The 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference will be held in Paris, from November 30 to December 11.
It will be the 21st yearly session of the Conference of the Parties to the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the 11th session of the Meeting of the Parties to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.
The conference objective is to achieve a legally binding and universal agreement on climate, from all the nations of the world.
In the lead up to Paris world leaders could do worse than to read Ronald Wright’s book –‘A Short History of Progress’- and in particular what Wright has to say about the example of Easter Island.
Wright identifies how human societies commonly encounter what he refers to as “progress traps”- economic developments that start off with positive consequences for humanity but eventually trap us with negative ones.
Hunter gatherers seemingly made progress when they learned that by driving woolly mammoths off the edge of cliffs, they could kill 200 beasts as easily as they could kill one. The hunters feasted for a good while. But the new method may ultimately have contributed to the mammoth being hunted to extinction, thereby depriving the hunters of access to this source of food. The hunters had fallen into a “progress trap”.
Wright says history is littered with examples of progress traps where environmental degradation occurs at societal level. He traces progress traps involving environmental degradation through many pre-industrial societies- Catal Huyek, Sumer, the Western Roman Empire and the Mayan civilization.
But his most outstanding example is undoubtedly that of Easter Island.
Here was a mini civilization living in an area that is only 164 square kilometres in size. Human habitation of the island is estimated to have commenced sometime between 700 and 1100 AD. At this time the island was covered by large broad leaf forest and palms. The population increased to about 10,000, usually a sign of well being. The people had surplus time and began to honour their ancestors by carving impressive stone statues which date from about 1250 AD.
But by 1400 AD suddenly no more pollen is found in the fossil record. The forest on the island had been completely destroyed. This meant that there was no more wood for boats and therefore no fishing for seafood or means of escape. The Islanders then ate all their dogs and nesting birds. By the time European explorers arrived in the 1700’s the islanders had reached the brink of extinction with food shortages, perpetual warfare and cannibalism. This was now a society that would not have been capable of the complex tasks of carving and transporting the giant statues created by the earlier generations.
What is striking about Easter Island is that in such a small place the destruction of the island’s natural resources must have been obvious. The topography of the island is volcanic. This means that there would have been peaks on the island from where much of the increasing damage to the forest would have been obvious. This was a civilization advanced enough to construct impressive statues yet seemingly incapable of taking the simple steps required to halt the destruction of the forest- the protection of saplings and replanting.
The Easter Islanders did not need any particular economic ideology, to self destruct. Simple lack of willingness to collectively plan for the future was enough.
In such a small environment it is hard to believe that the environmental crisis arose solely out of inability to foresee the possible consequences of felling of the forest. It seems more likely that concerns about the forest were swamped by hubris, laziness, status quo bias, faith that some divine force might ultimately intervene, or by some combination of such factors.
Whatever the underlying cause of failure, Easter Island demonstrates that human beings are quite capable of driving themselves, as well as other creatures, to extinction through environmentally destructive economic activity. It also demonstrates that they are capable of doing so in circumstances where the dire consequences that are likely to flow from the destruction are foreseeable.
Wright says that in modern developed countries, progress traps are exacerbated by excessive faith in technology. He says that technology is addictive because material progress creates problems that seem to be solvable only by further technological progress.
Wright is critical of the New Right’s war on redistribution which he says is a threat to civilization. But he says that the most fundamental change required to put the world on a sustainable footing is a transition form short term to long term thinking.
Wright does not see this transition as easy. Indeed at times he appears to doubt that such a transition is likely. He postulates that human inability to foresee long range consequences may be inherent to our kind, shaped by millions of years when we lived from hand to mouth hunter gathering. It may also be a mix of inertia, greed and foolishness encouraged by a concentration of power which gives the elite a vested interest in the status quo from which they prosper, long after the environment and general populace begin to suffer.
Anthropogenic climate change is merely the latest and deepest of the progress traps that have occurred throughout human history. Other, or related, contemporary progress traps include:
- forest reduction;
- soil erosion requiring the use of chemical fertilizers (which depend on burning oil) to replace depleted nitrogen and phosphorus;
- depletion of clean water sources, including lowering of the water table in many parts of the world;
- ocean pollution by plastics and ocean acidification.
This article is an extract from a longer article that can be found here.