I’m flying over an ocean, in the semi-dark of a plane, in an in-between time zone that feels like 3am for several hours until suddenly the breakfast tray wakes everyone up with a start.
I peer over the shoulder of the boy in front of me at the flight map. Are we there yet? Are we even close? My eyes are still blinking, adjusting to the light, when I see from the screen that we’re flying past Easter Island.
Despite my sleep deprivation, the irony of the situation is enough to trigger some deep thoughts.
I’m hurtling towards the biggest international conference in two decades on sustainable development – in other words, how to ensure civilization’s survival into the future. And I’m flying past an island whose sombre statues serve as a monumental warning that there’s no guarantee we’ll succeed.
But beyond the history lesson of Easter Island, we’ve had our own more recent warnings about the consequences of humanity’s unsustainable ways.
Climate change has fundamentally altered the planet I was born on. Already, we’ve pumped up the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by 40%, changing the Earth’s global average temperature by almost one degree. This has led to the Arctic losing 40% of its summer sea ice compared to thirty years ago, and the oceans becoming 30% more acid than they were 40 years ago. It’s led to bigger floods, longer droughts, and record heatwaves – like the new temperature record in Pakistan two years ago of over 53.5 degrees C.
‘Planet Earth doesn’t know how to make it any clearer it wants everyone to leave,’ read a recent headline in the satirical U.S. newspaper The Onion. But if the once-in-a-hundred year extreme weather events happening every few years aren’t enough of a warming, there are enough scientists making it even more explicit for us. I ran into one of them, Professor Will Steffen from the Australian National University, on the plane on the way over here.
Professor Steffen’s schedule while he’s here includes two days of meetings for the Stockholm University Planetary Boundaries Project, an ambitious project to define nine key planetary boundaries and measure how far the world is from hitting up against them (the bad news? We’ve already passed some of them).
“The planetary boundaries concept is a central feature of any approach to global sustainability,” Will tells me. “It simply acknowledges that there are limits to the resources that the Earth can supply and to the rate at which we can extract services from the planet’s biosphere. For humanity to continue to flourish on Earth, we need to respect these intrinsic limits of the planet we inhabit.”
As I move my eyes away from the screen of the flight map to the screen of my Kindle, I turn to the section in Jared Diamond’s book where he explains why Easter Island destroyed their ecology and with it their civilization. ‘A chief’s status depended on his statues,’ he writes. ‘Any chief who failed to cut trees to transport and erect statues would have found himself out of a job.’
Later, Diamond drills the point home:
Thanks to globalization, international trade, jet planes, and the Internet, all countries on Earth today share resources and affect each other, just as did Easter’s eleven clans. Polynesian Easter Island was as isolated in the Pacific Ocean as the Earth is today in space. When the Easter Islanders got into 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 in our own future.