Easter Island’s Collapse : A Tale of a Population Race
The Easter Island tragedy has become an allegory for ecological catastrophe and a warning for the future. In the economic literature the collapse is usually attributed to irrational or myopic behaviors in the context of a fragile ecosystem. In this paper we propose an alternative story involving non-cooperative bargaining between clans to share the crop. Each clan’s bargaining power depends on its threat level when fighting a war. The biggest group has the highest probability of winning. A clan’s fertility is determined ex ante by each group. In the quest for greater bargaining power, each clan’s optimal size depends on that of the other clan, and a population race follows. This race may exhaust the natural resources and lead to the ultimate collapse of the society. In addition to well-known natural factors, the likelihood of a collapse turns out to be greater when the cost of war is low, the probability of succeeding in war is highly responsive to the number of fighters, and the marginal return to labor is not too low. We analyze whether these factors can account for the difference between Easter and Tikopia Islands. The paper also makes a methodological contribution in that it is the first fertility model to include strategic complementarities between groups’ fertility decisions
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