How to Destroy the Planet

By Eric Roston - 2012-04-20T12:50:43Z

Photograph by Christoph Maechler

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Ecosystem Collapse

THREAT: Resource overuse destabilizes society. Easter Island, 2,000 miles west of Chile, is often held up as the poster child of Malthusian ecological collapse. Archeological evidence suggests that the island's inhabitants cut down forests faster than the trees could grow back. Water sources vanished and animals with them. By the time European explorers happened upon it, a once-thriving culture had dwindled.

The island's large stone sculptures, called Maoi, are the remnants of a bygone era. As geographer and author Jared Diamond asked in his 2004 book, Collapse, "what were Easter Islanders saying as they cut down the last tree on their island?"

REALITY: High birthrates and increasing lifespans can test an ecosystem's carrying capacity, and the Earth is in the middle of a grand experiment to see how many humans it can hold. Effective, enforceable property rights and technological progress can ensure a society uses resources more efficiently. Diamond says troubled societies share a "failure to anticipate or perceive a problem" and are unable to resolve conflicts of interest that let some economic interests "pursue goals good for themselves but bad for the rest of the group."

This slide has been corrected to say the Maoi are carved from stone.

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