On the other side of the world lies Easter Island, located in the southeastern Pacific Ocean, at a distance of 3,747 kilometers west of Concepción, Chile. Its original inhabitants, the Rapa Nui, are now Chilean citizens (officially since 1966), and number about 3,000, confined to the island’s sheltered west coast, while some have migrated to mainland Chile over time.
In the past few months the island has been in the news occasionally. Since last summer, Rapa Nui activists have been occupying more than two dozen buildings in a “land dispute that dates back to 1888.” The Chilean Santiago Times reported in early August 2010 that “Rapa Nui clans have occupied close to 30 properties on the island, including museums, government-owned buildings, municipal buildings, the local tourism office and a hotel. The Rapa Nui Parliament is also working to increase the importance of Rapa Nui representatives in the Chilean government. Two weeks after Rapa Nui demonstrators began occupying properties on Easter Island, Chile’s government has sent more police [45 officers] to ‘monitor’ the situation.”
But rather than talk about indigenous rights, the vicissitudes of colonization and human rights’ abuses, I would now like to turn to the island’s pre-colonial history as a means to shed some light on our current global predicament. Giant monolithic statues called mo‘ai that can weigh up to 90 tons are Easter Island’s most striking feature (a total of 887 have been inventoried). They were made relatively recently, in the period between 1250 and 1500 CE.
When Europeans arrived on the island it was utterly treeless. Pollen analysis has revealed however that the island was “almost totally” forested until about the year 1200. But now the island is barren. A volcanic crater on the island’s eastern plain, Rano Raraku, provided the source of the sideromelane (basaltic) tuff from which 95% of the statues were carved. Some 250 mo‘ai are found in an almost unbroken line around the perimeter of the island, while 600 others in various stages of completion are scattered around the island. It is hard to imagine that this now barren island was once covered with trees and forests, but as wood and other tree materials were needed to transport the mo‘ai, trees had to be cut down and forests subsequently disappeared. In view of this rapacious resource depletion executed in the space of two and a half centuries, the locals devised narratives that managed to minimize the role of humans destroying the island’s abundant forests.
The environmentally concerned physicist Adam Frank, on the other hand, relates in a matter-of-fact voice that the “need for trees, rope, and food to maintain a population of laborers eventually led to the destruction of the very forests the islanders depended on. After the forests were gone erosion took the soil too. What followed was Easter Island collapsing into starvation, warfare and cannibalism. The chance of escape disappeared too as seafaring canoes require large trees for their hulls.”
A metaphor for the state of planet earth
The Easter Island story is truly a metaphor for the state of planet earth in the 21st century. It presents a bleak picture of the future awaiting our planet as a result of climate change: Resource depletion, soil erosion, desertification, ocean acidification, sea-level rise, habitat destruction, species’ extinction, in addition to overpopulation are some of the most salient problems humanity has ever faced. The Director of Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) and Germany’s Chief Government Advisor on Climate and Related Issues Hans Joachim Schellnhuber declared publicly that “We are on our way to a destabilization of the world climate that has advanced much further than most people or their governments realize . . . In nearly all areas, the developments are occurring more quickly than it has been assumed up until now.” Action is urgently needed, and currently the Mexican city of Cancún is hosting the latest round of UN climate talks and negotiations (Nov. 29 – Dec. 10). But the event has so far not produced any positive results. Far from ushering in change we can believe in, President Obama is simply continuing his predecessor’s stance on the Kyoto Protocol and allowing the US Congress not to ratify this internationally binding treaty committing most of the world’s richest countries to making emission cuts. And now Japan has categorically stated its opposition to extending the Protocol.
Christiana Figueres, secretary-general of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, announced that “It is very clear that given the diversity of positions on the Kyoto Protocol it is not going to be possible for Cancun to take a radical decision one way or the other on the Kyoto Protocol.” In a surprising turn of events, Huang Huikang, a special representative for climate change negotiations at China’s Foreign Ministry, said that some nations “want to kill the Kyoto Protocol, to end the Kyoto Protocol . . . This is a very worrying movement.” Worldwide, the three largest emitters of greenhouse gases are China (17 percent), the US (16 percent and the EU (12 percent). China is trying very hard to convince the world that it is going green, but its power plants remain largely if not primarily coal-powered. Surprisingly, the US also uses coal for about 50% of its energy. After all, the US has the largest coal reserves in the world, which makes for a cheap, though dirty, resource.
Debated deemed ‘unnecessary’
Last week the US House of Representatives’ Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, created by Speaker Nancy Pelosi in 2007, held its final meeting. Pelosi set up the Committee to debate the latest developments on climate change issues and research, but following the recent success of Republicans during the mid-term elections, House Republicans deemed such debate “unnecessary.” Next there is the House Energy and Commerce Committee, headed since November 2008 by veteran Democrat Harry Waxman who is to be replaced shortly. One of the contenders to take over is Illinois Republican John Shimkus, a Lutheran by religion practicing climate change denial by vocation. Shimkus will now likely take over the US Energy Commission and has produced such memorable quotes as: “As long as the earth endures, seed time and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, will never cease”, adding, “‘I believe that is the infallible word of God, and that’s the way it is going to be for his creation. The earth will end only when God declares its time to be over. Man will not destroy this earth. This earth will not be destroyed by a flood. Today we have about 388 [carbon doixide] parts per million in the atmosphere. I think in the age of dinosaurs, when we had the most flora and fauna, we were probably at 4,000 parts per million.
“There is a theological debate that this is a carbon-starved planet — not too much carbon. And the cost of a cap-and-trade on the poor is now being discovered”. This so-called ‘cap-and-trade’ bill refers to President Obama’s American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 that attempts to limit carbon emissions, and which Shimkus opposes vehemently. In view of such developments, what hope can there be for smaller countries to influence climate negotiations or to promulgate policies that could effect any influence upon the ever-accelerating pace of climate change?
Turkey’s Environment and Forestry Minister Veysel Eroğlu is also in Cancún, but in spite of Turkey’s recent pseudo-Ottoman stance in the world, its record on action regarding climate change is not very impressive. Still, last March, the country’s business leaders held a meeting to “brainstorm about how Turkey’s transition to a low-carbon economy” could be achieved. Emel Türker, spokesperson for Greenpeace Mediterranean, declared recently that the “meetings are continuing in Cancún. The Turkish government is taking part in the meetings without promising to reduce emissions. While climate change knocks at our door with all its disasters, the decision-makers continue to sleep. Taking 19th place in the world in greenhouse gas emissions, Turkey continues its long sleep, claiming that it is a developing country and has contributed little to climate change” -- a rather bleak statement with a message that seems to be in line with developments worldwide. The failure of the Cancún talks does not bode well for planet earth’s chances of avoiding a fate similar to, or rather worse than, Easter Island’s and its vanity statues.
* PUblished in Turkey's TODAY'S ZAMAN on Dec. 12. Dr. Can Erimtan is an independent scholar residing in İstanbul with a wide interest in the politics, history and culture of the Balkans and the wider Middle East