Environmental Sustainability: Have We Learnt From Easter Island?

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In 1987 the World Commission of Environment and Development published the Brundtland Report, which defines sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. This document developed the guiding principles for sustainable development as it is generally understood today.

Understanding the Concept of Sustainable Development

Trying to understand the concept of sustainable development is difficult and therefore an example is borrowed from the archives of history. Easter Island, or Rapa Nui, is one of the world’s most remote places inhabited by humans. It is 2500 miles from the nearest continent, South America, and 1200 miles from the island of Pitcairn.

The first Polynesians arrived at Easter Island in the fifth century and numbered no more than twenty or thirty. They bought with them only chickens and rats and because the climate was so severe on plants they were limited to cultivating sweet potato (Sustainable Footprint). The cultivation of sweet potato was not very time consuming and therefore the people had time for cultural development. This resulted in the creation of one of the most advanced and complex societies in the world.

The Easter Island society was based on elaborate rituals and the construction of huge stone monuments weighing hundreds of tons. Human power was the only way that these statues could be dragged across the island and the inhabitants developed a sliding flexible track system using timber. This system required huge amounts of timber and as the population began to creep towards 7000 the pressure on the timber resources, for housing, boats, fuel and agriculture increased.

By 1600 Easter Island was almost completely denuded which resulted in the abrupt halt of the elaborate rituals and the fraying of the social fabric. People were forced to abandon their homes and live in caves, there was no timber to construct fishing boats, there was no mulberry bark to make into cloth and they could not cultivate new trees as the rats had eaten the seeds. The removal of the trees caused soil erosion and subsequently crop failure and the people of the island began to slip into primitive conditions. They were trapped on an island where conflict for diminishing resources threw them into permanent warfare, slavery and cannibalism.

This is a tragic story of a civilisation that did not fully understand the importance ot their environment and as a result paid the ultimate price.

Have We Learnt the Sustainable Development Lesson?

Fast forward to the present and it is agreed that the lesson has not been learnt. Take the deforestation of the Amazon for example. Since 1978 203.882 square miles (Deforestation in the Amazon) of Amazon forest has been cleared. Deforestation in the Amazon is a result of a number of factors including clearing for grazing cattle, colonisation, infrastructure improvements, commercial agriculture and logging. The similarities between Easter Island and the deforestation of the Amazon echo eerily through our minds. Like Easter Island, will the drive to fuel our own needs lead to the destruction of our environment, which ultimately forms the fabric of our society.

Sustainable development needs to be made a reality, and we can no longer be satisfied with the definitions that are splashed across pages in environmental journals. There are a number of steps that could be taken in an attempt to make sustainable development a tangible factor within our society. These steps are:

  • enforcement of laws that protect the environment
  • the development of policy that will guide decision making regarding the environmen
  • formulation on initiatives aimed at promoting and facilitating sustainable development
  • the signing of inter-government agreements
  • expansion of protected areas

The tragic circumstances of Easter Island should be a lesson to us all. History has provided our society with a blueprint for the destruction of our society and it is in our hands to ensure that history does not repeat itself. We are the custodians of our environment, and with that comes a responsibility to preserve and conserve for future generations.