A tale of civilization gone wrong

By Scott S. Walker

This is the first in a series of columns on the state of our world told from an engineer’s point of view.

Decisions are being made each day which greatly impact the world we live in. This column will examine underlying theories of the decisions, and possible options. It is an attempt to educate people about what might be the best choices, with the belief that people will try to do the right thing, only if they are aware. It is also an attempt to help people live healthier lives in an increasingly complicated world, dominated by technology.

Scott S. Walker is an M.Sc. Student in Manufacturing Engineering.

Let me tell you a story. It’s a story about the rise and fall of an entire society. A story about a people whose demise is driven by nothing more exciting than the desire to provide for one’s family, to have a lifestyle which compares favorably to one’s neighbors, to enjoy a certain amount of leisure, and to feel that one’s life is important; essentially, to live a life which is fulfilling and meaningful. It might seem hard to find where they went wrong, but then that’s the moral of this story.

These people lived on an island and were great fishermen. They had gardens, hunted small animals in the forest, and picked wild plants to eat as well. The climate was moderate and life was fairly easy. They had plenty of time to be artists and sportsmen, and maintained a rich cultural and religious heritage. A visiting explorer jealously described their world as paradise on earth, without knowing how unsustainable their lifestyle was.

The huge sea canoes, from which they fished, were each carved from a single tree. These same trees were used in large numbers for construction, and for moving large stone monuments as clans and villages postured to have the largest and most numerous–to be the most important, the most respected. At their peak, they were cutting down their limited numbers of trees faster than they could grow, and it was within the period of one generation they cut down the last one to support their desire to carve and transport the monuments. But, since they had fully indulged their desires, they could no longer support one of their needs–they had no trees left for carving into sea canoes, and when the last canoe was gone they could no longer fish. Another visiting explorer now remarked that reports of a paradise on earth had been greatly exaggerated.

All of the people’s meat now had to come from the small animals on the island. But, there were not enough animals to completely supply them, now that they could not fish., and it was not long before the last animal was killed and eaten. The birds were also hunted to extinction, and without the birds to pollinate certain plants, those plants–which supplied them with wild vegetables–also died.

As their food supplies dwindled, this idyllic place now witnessed a barbaric panic for survival. Those who survived did so through cannibalism. Their numbers dwindled from the tens of thousands at their peak, down to the dozens that were found by the next explorer. It had all occurred in the span of a few generations.

You have probably guessed that this is a real world example, and not a fictional tale. It is in fact the true story of the rise and fall of a civilization on Easter Island. The lesson here is as obvious as the lesson of our own world’s demise, if one only has the eyes to see it. Bacteria in a microbiologist’s petri dish will quickly and unsustainably grow to fill the boundaries of their container, and then die in the poisons of their own waste products. The residents of Easter Island have shown that humans can easily follow the same pattern of growth and extinction. And we–without learning from their heart-wrenchingly tragic mistakes–we are well on our way to fulfilling our own destiny, and it looks like it might end up substantially the same.

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