Easter Island Revisited

Tam Dalyell

  • A Green History of the World by Clive Ponting
    Sinclair-Stevenson, 352 pp, £16.95, May 1991, ISBN 1 85619 050 1

In my 29 years as a Member of the House of Commons, I can recollect only one occasion when I have broken out in a cold sweat of anxiety. It was on a Saturday morning, at home, when I was shaving and listening to the 7 a.m. BBC Radio News. Headline Number One: a senior civil servant had been taken into custody for an alleged breach of the Official Secrets Act.

For many months, since July 1982, I had been campaigning by Parliamentary Question to try to find out the truth behind the decision to sink the 44-year-old American cruiser Phoenix, survivor of Pearl Harbour and later the General Belgrano, during the Falklands War. Publicity on the issue had made me,as happens to campaigning MPs, a receptacle for information. Some of the letters were nutty: others were informed, and came from men who had been at sea. Most were signed – a few were anonymous, and these tended to go into the waste-paper basket. Then there arrived one anonymous letter which was quite different from any other letter I had received about the Belgrano. I knew it could only have been written by someone at the very heart of Government decision-making during the Falklands War; it told me that I had been deceived by ministers. I suppressed the politician’s first instinct to scamper off to the Political Editor of the Press Association, or some sympathetic journalist. The letter revealed, inter alia, that the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs and the Franks Committee had had truth withheld from them. I supposed that the Chairman of the Select Committee would be outraged, and formally sent him the document. But the call of loyalty to party on crunch occasions is apt to rise above the call of loyalty to the House of Commons, and to the democratic process. Sir Anthony Kershaw, instead of asking ministers questions arising from the document, handed it to the Defence Secretary, Michael Heseltine, and his department. Let no one kid themselves that, in our system, Select Committees of the House of Commons with an in-built Government majority will perform the same investigatory functions as the Committees of Congress. On really delicate matters, the system tends to obfuscate.

To get back to that Saturday morning. My immediate reaction was that some poor sod, trusting me, and concerned about honesty in government, had been landed in the shit. It was at that moment that I heard the name of Clive Ponting for the first time.

During 11 long days at the Old Bailey, luck was with us. Ponting’s solicitor, Brian Raymond, was resourceful. Merlyn Rees agreed to be a witness, and most effective he was. The jury was taken aback when Mr Heseltine’s Civil Service Private Secretary, Richard Mottram, casually revealed, to the incredulity of Ponting’s counsel and the jury, that the Commander-in Chief’s Official Report on the Falklands War had been tampered with behind his back, in relation to the crucial timing of the contact between HMS Conqueror and the Belgrano. And I started to believe that Ponting might have the sympathy of the jury when an elderly gentleman stepped into the witness box, to be treated by the judge as if he were some vagrant off the street, and asked aggressively if he was trying to teach the judge his law. The elderly gentleman had for fifteen years been Professor of English Law in Oxford. With a better-mannered judge, Mr Ponting could have gone to prison. Instead, the jury unanimously decided to acquit him.

In my three decades as a Member of the House of Commons, I have had a lot to do with drafters of documents. Politicians are quite good. Journalists less so. Businessmen are often poor. Trade-unionists often good. Civil servants are generally mediocre. But there are a few, perhaps a very few, civil servants and clerks of the House of Commons, who are in different league from the rest of us. I would mention the late Dame Evelyn Sharpe, (who was better than her minister, Dick Crossman, which caused trouble), and my colleague Lord ‘Tommy’ Brimelow, Permanent Secretary of the Foreign Office, who, as a Member of Labour’s first delegation to the indirectly-elected European Parliament, used to help the rest of us express ourselves. Into this exalted company I put Clive Ponting. Ponting traces the far-reaching changes brought about by the adoption of agriculture and the spread of settled societies, the dramatic impact of Europe on the wildlife and people of the rest of the world, the problems caused by the need to feed increasing numbers of people, the changing pattern of energy use from human and animal power to fossil fuels, the rise of cities, the creation of affluent societies, the consumption of the world’s resources, and the inexorable growth of pollution.

