I want to tell a story about little place in the South Pacific called Easter Island. Many people will recognize the famous stone heads scattered all over its shores, but I bet some aren’t aware that the island used to be home to a relatively ‘advanced’ society. Polynesian explorers landed there in about 500 AD and got straight to work building it into a flourishing culture with modern innovations such as class structures, religion, agriculture, and science and art (just look at those sculptures!). These guys meant business, and business was good.
At its peak there was about 10,000 people living there, and things were going pretty well. However, most things that made life liveable were completely dependent on the island’s forest of palm trees. Food was caught in wood canoes and structures were built from mainly timber. That’s why it seems pretty freaking crazy that one day, in the height of prosperity, somebody cut down the last tree.
Wait, how did that happen!? These guys seemed pretty smart, right? It’s not like the island was that big (you can walk around it in 1-2 days), you’d think most people would’ve easily noticed that their precious resource was becoming more and more scarce at a lightning-fast pace. Someone must’ve said something. There had to have been political debates and plans on how to slow the cutting down. But for whatever reason, however aware of the issue they were and whatever ideas were proposed, conservation failed and the last tree fell to the ground.
And clearly from the pictures of the barren landscape today, void of life, we all know how their story ends. A few centuries after that last tree was cut, the Europeans came across this island in 1722 and found only a small population of malnourished people in dilapidated huts that apparently survived on cannibalistic raids on other people’s camps. The full story of the society wasn’t known until scientists studied the island’s ‘paleo-biology’ and discovered that during the society’s peak growth, there was a rapid destruction of the diverse, nutritious plants and food species that the inhabitants depended on for survival.
Does any of this sound familiar? Can you think of another ‘modern’ species, aware of its surroundings, that’s using up it’s limited resources it depends on for existence at an incredibly unsustainable pace?
Are we following their lead?
All of us are completely dependent on this tiny blue planet, and we are all aware of the unsustainable practices we partake in, but we can’t seem to devise an effective enough plan to prevent us from over-exploiting the things that make life possible. Profit and growing the economy as fast as we can constantly come before conservation.
I hope we can collectively learn something from the story of Easter Island, and avoid making the same mistakes.
Dr. Peter Nemetz – Business and the Sustainability Challenge (2013)