The Legacy of the Present

How will the future judge us? Will our descendants be proud of our legacy and the achievements we sculpted at this particular juncture in human history, fondly imagining an exciting and revelatory time gone-by? Which of our many mistakes will be remembered? What, or who, will populate the pages dedicated to the present in the historical documents of the future?

By digitally archiving nearly everything, from our words and pictures, to international news and films, to the triviality of daily emails and receipts, we are inadvertently accumulating an enormous and unprecedented time-capsule of cultural and social information, ripe for the data-miners and historians of the future to peruse and analyse. Looking back, our descendants may celebrate the hope and opportunities that we created and exploited in a time of rapid change and uncertainty. This is an age of exploration and discovery unsurpassed by any in the past. We have human beacons in orbit, on the Moon and Mars, the outer planets and two explorers poised to enter the vacuous expanse of interstellar space. We move the Earth at will, harness the power of the atom and circumvent our own biology, and that of the organisms we share this planet with, to our own means.

However, the passage of time may not reflect kindly on us. Our children, perhaps distant, will study us as remote relatives separated by a gulf of time and knowledge and bear witness to our many and varied failures of foresight, as we our parents’ before us. They will marvel at our fallibility and indifference, reflect on the disasters and injustices narrowly avoided and those sadly and painfully endured. Through the clarity provided by the looking-glass of hindsight, they will picture the beleaguered ark of our young civilisation battered by the waves of ignorance, superstition and intolerance awash in the turbulent melting-pot ocean of this age. Captained as best we can by some modicum of insight and forethought, our leaky ship may just make it to calmer waters yet. The light from the distant shore is weak and easily obscured, yet a beacon of hope and reason guides our course onwards.

The decisions we make now will be our gift, or curse, to them. What tyrants and monsters, manifest of the inhumanity of our time, will carve out their legacies and what atrocities will they commit? These monsters may be people, and often are, but they need not necessarily be so. Rather, they may be fundamental failings of reason and understanding, particularly regarding how we treat each other and this planet; mistakes borne from a myopic lack of perspective that we have all allowed to propagate unchallenged. The crucial, globally relevant decisions we make today, many lacking foresight and made either in haste or with undue hesitation, distorted by corruption and cronyism and sealed by denial and an immature lack of responsibility, will be our legacy. Sensible and objectively necessary modes of action, albeit admittedly depressing and uncomfortable in the short term, are hindered by fickle tribal loyalties over the often short, usually filthy, lifespan of the career politician.

Even now it is easy to recognise those who, in the shadows and back-streets of politics and business, lurk intoxicated and maligned by greed and paranoia and plot the downfall of us all. Those whose machinations, knowingly or otherwise, are determined to dismantle and distort the warnings repeatedly provided by those working to protect our planet from the harm that this uncontrolled, unprecedented ecological and environmental experiment is subjecting upon it. Worryingly, it is these people and their misguidance that will be remembered: those who had the chance to avert a global disaster that may have an untold effect on the future direction of our species and the continued habitability of our planet, and yet did nothing, or even actively fought mitigation attempts at every step. For the psychologists of the future, they will make for rich pickings.

For it is these people, and the organisations and ideologies that they often represent, that epitomise the ugly face of corruption and denialism that may very well go down in the annuls of history as the true monsters of our time. Those who do not heed the repeated warnings that may one day spell the end of our brief stay on this planet, those who put money before reason, denial before rationalism and whose remarkable lack of foresight will condemn us all. They will go down in history books as defenders of the worst facets of human nature. As pitiful, transparent anachronisms and the morally bankrupt pawns of the most destructive, self-centred generation of organisms that this world has ever seen.

There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic though. There is much potential, but sadly little time, to address and mitigate these mistakes. The future, providing we’re in it, will be one where sense has prevailed. By virtue of our continued existence, it has to be. Any conceivable scenario in which the evidence has been ignored, where the bellowing drone of selfish contrarians have deafened the ears of logic and reason, will be a future that we, in our current social, political and cultural form, will not be part of. There may be no one able or willing to document the fall of our civilisation at the hands of our own inherent inability to manage the finite resources of this world. There may be nothing worth remembering. We may be the last chapter in the brief, eventful history of our species, or worse perhaps, the crucial turning point of an irreversible, yet avoidable, slow decline into chaos and decay. Perhaps all intelligent civilisations eventually destroy themselves in this way and perhaps that is why, despite the statistical implausibly of it being so, we seem to be traversing space and time on our own.

