The story of Easter Island has been often used as a cautionary tale of what happens when humans overexploit their environment. For those that don’t know it (like me an hour ago) here’s a summary. Around 1200 A.D., group of Polynesians came to a small island far off the coast of Chile. They colonized well, farming and living off the native wildlife. They used a slash-and-burn method of agriculture, and in not too long of a time span, they destroyed the island ecosystem, thus resulting in their own demise. Or so the story goes. More recent research suggests that it was a population of introduced Polynesian rats was the main reason the landscape changed. The rats may have fed on palm roots and eventually wiped out most of the native trees. As the tress went, so did the rest of the wildlife, leaving the human inhabitants in trouble. But humans are a very adaptive species. The islanders supposedly switched to relying on rats as their source of meat, and managed to create small gardens to grow meager amounts of vegetables. Their populations declined only after Europeans introduced sexually transmitted diseases.
Now this sounds like a success story, but is it? The author of this article says it’s definitely not. Although it’s not an example of ecological collapse, Easter Island depicts the human tendency to “muddle through” horrible circumstances, and adapt to a compromised world. In order to stop a modern crisis from happening, people need to get alarmed. The Easter Island story tells us that we might never hit that alarm. Instead, we might simply adapt to and cope with a continually deteriorating planet.
Article Referenced: http://www.npr.org/blogs/krulwich/2013/12/09/249728994/what-happened-on-easter-island-a-new-even-scarier-scenario