Can allegiance to outdated environmental metaphors unwittingly contribute to undue politicization of the issues? Is Easter Island an apt metaphor for the ‘whole Earth’?

What is the biggest cause of oversimplified or flat-out erroneous public understanding of environmental and climate issues?

Many blame the politicization of science, or misrepresentation of science in the mass media. Others cite low rates of science literacy.

No doubt, those and more contribute to our low-wattage debates on everything from climate change and endangered species to nuclear power and genetic engineering. There is, however, one common denominator in much environmental discourse: the faulty, one-size-fits-all metaphor.


Many of these over-used metaphors stick around long after their shelf life has expired. For example, biologist John Kricher has recently chronicled how the balance of nature paradigm is “ecology’s enduring myth,” picking up where ecologist Daniel Botkin left off in his classic 1990 book, Discordant Harmonies, in which he wrote:

“The potential for us to make progress with environmental issues is limited by the basic assumptions that we make about nature, the unspoken, often recognized perspective from which we view our environment.”

A similar challenge to the notion of pristine nature, a key tenet of environmentalism for many decades, was laid out by historian William Cronon in his provocative 1995 essay, “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting back to the wrong nature.” Like Botkin and Kricher, Cronon noted the unfortunate implications of a dualistic mindset that until recently has framed environmental ideology:

“If we allow ourselves to believe that nature, to be true, must also be wild, then our very presence in nature represents its fall.”

The emergence of urban ecology as a relatively new subdiscipline, along with a greater appreciation for the resilience and importance of urban ecosystems, suggests that our attitudes about nature are maturing.

But just as this paradigm shift is taking place, a new, simplistic ecological metaphor — Easter Island as poster child for eco-collapse — has taken hold in the public consciousness. Unfortunately, this metaphor is the flipside of western romanticization of Native American cultures that supposedly lived in harmony with nature. With Easter Island, instead, we have the story of an indigenous people (Polynesian settlers) who deforested a “pristine tropical island” after the population grew beyond its means, setting in motion a chain of events that destroyed the island’s ecology and native culture.

This story was popularized by Jared Diamond in his 2005 bestseller, Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed. With scientists increasingly warning of global ecosystems pushed to their breaking points, Easter Island has come to serve as cautionary lesson for our times.

Diamond accents this point in his book:

“When the Easter Islanders got into their difficulties, there was nowhere to which they could flee, or to which they could turn for help; nor shall we modern Earthlings have recourse elsewhere if our troubles increase. Those are the reasons why people see the collapse of Easter Island society as a metaphor, a worst-case scenario, for what may lie ahead of us in our future.”

Perhaps. But in recent years, Diamond’s Easter Island narrative has been vigorously challenged by scholars who contend that the real story is a great deal more complex than many of us have been led to believe.

Last week, the environmental writer Mark Lynas wrote a synopsis of this evidence, which drew a nearly instant rebuttal from Diamond. In the comment thread, iconic environmentalist Stewart Brand shows up and, while trying to avoid taking sides, offers this nugget:

“My own sense as a onetime ecologist is that we over interpret remote island events in whole-Earth terms.”

But precisely because of the way Easter Island’s history has been interpreted and invested with powerful symbolic meaning, we may see this debate over scholarly evidence harden into entrenched positions, as has happened with aspects of the climate debate. Because of legitimate concerns about climate tipping points and ecological thresholds, some will feel compelled to defend what may well be an inaccurate metaphor.

But the history of eco-metaphors thus far suggests they are similar to prehistoric island societies: they rise and fall over time.

Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a New York City-based freelance journalist who writes often about the environment and climate change.