknowledges its captivity or complicity in the destruction of the planet and therefore its mind is a dead-end. We must look for answers outside of its narrow and carefully constructed playground.

        • energyskeptic says:

          Even if you see what’s coming, you’re embedded in the system and can do nothing about it. I don’t see a problem with attributing the rise and fall of civilizations as being due to our animal nature. We are wired to think about today, not tomorrow. Once agriculture came along and we stayed in one place and could accumulate stuff, it was inevitable that some would get more stuff than others, and hierarchies develop and so on. Bringing down the existing political systems does nothing to solve the problem. The only way out of the “trap” would be a world government that would force birth control on society to prevent exceeding carrying capacity as well as the need for as many men as possible to fight wars. That ain’t gonna happen!

  3. Walt Hess says:

    Frank Fenner, the man who is credited with wiping out small pox, asserted the extinction of humans in 100 years several years back. Fenner was a microbiologist and expert in population genetics.