Ponting provides not only an historical account of the development of global problems such as climatic change and destruction of tropical forest, but also a different approach to human history from the earliest hunting and gathering groups to the present day. Political, military and diplomatic events are left to others. He reflects on the fundamental forces which have shaped human history, on how and why humans have changed the world.

He devotes his first chapter to Easter Island. What amazed and intrigued the ships’ crews from Europe who called at the island, 150 square miles in area, and 2000 miles from the Chilean coast, was the evidence, among squalor and barbarism, of a once flourishing and advanced society. Scattered across the island were over six hundred massive stone statues, on average over twenty feet high. Captain Cook and others could not understand how the primitive, poverty-stricken society which they witnessed could have constructed and shifted these impressive monuments, or how the cannibals they saw could be the descendants of an advanced civilisation. In one of the best-told story-books of the 1950s, AkuAku, the Norwegian anthropologist Thor Heyerdahl argued that the island was first settled from South America, and that from that continent, the people inherited a tradition of monumental sculpture and stonework similar to the achievements of the Incas. To account for the decline, Heyerdahl introduced the idea that at a late stage other settlers arrived from the west, and began a series of wars between the so-called ‘long-ears’ and the ‘short-cars’ that destroyed the complex society of the island.

Ponting’s explanation is markedly different, and I find it convincing. Ponting points to recent scientific work, involving the analysis of pollen types, which demonstrates that at the time of initial settlement in 400-500 AD from Polynesia, Easter Island had a dense vegetation cover, including extensive woods.As the population slowly increased, trees would have been cut down to provide clearings for agriculture, fuel for heating and cooking, construction material for household goods, pole-and-thatch houses and canoes for fishing. The most demanding requirement of all was the need to move the large number of enormously heavy statues to ceremonial sites around the island. The only way this could have been done was by large numbers of people guiding and sliding them along a form of flexible track made up of tree trunks spread on the ground between the quarry and the centres of ceremonial activity known as the ahu. Prodigious quantities of timber would have been needed, and in increasing amounts, as the competition between the clans to erect statues grew. By 1600, virtually every tree had been cut down to provide fuel, to build houses and boats, and to provide the rollers for the haunting ceremonial statues. After 1600, Easter Island society regressed to ever more primitive conditions. Without trees, and so without canoes, the islanders were trapped in their remote home, unable to escape the consequences of their self-inflicted environmental collapse. Ponting warns that the same thing could happen to us.

Living conditions deteriorated on Easter Island. Crop yields declined. People died off. In 1722, the Europeans found, not a sophisticated society of 7000 people, but a squalid, cannibalistic society of 3000. The inability to erect any more statues must have had a devastating effect on the belief systems and social organisation. There must have been mounting conflict over diminishing resources, and, in the end, a state of almost permanent warfare.

The Easter Islanders, Ponting writes, must surely have realised that, isolated as they were from the rest of the world, their very existence depended on the limited resources of a small island. Indeed, at the very time when the limitations of the island must have become starkly apparent, the competition between the clans for the available timber seems to have intensified, and more and more statues were carved and moved across the island in an attempt to secure prestige. The fact that so many were left unfinished or stranded near the quarry suggests that no account was taken of how few trees were left on the island.

Like the Easter Islanders, the human population of the Earth has no practical means of escape, and the central issue of the book is expressed in Ponting’s foreboding that at the end of the 20th century we are allowing ourselves to fall into the same trap. He reminds us that for the last two million years, human beings have succeeded in obtaining more food and extracting more resources on which to sustain increasing numbers of people and increasingly complex and technologically advanced studies. But have we been any more successful than the Easter Islanders in finding a way of life that does not fatally deplete the resources available to us and irreversibly damage our life-support system?

