Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Easter Island

Like many children of my generation, I had the book, The Giving Tree. It’s the story of a tree who loves a little boy, and gives him apples and provides him with hours of climbing fun. As he gets older, though, he doesn’t just take apples, but lumber to build a house, and a boat, until the tree, who has lovingly given him all this, is nothing but a stump. In the end, the boy, now an old man, looks only for a place to sit, and the tree stump provides him with that. And she is happy.

Even as a kid I found it creepy, a bit of a warning to kids Not To Have Kids. They will take and take and you will be left nothing but a stump. They will think nothing of it, even. The boy thinks nothing of cutting down the tree, merely the short-term benefit he will gain.

The Giving Tree was published in 1964, just two years after Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring. Silent Spring was a wakeup call that led to the banning of the pesticide DDT, lent momentum to the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency, and was a catalyst for the formation of an environmental movement that still exists today. I would not be at all surprised to find that Shel Silverstein was influenced in part by Silent Spring. Humanity takes and takes, nature gives until there is nothing left to give.

There are many in the world who think that it is humankinds right, maybe even destiny, to take from nature, to use the resources that are available to the fullest. Those people claim that human actions do not make a difference to the biology of the Earth. Maybe it is all God’s plan; maybe nature will recover as if nothing happened. How can we be sure?

My father doesn't believe that ecological conservation is a reasonable cause. He would tell me it was ridiculous. He would tell me that climate change was a myth, or that it was only part of the normal changes the planet goes through, and it was a waste of time to try to recycle or reduce litter or greenhouse gases. I told him that it was possible he was right, but what possible harm could there be in making the world a more beautiful place? What could possibly be gained by littering the planet with garbage? And think of all we lose by leaving the world a grayer, dirtier place for the next generations.

History shows us a different story, if we choose to listen.

When Europeans first happened upon Easter Island (on an Easter Sunday, hence the name), they discovered an island very unlike the other islands of the South Pacific. Green and grassy, but oddly treeless, the island bristled with massive stone figures, crouching men with huge heads and hollow eye sockets. Stunning and confusing, the island shows up in many books, magazines, and is generally discussed as being a “mystery”. How did these massive sculptures come to be erected, which logically should require rope and lumber, both of which are totally lacking on Easter? There were for many years some interesting theories, including space aliens and super-lost Vikings.

It’s not magic or alien technology. They did use lumber from trees. Moving the giant figures used many trees: the trees which are no longer there.

Research shows the island had at one time been as forested as its neighbors. One theory suggests that rats, stowaways on the boats of the Polynesians who settled Easter Island, ate the trees, leading to the deforestation. Another theory, espoused in the book Collapse, how societies choose to fail, by Jared Diamond, suggests that the statues themselves are the reason for the lack of trees. It was a passion, those sculptures. The statues became bigger and bigger, and were placed on large platforms, then had red stone hats balanced on top. Like a stone Keeping-Up-With-the-Joneses competition, he suggests tribal leaders sought to one-up each other. And as they strove to produce the largest and grandest sculptures, they required more trees, more resources, until there were no more trees. And once there were no trees there was no way to move the stone figures to their destinations, and to stand them up. Half-finished figures remain in the quarry, never to be completed.

Diamond asks, “what went through the mind of the person who cut down the last tree on Easter Island?”  Did he think, “there must be trees elsewhere, this isn’t the last one”? The gods will provide. We must have this tree for the rituals to succeed. I’m just following orders. Those who say there are no more trees are wrong. I am getting paid for this tree, and with that I will feed my family. We cannot know, since that person is long gone and left no story, leaving only the monolithic Easter Island sculptures.

The take away I got from Collapse, from stories which seem as different as those of the Norse settlement of Greenland and the recent genocide in Rwanda, is that societies collapse when they (when WE) fail to adapt to dwindling resources. It is easy to look at the deforestation of Easter Island and think that we would have done differently, that the trees were more important than stone figures. But what is different today? Like the inhabitants of Easter Island, humans are all on this island Earth, using up food, fuel, and land with a narrow intensity. When the resources here are gone they will be totally gone. There is no other island we can migrate to, no other world waiting for us a few days canoe ride away.

