Ever wondered what went through the minds of the Easter Islanders as the last tree was cut down? My own guess is that an articulate minority would have been voicing disquiet at the lack of forward thinking - they may have argued that the rituals for which the wood was needed could be performed in other ways without risk.
I also suspect that they would have been howled down, that they would have been labelled as dangerous subversives, people willing to risk the future prosperity of the islanders by abandoning a sacred ritual.
Why would I think that? I believe that the scenario is plausible because the islanders were no different to us, they were not particularly stupid and we are not any smarter than they were. We tend to confuse knowledge with wisdom when even the most cursory glance at the history of ideas will show anyone that there have been wise men and women since the dawn of time; that we are no wiser today than we were thousands of years ago - all that has changed is that we know more.
What clearly hasn’t changed is our capacity to ignore the evidence of our senses. Nor our reluctance to imagine new futures, futures that take us into a breath takingly new directions. Every revolution in human thought has been hard won as the custodians of the past are dragged kicking and screaming into the future.
Right now we are engaged in other war of ideas. On the one side are those who argue that there are alternatives to our profligate lifestyle, that we cannot afford to continue the way we are. Arraigned against them are those that refuse to accept the evidence of our senses, who want to pretend that we can continue much the way we are, those who believe perdition will follow should we change the way our society is organised.
If the conservative forces win then a time will come when it is too late - the last tree will have been hacked down and the human race will, after many generations of expansion, contract. It will not be the end of human life on earth but it will mean that globally we will go back to a new dark age.
Should we change? According to a report in New Scientist (Fred Pearce “Ecocities” 17 June 2006) if our eco-footprint is greater than 1.8 hectare per person we are consuming too much. The 2 per cent of the globe that is covered by cities have a footprint well over that. For example London’s eco-footprint is 197,500 sq km, the potential productive surface of the UK is about 210,000 sq km. Do we really need anyone to tell us that this means that we over spending our ecological budget?
Or consider our growth fetish. Throughout the developed world the idea that economic growth is good for us is accepted as gospel. But do the laws of thermodynamics not apply to the economy? Would not the laws of thermodynamics limit economic growth to the capacity of the globe to support that growth? Unless we are planning to conquer the laws of nature we are on a fool’s errand.
But is it all hopeless? I believe not. The planet can support all of us provided we recognise its limitations. Provided we start paying the rent. We pay the rent by designing cities so they consume less, not more, that they can support its inhabitants by being designed as organic entities so that by and large they can function independently.
Is it possible? Certainly the Chinese think so - a brand new self sufficient city, housing some millions of inhabitants, is being built on the outskirts of Shanghai. This at least demonstrates that we have the technology and it is high time that we started using it.
The challenge with any alternative futures lies not in our capacity to imagine alternatives or even our capacity to implement them; no, it lies with those who wish to remain cocooned in the convenient fiction that there is no need to change.
The real problem that Australia faces is not climate change - Australia can do very little about making a difference to global warming. Although, per capita, our emissions are the worst in the world, overall, our contribution is a mere drop in an ocean of greenhouse gas emissions.
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