Are You an Easter Islander or a Tikopian?
First published in Common Ground Magazine, 2005.
Among my friends, there are many who are really very troubled about the way things are going on our small little planet, stuck out in isolation on an obscure limb of the Milky Way galaxy.
Some have a deeply pessimistic feeling. They despair of the way we humans are ravaging our ecosystems. They point to Easter Island, where over the centuries, the Polynesian settlers first destroyed the tropical paradise they had found, and then turned on each other and fought to the death over the last remaining resources, while all the time praying to some stupid stone statues. The Mayans did much the same thing.
They see this as a metaphor for all humanity, and if you look at the facts in a purely material way, it’s easy to agree. Whether you consider what we’re doing to the oceans, the atmosphere, the forests, the farmlands, our planet’s wildlife, the melting Arctic, the toxins that are accumulating inside our bodies, or the unbelievable sums of money that we spend on fighting while children suffer and starve, it does seem as if we are behaving with the same short-sightedness and stupidity that have destroyed previous human civilizations. Ronald Wright’s recent Massey lectures “A Short History of Progress”, broadcast on CBC Ideas, have strengthened this deep sense of hopelessness and pessimism.
When facing such terminal despair, what can be more comforting than to believe salvation is just around the corner, whether of a new age or a cultist variety? The Christian fundamentalist belief in the end times, the rapture, and the imminent return of Jesus is every bit as stupid as the Easter Islanders’ belief that if they built enough statues, their problems would be mystically solved. If you doubt this, check out www.raptureready.com, and wonder. This is the kind of stuff that several members of the Bush government apparently believe in, and use to shape their policies on Israel and the Middle East. (See www.villagevoice.com/issues/0420/perlstein.php)
My personal response to it all is “Phooey!”. In justification for my positive outlook, I call to the witness stand the Polynesian islanders of Tikopia, who live in the Solomon Islands a thousand kilometres east of Honiara (six thousand kilometres west of Easter Island).
About a thousand years ago, they too began to observe the collapse of their island ecosystem, but rather than go loopy, they decided over a period of several hundred years to limit their population growth to zero, to shift to forest-based permaculture, and to stop having animals for meat on the island. The result has been a complete turnaround, and they now enjoy a very stable and peaceful life, of which they are very proud. They don’t have cellphones and SUVs, but that’s not how they measure their wealth. (See www.janesoceania.com/solomons_tikopia)
The critical piece which we need to understand is this. All positive change occurs in three stages. First, you visualize the outcome, and picture the future as a clear reality in your mind. This is known as hope. We practice it every day, even though it is often unconscious.
Secondly, you summon up the will to act. You engage your mental and spiritual muscle, and decide to act in the direction of your vision. And then thirdly, you act.
This sequence is true whether you are aiming to win a soccer tournament, plan a party, or organize a campaign to stop violence against women.
So here’s the key. The Easter Islanders lost hope. They were so isolated that they lost hope of contact with other Polynesians, and lost the vision of their heritage. From that moment on, their demise was pre-ordained.
The Tikopians did not lose hope. They were close enough to other Polynesians to know that their life and culture were deeply valuable, and they held onto hope as they worked to change the way they lived and protect their island ecosystem.
I hope you appreciate the power of these ideas. The single most powerful factor in determining whether a culture will destroy itself or rejuvenate itself is its own inner choice whether to hold fast to hope or to give up hope.
As a planet, we certainly appear to be isolated. If there are other space-beings who know of our existence, they are either being very shy, or they are obeying the Galactic Guide to Immature Civilizations (Rule #37: Don’t reveal yourselves until they have stopped exhibiting paranoid aggressive tendencies), or they’ve been with us all along, masquerading as angels, devas, and other bright spirits.
As a community of people, we are not isolated. Our planet is chock full of people who have the ideas, the skills, and the commitment needed to generate the vision, the political will, and the results that are needed to steer ourselves onto a different path. All that we need is you!
So please be aware, the next time you fear an attack of the post-millennial ecofatalistic blues, that there’s a simple remedy. Just remember this: it is we ourselves who are the heroes and heroines in the Earth-Saga, and there’s nothing more that the villains want than for us to give up and say “It’s hopeless”. Well, phooey to that.