The Lesson of Easter Island

In the midst of another hot smoggy summer, it is a good time to think about environmental issues. It should be obvious that our civilization is reaching a point of unsustainability. Energy prices are soaring, the climate is changing but we seem unable to stop ourselves. The level of self-delusion is incredible. It was counted a huge victory when President Bush admitted at Glenagles that climate change may be, somehow, sort of, at least in part caused by human activity.

Many of us are aware and concerned about this crisis. Most Buddhist analysis of ecological problems is based on the teachings of inter-dependence; how we are all part of and not separate from the natural world. This is a sound reflection, but I would like to emphasize another of the Buddha's teachings, that everything originates within the mind. Environmental degradation is best seen as an attitude problem.

There is a strong temptation to seek a quick technological fix. The techno-fix is usually put in terms of seeking an energy source to replace petroleum, which is dirty, expensive and rapidly depleting. None of the alternatives on offer are really viable. Ethanol and hydrogen, the usual suspects, both take more energy to produce than they provide as fuel.

The underlying assumption here is really a futile hope that we can continue our profligate lifestyle without significant change. This is really the primary delusion that needs to be changed. The public doesn't want to face it, and no politician dares to touch it, but there it is. We simply cannot continue to take more out of a closed system than we put in. The primary source of environmental pollution is the mental pollution of delusion.

As delusions go, this one seems to be particularly deep-rooted in human kind. There are abundant historical precedents. The cautionary tale of the Easter Islanders is an especially sobering one. When the Polynesians arrived on Easter Island, the land was lush and well forested. By the time the first Europeans arrived several centuries later, the island was a barren waste where a pitiful remnant survived in destitution. This had happened because the Islanders had developed a cult of building gigantic stone heads to honour their ancestors. The construction of these heads consumed enormous amounts of timber, for scaffolding and rollers etc. The various clans competed to build the biggest heads. In the end, they denuded the entire island, destroyed their own ecological base and couldn't even leave because there was no wood to build canoes. This in spite of the fact that the island is small enough to walk around in a couple of days, and the inhabitants must have been aware of the impending disaster. And yet at some point, some one of them felled the last tree.

The difference now is that the crisis is global. But we too, can get around our world-island in little more than a couple of days. We know what results our profligacy is having. And yet we continue to build our own versions of giant stone heads. The developed world continues to consume energy and resources at a completely unsustainable rate, while the developing world struggles to catch up and do the same. Already, wars being waged to control critical supplies of oil. If we weren't caught up in so much delusionary thinking, we'd be looking at ways of conserving; adjusting our social structures and lifestyles to be less consumptive. Instead, all our economic thinking and political programmes are predicated not only on maintaining the status quo but on encouraging growth. We need to slow down and clear up our own thinking as a first step.

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