But perhaps, we’re different. This may be the defining moment in the history of our species. Can we overcome the pressures we are exerting on the planet, whilst simultaneously fighting those deeply invested in defending the objectively unsustainable means by which we are attempting to secure our future? Undoubtedly, our own shortsightedness may present the biggest challenge humanity has ever faced; overcoming it is our only means to ensure that the history books of tomorrow will be written.

Lessons from Easter Island

Easter Island, also known as Rapa Nui to its indigenous Polynesian inhabitants the Rapanui, is an isolated, triangular volcanic island located in the south-eastern Pacific Ocean, some 3500 km west of Chile. The total area of the island is about 160 km2 and it is currently home to an estimated 5000 people, the majority of whom are from Polynesian Rapanui descent. There is some considerable uncertainty surrounding the original date of settlement of Easter Island by seagoing Polynesian peoples from the Marquesas Islands in the west. In his excellent and highly recommended book Collapsegeographer Jared Diamond outlines studies suggesting that 900 CE is a more realistic estimate than the earlier dates of 300 to 400 CE.

The location of Easter Island, one of the world’s most isolated inhabited islands, 3500km west of Chile (Source: Wikipedia)

Easter Island is famed for its turbulent and mysterious history, epitomised by the island’s famed anthropomorphic moai statues and the ahu stone pedestals upon which they stand, constructed by the early inhabitants in the form of their deified ancestors and dedicated to their glory. There is also archaeological evidence of extensive and impressive stonemasonary in the form of walls and houses and other monumental structures, thousands of stone carvings known as petroglyphs, evidence of a written, but undecipherable, language known as rongorongo as well as intricate wooden carvings and amulets.

The moai statues are peppered along the coastline of the island with their backs to the sea, providing spiritual protection to the island’s inhabitants and ensuring that the Rapanui had a constant connection to their ancestors in the afterlife, upon which the entire cultural and religious ideology of the island’s societal structure was based. These impressive monuments, numbering around 880 – the largest of which is 10m tall and weighs a staggering 75 tonnes- were constructed at great cost by rival, class-based clans in desperate competition with each other. As a result of this competitiveness and chronic overpopulation, the island’s already delicate ecosystem collapsed under the weight of extreme, practically complete deforestation, as extensive supplies of wood were required to move and effectively carve the moai. Unsustainable management of the islands long-lived, slow growing indigenous flora resulted in the extinction of practically all native trees and shrubs. The agricultural structure of the island disintegrated as erosion decimated the fertile, unprotected topsoil and fishing was limited by the lack of materials for canoe and outrigger construction. Fuel for warmth during the cold nights became scarce and wild food in the form of fruits and animals and birds disappeared. The population of the island plummeted some 70% and in dark times an increasingly desperate society turned to cannibalism or starvation.

Coinciding with the collapse of the ecosystem and population of the island, the traditional religious class-based structure of Easter Island was also overthrown in a military coup during the middle of the last millennium, which resulted in a fundamental upheaval of the dynamics of Easter Island society – moai were toppled, civil war erupted, traditional homes were abandoned and in their diaspora people took to living in caves for protection from each other.

There is a lesson for us in the sad tale of Easter Island – a once proud, prosperous and advanced society with a rich cultural history descended into chaos, violence and cannibalism at the hands of the environmental mismanagement that they wrought upon themselves, fuelled by their innate sense of competition and greed. Isolated populations can and do collapse under the strain of the overexploitation of the bounty of their natural environment. In the case of Easter Island the pivotal resource was wood; today it could be any number of finite substances in which we place our unbridled trust, and around which our entire society is based: oil, coal, metals and radioactive fuels for example. The Easter Islander who cut down the last tree did so in desperation – probably not aware of the significance of that final plant – but by the time that solitary shrub was felled it was already too late for the population of Easter Island to avert the environmental disaster that was now imminent. The damage was done long before; life giving soils washed into the cold Pacific, canoes vital to fishing rotted and leaked and the chilling wind of violent societal upheaval swept across the tiny island. Decades of short-sighted exploitation, environmental mismanagement, greed and overpopulation resulted in the decimation and collapse of an entire civilisation.

Milky Way Above Easter Island

We are an isolated population here on Earth, as they were on Easter Island. A retrospective microcosm of our lonely planet whose turbulent history should serve as a reminder that our global society is not too big nor too advanced to fail and if, or rather when, it does – when that last tree, or drop of oil, or lump of coal has been forcefully extracted from the earth – then we will have only our blind dependence on non-renewable resources to blame. I hope that in the coming decades we, as a global community, can work together to wean ourselves off of our dependence on non-renewables and take progressive steps towards a globally integrated, sustainable energy solution to ensure that our world does not befall the same fate as that of the Easter Islanders.