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Why Easter Island collapsed: an answer for an enduring question

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  • Barzin Pakandam
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    Abstract

    Easter Island is the most isolated inhabited spot on Earth, devoid of heavy timber and most resources. Yet, the first European travellers to the island marvelled at large and delicately carved statues covering the whole of the island. For centuries, they wondered how those statues were built and transported, resorting to myth and fantasy to explain them. In the twentieth century, it was revealed that the first settlers to inhabit the island encountered a resource rich and bountiful tropical land, abundant in resources. They developed a complex society with strong hierarchy and sophisticated religious rituals, including the carving, transporting, and erecting of the large statues. Gradually, they exploited their resource base to extinction, and consequently fell into decline. Historians have put to rest any theories about the transport and erection of statues. Instead, they debate the causes for decline, and wonder why the islanders permitted the continued exploitation of their resource base, even after they were aware that they were causing severe damages to the environment. Jared Diamond has asked the question, “What were they thinking when they cut down the last palm tree?” This study examines the available historical, archaeological, and anthropological evidence, and combines it with theories of institutional economics pertaining to the management and governing of common-pool resources, in order to arrive at a theory for explaining why Easter Islanders permitted the destruction of their island habitat, and what motivated them to continue doing so. The results show that Easter Island’s ecosystem was unusually fragile, and consequently, in the long-term, decline and collapse was inevitable. The study concludes with implications for modern society.

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    Bibliographic Info

    Paper provided by London School of Economics and Political Science, Department of Economic History in its series Economic History Working Papers with number 27864.

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    Length: 48 pages
    Date of creation: Feb 2009
    Date of revision:
    Handle: RePEc:ehl:wpaper:27864

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    Postal: LSE, Dept. of Economic History Houghton Street London, WC2A 2AE, U.K.
    Phone: +44 (0) 20 7955 7084
    Web page: http://www.lse.ac.uk/economicHistory/
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    1. Koopmans, Tjalling C, 1977. "Concepts of Optimality and Their Uses," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 67(3), pages 261-74, June.
    2. Reuveny, Rafael & Decker, Christopher S., 2000. "Easter Island: historical anecdote or warning for the future?," Ecological Economics, Elsevier, vol. 35(2), pages 271-287, November.
    3. Elinor Ostrom, 2000. "Collective Action and the Evolution of Social Norms," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 14(3), pages 137-158, Summer.
    4. Grossman, Herschel I. & Mendoza, Juan, 2003. "Scarcity and appropriative competition," European Journal of Political Economy, Elsevier, vol. 19(4), pages 747-758, November.
    5. Fernandez, Raquel & Rodrik, Dani, 1991. "Resistance to Reform: Status Quo Bias in the Presence of Individual-Specific Uncertainty," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 81(5), pages 1146-55, December.
    6. Pezzey, John C. V. & Anderies, John M., 2003. "The effect of subsistence on collapse and institutional adaptation in population-resource societies," Journal of Development Economics, Elsevier, vol. 72(1), pages 299-320, October.
    7. Anderies, John M., 2000. "On modeling human behavior and institutions in simple ecological economic systems," Ecological Economics, Elsevier, vol. 35(3), pages 393-412, December.
    8. H. Scott Gordon, 1954. "The Economic Theory of a Common-Property Resource: The Fishery," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 62, pages 124.
    9. Good, David H. & Reuveny, Rafael, 2006. "The fate of Easter Island: The limits of resource management institutions," Ecological Economics, Elsevier, vol. 58(3), pages 473-490, June.
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