Ponting chooses as one of the supporting strands to his theme the work of Sir Leonard Woolley. As it happens, my father was a relative of Sir Arthur Evans, who led the excavation of Knossos, and Woolley was Evans’s deputy for a period. As secretary to Sir William Willcocks, the Imperial engineer responsible for the construction of dams on the Tigris and the Euphrates, my father was in a position to be helpful to Woolley, who became a friend (and, as I found in my childhood, made a wonderful storyteller). Ponting recalls that when, in 1936, Woolley published a book about his excavations on one of the earliest cities of Sumer, Ur of the Chaldees, he was puzzled by the desolate, largely treeless landscape of contemporary Mesopotamia. So was everyone else. It is difficult to realise that this blank waste had ever blossomed and borne fruit for the sustenance of a busy world. Why, if Ur was an Empire’s capital, if Sumer was a vast granary, has the population dwindled to nothing, the very soil lost its virtue. My dad, who was later aide to Sir Percy Cox, founder of Kuwait, was inclined to a theory of shifting oases. Ponting’s answer is that the Sumerians themselves destroyed the world they had so painstakingly created.

The valley of the twin rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates, posed major problems for any society, especially in the south. The rivers were at their height in the spring, following the melting of the winter snow at their sources, and were at their lowest in August and October, the time when the newly planted crops needed most water. In the north of Mesopotamia, the problem was eased by the late autumn and winter rains, but the rainfall was very low, and often non-existent further south. This meant that in the Sumerian region water storage and irrigation were essential if crops were to be grown. But a combination of harsh conditions meant that the processes involved both costs and benefits. At first, the advantages would have outweighed the disadvantages, but a series of major problems would slowly have become apparent. In summer, temperatures are often up to 40 degrees centigrade, which increases evaporation from the surface and, in consequence, the amount of salt in the soil. Water retention in the deeper layers of the soil, and hence the risk of waterlogging, are aggravated by two factors. The soil itself has low permeability. This is made worse by the slow rate of drainage, caused by the very flat land. And this, in turn, is made worse by the amount of silt coming down the rivers, caused in part by deforestation in the highlands, which added about five feet of silt every millennium and caused the delta of the two rivers to extend by about fifteen feet a millennium. As the land became more water logged and the water table rose, more salt was brought to the surface, where the high evaporation rates produced a thin layer of the substance.

Ponting points out that modern agricultural knowledge suggests that the only way to avoid the worst of these problems is to leave the land fallow and unwatered for long periods to allow the level of the water table to fall. The internal pressures within Sumerian society made this impossible and brought about disaster.The limited amount of land that could be irrigated, rising population, the need to feed more bureaucrats and soldiers, and the mounting competition between the city states, all increased the pressure to intensify the agricultural system. The overwhelming requirement to grow food meant that it was impossible to leave land fallow for long. Short-term demands outweighed consideration of the need for long-term stability and the maintenance of a sustainable agricultural system. The salinisation of the soil meant that in city states such as Kish and Ur little or no wheat was grown after a thousand years. Perhaps it is not a very different story to that of parts of Africa and North-Eastern Brazil in our own day.

Politicians and even civil servants look at the world in terms of the here and now, and the top of an in-tray. Ponting has a different perspective. If current European and American levels of consumption were to be stabilised, he thinks it doubtful whether the rest of the world – over 80 per cent of the people on Earth – could even pursue the process of industrialisation and attain these levels. The number of people in the world is expected to be six billion by the end of the century. If they were to live at the current European – not American – levels of consumption, it would, says Ponting, require a 140-fold increase in world steel production together with a similar increase in other key materials. It is unlikely that there are enough mineral or energy resources to sustain this level, and the consequences of the attempt in terms of pollution would probably be catastrophic. But the non-industrialised world aspires to industrialisation on the Western model and some countries are firmly set on the road. This, says Ponting, raises major problems of equity as to whether the Third World could or should be persuaded from industrialising because of the possible consequences in terms of resource consumption and pollution, when the current problems of unequal development and pollution are mainly the responsibility of the industrialised world.