The Earth is our island, our life boat, and once we have cut down the last tree, polluted the last well, and burned the last fossil fuel, then what? Will we settle for a less beautiful life, a life with less, and be content? Will we say this is as it always was and is meant to be?

Earth Day, April 22nd, is a day for education and affirmation of our commitment to helping, not harming, the environment. Started in 1970 in response to a California oil spill, it is now a reminder for us to lessen our impact on the planet. 

Earth Day was inaugurated as a day for the people of the world to celebrate and honor the planet we all inhabit. Ecological issues were quite popular, though not new. There was a growing awareness of the planet not as an inert and static stone, but as a living organism, the interactions of plants, animals, and minerals coming together and working in synchronicity. And humans are part of that organism or at the most outside, the stewards of the planet. As UUs we accept that we are part of the interconnectedness of life. When we harm the life of this planet we harm ourselves.

The UUI Green Team works on projects which we can, as part of the church community and neighborhood as well as citizen of our city, make a difference. The solar panels on the Cottage reduce our dependence on the electric grid, reducing the consumption of fossil fuels. The lights in the sanctuary have been changed to LED, which not only reduces the waste of changing light bulbs frequently, but also cuts our cooling costs in summer, as the lights generate less heat.  The neighborhood cleanup, removing trash from the alleys of Butler-Tarkington, together with residents of our church community, removes waste of all kinds from our neighborhood and encourages us all to be more conscientious about our trash. These are small, local projects, but like the trees of Easter Island it is each small act which makes ripples, spreading outward and reverberating through our lives and culture.

Outside of the church, there is plenty we can do. The Earth Day Network site suggests actions to reduce our carbon footprint, a catchword for how much of Earth resources we use. I took their playful quiz, and it suggests a few simple actions: fewer meals that are meat-based, since raising meat animals uses more resources than vegetables, more local foods to reduce the amount of fossil fuels used in transportation, and choosing foods that require less packaging. We can all take those simple steps.

Being Earth-conscious can also be economical. Use mass-transit or carpooling whenever possible, or ride a bicycle or walk. Buy in bulk, in ways which reduce both the number of trips you make to shop and the packaging. Reuse packaging and storage when possible. When house-shopping we chose to live in a neighborhood where many of the resources we use, restaurants, library, shops, parks, are walking distance. In modern cities, that isn’t always possible, but small choices can have long reaching impacts. Change your lighting to LED or CFLs. Install a solar panel. I’m sure you know of a few things you could do.

I know it can be frustrating, too. I don’t currently have the income to afford a car with better gas mileage, or a hybrid electric. I don’t work close enough to home to ride a bike to work, and there are no buses that would get me there in a timely way. I sadly depend on easy too often. I could have been that tree-cutter on Easter Island, cutting down the tree to pay for my family’s meal or because it was the easiest and fastest way to get the job done. I admit it, I’m addicted to our Western, all-American lifestyle. Some of us take running water, electricity, and cars for granted, as if those are rights protected by the Constitution. They are not, they are luxuries to most of the world, and should be treated as such by those of us lucky enough to have them.

I’m not suggesting that we have to change everything at once. I don’t know about you and your family, but I’m sure if I suggested we go vegetarian and sell the van and only use a bike or bus there would be a mutiny in my household. But I can certainly institute a Meatless Monday meal. We can make one of our family downtown museum trips by bus or bike instead of car. I invite you this week to think of one action you and your household can take to change your impact on the Earth, one thing to preserve nature as it is now, instead of nature in a meaner and reduced state. Perhaps you can raise your own chickens or a garden. Perhaps you will join our Green Team. Perhaps you can find greater ways to help the planet than I can even imagine. If you do, please let us know. Let’s not be that person who cut down the last tree on Easter Island. Let us celebrate the Earth. After all, it is the only one we have.