Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Last Tree on the Island

Toujoursdan has a sobering reflection on societies facing dangers of social disintegration and environmental disaster who decide to turn inward and bring on catastrophe. He uses the spectacular example of Rapanui (Easter Island). When people first arrived there, it was a lush, thickly forested island with abundant resources. For centuries, the inhabitants of that island created the most advanced of all Pacific civilizations, the only one to develop a written language. The island's resources began to dwindle with over-exploitation. Clan rivalries broke out. Finally, the island's rich forests were reduced to one tree. I have to wonder what was going through their heads when they decided to cut down the last tree on the island. The island remains treeless to this day. The island's civilization collapsed into chaos and anarchy with people in the end resorting to cannibalism.

As it looks to me like initiatives to address the healthcare crisis and global warming are about to wreck, and our whole political system seems paralyzed with corruption and factionalism, I wonder if we are approaching that "last tree on the island" moment.

Thucydides, an Athenian general 2500 years ago, watched his native city and the rest of Greece collapse into the Peloponnesian War. This extended passage from his reflection on the civil war that tore apart the city of Corcyra should give us pause:

As the result of these revolutions, there was a general deterioration of character throughout the Greek world. The simple way of looking at things, which is so much the mark of a noble nature, was regarded as a ridiculous quality and soon ceased to exist. Society had become divided into two ideologically hostile camps, and each side viewed the other with suspicion. As for ending this state of affairs, no guarantee could be given that would be trusted, no oath sworn that people would fear to break; everyone had come to the conclusion that it was hopeless to expect a permanent settlement and so, instead of being able to feel confident in others, they devoted their energies to provide against being injured themselves. As a rule those who were least remarkable for intelligence showed greater powers of survival. Such people recognized their own deficiencies and the superior intelligence of their opponents; fearing they might lose a debate or find themselves out-manouvered in intrigue by their quick-witted enemies, they boldly launched straight into action; while their opponents, over-confident in the belief that they could see what was happening in advance, and not thinking it necessary to seize by force what they could secure by policy, were the more easily destroyed because they were off their guard.
Certainly it was in Corcyra that there occurred the first examples of the breakdown of law and order. There was the revenge taken in their hour of triumph by those who had in the past been arrogantly oppressed instead of wisely governed; there were the wicked resolutions taken by those who, particularly under the pressure of misfortune, wished to escape from their usual poverty and coveted the property of their neighbors; there were the savage and pitiless actions into which men were carried not so much for the sake of gain as because they were swept away into an internecine struggle by their own ungovernable passions. Then, with the ordinary conventions of civilized life thrown into confusion, human nature, always ready to offend even where laws exist, showed itself proudly in its true colors, as something incapable of controlling passion, insubordinate to the idea of justice, the enemy to anything superior to itself ; for, if had it not been for the pernicious power of envy, men would not so have exalted vengeance over innocence and profit above justice. Indeed, it is true that in these acts of revenge on others men take it upon themselves to begin repealing those general laws of humanity which are there to give hope of salvation to all who are in distress, instead of leaving those laws in existence, remembering that there may come a time when they, too, will be in danger and need their protection.

1 comment:

IT said...

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter'd visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp'd on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock'd them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Percy Bysshe Shelley