Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Ecology and Tyranny: a Salvationary Partnership

In Collapse, by Jared Diamond, the haunting fate of Easter Island is expounded upon. On this isolated Pacific island, the spiral of power politics and ecological devastation progressed to its logical conclusion. The main cause of the collapse of Easter Island was deforestation, as lumber was a vital resource for survival on Easter. Would provided boats, ropes, and heat and thus fish, cooked food and heat. Trees also served the function of anchoring the soil to the ground and after the loss of this anchor, the Pacific ocean became the main beneficiary of the scanty amount of fertile top-soil on Easter. Lumber also had another value in Easter society, which relates to the well known stone heads which look out into the Ocean. While it has been shown that wooden rollers were not used, other elements in the construction of the monoliths were very lumber intensive. The monoliths served as a prestige project for the various clans which vied for power on Easter. The key question asked by Diamond is "What did the Easter Islander who cut down the last tree think?" Although Easter did make contacts with Europeans at some later date, the period coinciding with the deforestation of Easter precedes European contact by several centuries. In addition, the original migration to Easter was a one off event. No new Polynesian colonists came to Easter, nor was there any trade with any of the other Pacific Islands. Thus, the Easter Islanders knew there was no other source of lumber, even as they felled the few remaining trees on the Island. With that in mind, we can speculate that the elite very likely refused to relinquish power or end their ecologically suicidal building projects, even as the Island was being obviously denuded of its trees. If we accept this picture, it is clear that the elites interest in retaining pre-eminence over rival clans and the individual leaders' desires to remain pre-eminent over their subjects trumped even the drive to survival. If we compare this picture with our own present day situation, we find that there are marked similarities, an entrenched myopic elite more concerned with its own retention of power and prestige than with the survival of the species. My argument goes as follows: dicatatorship is the only solution to the world's environmental problems due to its ability to execute long term plans. A Democracy is fine at dealing with human scale problems, a war, the economy etc. because these kinds of problems can usually be solved/resolved (resolved in the sense that even if the gov't itself does not solve the problem, it will reach its climax and resolution on its own momentum. Take for example, the defeat of the gov't in question or the natural rebound of the economy in the wake of a financial crisis) within a single electoral cycle. A dicatorship on the other hand assumes that it will be in power indefinitely and thus acts in light of the fact that it must not only defend its present and short-term interests but also its long term interests. A tyranny can trample over dissent to force those difficult sacrifices which no rational constituency would submit themselves to, such as a one child policy, or any other loss of freedom/prosperity. The destruction of its own ecology, the metaphoric deforestation of its own isolated island would be an irrational policy for a tyranny if its power was secure. But then again, who said tyrants were rational?

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