The great thing about the blogosphere is that when you pause from your labors and look over your shoulder, you discover that Judith Curry has put out yet another excellent post. Her latest, which I’m belatedly discovering at 1:00 a.m. EDT, deals with Easter Island. Want to read it? Click here.
Don’t know much about Easter Island and some of the scholarship? Or it’s been a while since you looked into it? You might also take a few minutes to bone up a bit or refresh your memory. The Wikipedia entry is not a bad place to start…and it contains several photographs and maps. Easter Island represents pretty much the easternmost extension of the Polynesian peoples – the Rapanui – across the Pacific. The island is a World Heritage site.
Its most famous feature? Several hundred truly monumental statues, called moai.
Picture clusters of Stonehenge-like sites scattered over an island, with each of the stones carved to represent human figures – of breathtaking scale and hauntingly beautiful simplicity. These have been the subject of cartoons and much speculation. Why spend so much effort on this art? Well, the statues apparently represented departed ancestors. The Rapanui thought they had a symbiosis with their dead, who provided all their needs. How were the statues put in place? Recent science suggests they were walked into place much as you and I might walk a heavy appliance or piece of furniture across the floor. Research on all this and much, much more continues.
There’s also been a lot of speculation about how and why, or maybe even whether, the original Rapanui population collapsed. Jared Diamond contributed his own view in his book Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed. His scholarship has since been attacked. Judith Curry and her readers delve into that in her post and the subsequent discussion. Worth a look!
Why go into that in such detail here? Because it bears on the notions of resilience discussed in my last post. As I suggest there, it seems that we use the word resilience a little too cheaply when speaking of disaster recovery. In a disaster communities recover or continue to some extent but they are also refreshed or replaced from outside. So the system of analysis that you treat maybe ought not to be the community itself, but something larger. Ultimately a disaster is a disruption, not of a few individuals, but of a community, a disruption that continues after the extreme (the earthquake or hurricane…) has come and gone, and that exceeds the ability of the community to recover unaided.
That might apply equally to community sustainability. Ultimately, sustainability is an oxymoron, as I discussed last October. No self-contained community or system can sustain itself indefinitely. That seemed to be the thesis of Diamond’s book: that ecological and environmental catastrophe eventually brings down those communities and civilizations he considers, whether Easter Island or the Anasazi or present-day Haiti.
You can say it doesn’t happen everywhere.
Not yet. But we’re all headed in that same direction.
Societies have two paths to postpone the end of sustainability. One is to expand geographically. For Easter Island that had its bounds. For Polynesians as a whole the Pacific Ocean provided more substantial opportunities. However, in a globalized society, that option is rapidly approaching its limits.
The other, as I discussed in that October post, is continuing innovation. That is the wild card. It buys us time – but we don’t know how much.
It could be quite a lot!
But to succeed for now, in the immediate term, we’ve got to remain disciplined in our support of research and development. In fact, we’ve got to get more meticulous still – maybe obsessive. We’ve got to sustain our investment in R&D, and invest wisely. We can’t stop, but we can’t scatter resources to the winds. We’ve also got to invest in education needed to (1) build public support for the expansion of knowledge and its application, and (2) produce the professionals and experts needed to carry the work forward.
That calls for leadership. Think about that the next time you pick up a newspaper, or The Economist, or hop on your favorite news website.
Better yet, think about it the next time you take a moment to contemplate how you’re going to invest the rest of your time on this Real World.
A footnote on Jared Diamond. He’s no Darwin. But you know the Darwin quote that leads off this blog? Diamond’s contributing to, and triggering, a global thought process. Darwin might have approved.
“False facts are highly injurious to the progress of science, for they often endure long; but false views, if supported by some evidence, do little harm, for everyone takes a salutary pleasure in proving their falseness.” Charles Darwin The Origins of Man, Chapter 6