Located on the southeastern part of the Polynesian Triangle in the Pacific Ocean is Easter Island. To the general public, Easter Island is famous for the 887 stone heads that populate the landmass (Tilburg). It is also the home of some 6,000 citizens that belong to the country of Chile. In the world of anthropology, archeology, and environmental studies, Easter Island is greatly known for its cultural past that would later lead to the near destruction of the native population. Easter Island serves to many scientists, anthropologists, and environmental alarmists as a case study that shows the dangers and consequences of overpopulation.
The island was originally inhabited by the Rapa Nui people who were traced back to areas in Asia. They would then be integrated with the Polynesians when settlers arrived. The Rapa Nui that occupied the island had a lush vibrant forest at their disposal. From studies gathered from the pollen on the island the palm trees reached as tall as eighty-two feet (Earthcare). The natives would use the trees to build canoes, tools, and to use as fuel for fires. Though, the destruction of the forest is cited to have started around 400 C.E. As the human population grew the deforestation grew until the palm population what completely extinct on the island by 1500 C.E. When settlers first arrived on Easter Island they found a devastated population with the plant life only starting to come back. Though, the trees did not reach any higher than ten feet (Earthcare).
The animal population was also once a thriving community that lived alongside the humans. Only they too would see a brutal devastation due to the human activity. Birds such as albatross, petrels, terns, and other tropical birds called Easter Island their home (Earthcare). These animals were a large part of the Rapa Nui diet. As the population grew and the forest declined so did the animal population. Eventually, the entire animal population on the island would go extinct. With having ve
As mentioned by the authors of Earthcare, the rise and fall of the Rapa Nui “may be a cautionary tale for our world today” (Earthcare 613). Upon examination, it is easy to see the ways the problems of Easter Island are parallel to the problems of the world population.
Paul and Anne Ehrlich state, “the key issue in judging overpopulation is not how many people can fit in any given space but whether the population’s requirements for food, water, other resources and ecosystem services can be met on a sustainable basis” (Earthcare 617). This link between resource-use and overpopulation is striking when one examines the decline of the Rapa Nui. It is important to recognize that the issue in this scenario wasn’t that there was too little space. Rather, it was that the resource use by the population proved unsustainable. The global population and its overall resource use is alarming in its likeness to the history of Easter Island—although on a much grander scale. For this reason, it can be difficult to see clearly the realities of the population situation, and its possible effects. This is seen in the attempts to deny overpopulations or its problems. The reality is that overpopulation is real, it is happening now, and the consequences are dire.
Like the Rapa Nui, the global population has been overusing its supply of resources at an alarming rate. Easter Island was once a place with fantastic natural resources—it was a rich, sub-tropical forest of trees, bushes and shrubs. (Earthcare 613). The available resources were slowly, but surely, used up entirely. First the palm tree became extinct, then the hauhau tree, and later the entire forest. Native animals soon followed, including every species of native bird and porpoises. The miracle of life on earth is seen in the amazing resources this planet has, but these resources are being plundered. It has taken the earth as long as a millennium to produce inches of mere soils; today, they are being eroded at inches per decade (Earthcare 615). Over thousands of years during glacial periods, freshwater sources were created and expanded; now, “[they] are being mined as if they were metals” (Earthcare 615). The Ehrlichs stress that biodiversity is being destroyed “…at a rate unprecedented in 65 million years” (Earthcare 615).
It is food, water, and biodiversity that are our most important resources—they are the pillars of human existence. By the time of their decline, the Rapa Nui were not prioritizing the conservation of these resources. Instead, their continued lifestyle was given the most weight. “Perhaps any islander who tried to warn others about the dangers of progressive deforestation would have been overridden by the vested interests of those whose jobs depended on continued deforestation” (Earthcare 613). Similarly, the world has prioritized the economy. Our governments, especially at national and international levels, have failed to incite change when it comes to resource consumption, overpopulation and other environmental issues. Prominent economist Pavan Sukhdev has said: “The rules of business urgently need to be changed, so corporations compete on the basis of innovation, resource conservation and satisfaction of multiple stakeholder demands, rather than on the basis of who is most effective in influencing government regulation, avoiding taxes and obtaining subsidies for harmful activities to maximise the return for shareholders” (The Guardian). Our system is money-minded, and hinges on perpetual overuse of resources. The Rapa Nui had such a system, and when they did not change their ways, faced dire consequences. They were forced to radically change their lifestyle (by becoming cannibals). In order to avoid such extremes, we need to create change ourselves. As Stephen Emmott put, “The behavioural changes that are required of us are so fundamental that no one wants to make them. What are they? We need to consume less. A lot less.”
A Global Environmental Threat
Overpopulation has been argued as the largest threat to our existence. Part of the issue is our problematic mindset: we don’t see continued expansion as an issue. It is not well understood that if we continue to expand at this alarming rate that we will soon run out of natural resources. Fresh water is a serious concern with overpopulation. With the amount of water that humans are using and consuming, it is not being replaced fast enough. Consuming too much water results in dried lake beds that turn into dust particles. These dust particles are then polluting the air. One issue easily snowballs into many.
As mentioned, the decrease in biodiversity is one of the more disastrous consequences of overpopulation. As the population continues to increase there is a higher demand for certain types of plants: plants for clothing, trees for paper, food, etc. We have a misconception that qw can re-plant whatever we consume. The problem with this is that if the plants and crops we are planting come from the same genetic makeup and age then this leads to problems, such as diseases and pests. The more demand for certain crops the less biodiversity there will be.
Another environmental issue related to overpopulation is waste. Landfills have been an issue for decades now because they are running out of space. It follows that the more our population grows, the more waste there will be. Some of the waste is toxic which is leaching into the soil and groundwater supply. When toxic waste leaks into the groundwater it creates more of a risk for the freshwater supply as well and leads to the annihilation of certain types of species (Plant Save).
It can be difficult to decipher the impact that humans have on the environment when it comes to the environment. In Earthcare it is stated, “Assessing the environmental impact of the growing human population is complicated by the fact that the impact of each human on the natural environment is not equal” (Earthcare 609). Population growth is not equal throughout the world. Less developed countries are growing at a higher rate than in most developed countries that are growing at a steadier rate. The increase in population and in the rate of urbanization and mobility that is happening, is a very serious threat to the environment. There are scientists that warn that if we wait for the carrying capacity to limit the population size naturally then we would need to be willing to accept famine, low living standards, unemployment, political instability, and ecological destruction. Naturally scientists and economists find this unacceptable and believe that we need to find a different route to curb population growth.
It is a misconception that overpopulation does not affect our environment as significantly as it does. The current population will use up the natural resources and continue to decimate biodiversity. The overpopulation is eradicating many species and plants, it is draining the freshwater supply, and filling the landfills with toxic wastes. The human population is growing so much that we do not have the supplies such as crops to sustain the population. It seems that the only option humans have is to make enormous lifestyle changes.
Clowney, David, and Patricia Mosto, eds. Earthcare: An Anthology in Environmental Ethics. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2009. Print.