About 800 years ago, Polynesians settled Easter Island, a heavily forested 63-square-mild island in the Pacific. They slashed and burned to make room for farming and multiplied. Within a few generations, the trees were gone, and by the times Europeans arrived, the Easter Islanders were reduced to warring, cannibalistic clans using few dilapidated canoes. This theory was heavily promoted in Jared Diamond’s book COLLAPSE. Diamond’s lesson: Take care of the environment or perish.
In THE STATUES THAT WALKED, anthropologists Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo pose a different theory. They pose that the Polynesians brought rats that fed on tree roots. The rats multiplied exponentially and destroyed the trees along with other species sustained by the ecosystem. To survive, the islanders scattered small stones on the poor soil, over which sea breezes that activated minerals in the soil, and grew vegetables. They also ate the rats.
In the end, rather than a failure, Hunt and Lipo call Easter Island a success for humanity. Resilient humans adapted and survived despite a declining ecosystem.
The conflicting theories have naturally entered the climate change debate. Some believe climate change will alter the environment that humans may not survive. Others believe humans will adapt. Which is true would depend on the extent of climate change. Either way, a die-off would occur and while it may not result in the end of the world for humans, it appears likely to end the world as we know it.
NPR has the story here.