The real lesson of Easter Island

Ancient cultures provide societies responsible for devastating climate change with a contemporary me

Ancient cultures have much to teach us. Unfortunately, we still haven’t learned how to look at them with unbiased eyes. Our examination of enigmatic ancient monuments, such as the stone figures on the tiny Easter Island, reveals only the predilections and perversity of our own world-view, rather than the reality of the people who produced them.

I call this the Grafton Elliot Smith effect. The great Australian anatomist believed that any sign of sophistication in the ancient world was the product of the Children of the Sun – that is, the Egyptians. Why? Because sophistication, capability, invention, your basic thought and imagination, were rare attributes. The world belonged to the savage primitive and only a few ever rose above that level. In modern times, by overwhelming general agreement, the few boiled down to white Europeans.

While academia has moved on from Smith, the popular imagination has not. It is much more gratifying and soothing to look at ancient cultures from a supremacist self-image.

The Rapanui, the people who colonised Easter Island (Rapa Nui), are the prototype for this phenomenon. They are seen through the constructed lens of what it is to be primitive. Not only do primitives lack capability and rationality, they also have perverse beliefs and are mired in superstition. What else could one expect these people to do than to destroy their own environment, engage in warfare and cannibalism, and kill themselves off in slavish worship of false gods – whose empty eyes are all that remain?

The story of Rapa Nui is a morality tale of ecological devastation. As promoted by Jared Diamond in his bestseller Collapse, this theory has the inhabitants felling their forests to erect enormous, enigmatic stone statues. Without wood to build boats, they were marooned and unable to fish. Finally, cannibalism sealed their fate, thus providing an ecological lesson for us all.

Not a word of this thesis is true. Research by Terry Hunt of the University of Hawaii and Carl Lipo of California State University shows that the people of Rapa Nui did not kill themselves or destroy their environment. What killed their society was rats. The rodents had no predators on the island and its huge palm trees were rat candy. Hunt and Lipo’s analysis, published in Rapa Nui Journal (21 (2): 85-97, 2007), notes the absence of evidence for either organised warfare or cannibalism. Moreover, the trees were not used to build these large statues. Far from being an example of ecological collapse, Rapa Nui provides us with the opposite lesson.

So why do we insist on looking at “primitive cultures” in aggressively negative terms? I think we are attracted to the idea of native people doing themselves in for two main reasons. We find it difficult to face our own colonial history – it is not easy to acknowledge that the arrival of western Europeans wiped out numerous indigenous cultures throughout the Americas and Oceania, and sealed their fates subsequently by missionary activities and the slave trade. It is an ugly history we would rather turn away from.

Yet ancient cultures also provide societies responsible for devastating climate change with a contemporary means of guilt replacement – as Diamond’s book demonstrates. If the impetus to self-destruct can be located far away and long ago, then it is not something shameful in us, the inheritors of gas-guzzling consumer abundance, based as it is on environmental despoiling and squandering. The more we cannot know about the rationality and sophistication that once was Rapa Nui, the less we have to hold ourselves to account for our present deeds of global excess.

Just what would we do without such primitive fairy tales?

Ziauddin Sardar, writer and broadcaster, describes himself as a ‘critical polymath’. He is the author of over 40 books, including the highly acclaimed ‘Desperately Seeking Paradise’. He is Visiting Professor, School of Arts, the City University, London and editor of ‘Futures’, the monthly journal of planning, policy and futures studies.

This article first appeared in the 03 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Gas gangsters

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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.