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Easter Island, Nauru and the Future-Eating Global Growth Economy

Expansive Economies and Limited Economies: Industrial capitalism is characterized by population growth, economic growth, expansion and intensification. [1] Although there was a short-lived case of industrial capitalism between about 1585 and 1622 in the Netherlands, [2] industrial capitalism as we know it today really originated in England, based on the apparently limitless fossil reserves of coal and the presence of many landless people who had to live by their labour. [3] These vast reservoirs of fuel gave rise to technologies that permitted mass production and facilitated the conquest and settlement of lands all over the globe. In the 20th century petroleum oil replaced coal as the fuel of industrial expansion, particularly where wheeled transport was concerned, although coal remained a mainstay for electricity production. [This article is an extract from Sheila Newman, Demography Territory Law: The Rules of Animal and Human Populations, Countershock Press, 2013, which is part of a four-book series, of which the first two have so far been published.]
In contrast to Britain, America, Australia, Canada, with their larger landmasses, fuel reserves and well established trade links, small isolated islander societies had to learn to live within firmly fixed, immediate, territorial limits.

Any isolated island society which failed to do this must have perished quickly.

Two famous examples of reputed ‘failure’ to live within limits were Nauru and Easter Island (Rapanui). Nauru society had survived for many centuries, perhaps two or 3,000 years, but was quickly brought to its knees by capitalist ‘success’. Remarkable for its natural wealth and fertility, it did not survive the transformation of its phosphate and limestone coral-island base into a guano-mine for global-based agriculture, despite access to large but transient commercial wealth. [4]

From a well-watered densely vegetated, undulating Eden of native gardens, it was razed within about 62 years (between 1906 and it independence in 1968) by mining shovels to a flat, waterless desert, within a narrow fringe of marginal sandy coast. Rainfall ceased to gather on the island, but simply ran off the edges. The once self-sufficient nation now imports almost all food and water from Australia.

Nauru sought compensation in the 1990s through the ineffectual International Court of Justice but finally settled with Australia outside the court for a paltry $107 million.
Nauruans are now a spectacularly unhealthy and divided people, who have been obliged to rent out their devastated country as an international refugee camp to the colonial Australian government.

Although industrial economic exploitation for outside interests quite clearly destroyed Nauru, the wider industrialized world knows little of this. The press portrays the tragedy of Nauru as something the islanders brought on themselves.

Whereas the fate of Nauru is accessible to any who care to seek – although few do - the decline of prosperous Easter Island (Rapanui) has become shrouded in mystery and myth. It has become the subject of famous inconclusive investigations and explanations, including Thor Heyerdahl’s rafting experiment to test a theory that an earlier race of people built the famous giant statues on the island, and of Jared Diamond’s Collapse book among many others. Diamond popularized a theory with elements of biblical parable, not unlike Sodom and Gomorrah, but minus God.

Such theories leave the wider industrialized world with the idea that the Rapanuians were ironically the masters of their own destruction.

It seems, however, that Easter Island was, after all, like so many islands, including beautiful, rich Haiti, just another island victim of piracy and colonial forces in the European Trade Wars. The overwhelming evidence for this will be presented further on in Demography Territory Law: The Rules of Animal and Human Populations for Easter Island and in Book Three for Haiti.
Recognising the real causes of the destruction of Nauru, Easter Island, Haiti and similarly fated islands has far-reaching consequences.

For Jared Diamond, a North American, one reason to explore the failure to prosper of Easter Island and whole civilizations in the ‘developing world’ was to try to rationally dispel 20th century racist theories for persistent poverty and overpopulation among brown and black peoples. Another reason was because Diamond saw a parallel between the fate of Easter Island and the likely fate of capitalist growth economies, as doomed to collapse.

Diamond theorized that, like modern global citizens, the Easter Islanders failed to heed abundant signs that they were overpopulating and overexploiting their environment. For years this idea has been a popular subject of elaboration by ecologists like Tim Flannery in his book The Future Eaters [5] and bloggers and list-owners like Jay Hanson, who owned The Dieoff List [6] and pioneered EnergyResources among several famous resource depletion discussion lists. Just key Easter Island into an internet browser and you will find endless discussions about the mystery of the islanders eating themselves out of house and home as they continued to senselessly construct huge statues.

Ecological die-off writers’ theorise that the major difference between Easter Island and nations in the global economy is one of scale. The apparent inability of Easter Islanders to take stock in time contained a dramatic irony due to the tininess of their territory, which meant that the warning signs should have been inescapable to all but the willfully blind. In these days of sophisticated modern communications and widespread education, similarities can easily be drawn.

Why, ecologists ask, do modern humans also sit like proverbial experimental frogs in slowly heating water, and fail to jump out of the saucepan or turn off the gas? How is it that humans seem not to understand the incremental nature of systems failure, despite a myriad of gauges and dashboards, statistics and publications?

“Are we all doomed, like the Easter Islanders?” the cry goes out.

What if our fundamental assumptions are wrong and the Easter Islanders actually didn’t befoul and destroy their own nest after all? I will argue a need to abandon the parable that the Easter Islanders brought about their own doom because it probably is no more true than that the Nauruans brought about theirs. (More about this later.)

The untrumpeted and inarguable truth is that Easter Island, like many, many successful Pacific Island societies, managed to survive for thousands of years. The durability of Pacific Island settlements is born out by DNA records which show that the Lapita people and their societies have been around for between 40 and 60,000 years, notably in New Guinea.
Major exploration and European colonization of Pacific Islands occurred a century or two later than in many other areas, like South America and Africa. The transition in the Pacific from self-sufficiency and order to overshoot and disorganisation over the 19th and 20th centuries was therefore in many cases carefully and scientifically documented by anthropologists whose excellent work now lies in dusty tomes. Not all of it caught the limelight of controversy like Margaret Mead’s study of Samoa. [7]

If what emerges is that colonisation and capitalism destroyed these island cultures, does that mean that the same forces are now destroying the rest of the world as scientists like Jared Diamond and Tim Flannery seem to think?

Well, yes and no.

This book argues that there are two major systems in the industrial world. One of these systems is beyond the control of its citizens, but the other is not.

The work of Diamond, Flannery and others does not take significantly into account that the remorseless conditions of uncontrollable population growth and economic growth which are driving some major first world countries into overshoot do not really exist in the Western Continental European system.

Yes, Europe’s population is too big to maintain without fossil fuel despite nuclear supplements already in place and it is causing unsustainable environmental destruction beyond and within its own borders, but the Europeans know this and they are preparing to ‘downsize’ thorough natural attrition. In fact population growth in Europe slowed dramatically from the first oil shock in 1972-73.[8] The problem is that the populations of North America, Britain, Australia, Canada, etc – the Anglophone states – failed to slow their growth after the first oil shock, even though this was apparently desired by some of their leaders. [9]

Not only did they fail to slow down, they have actually increased their population growth rate on bases which have more than doubled since the 1970s, in the face of increasingly serious threats to democracy, international politics and environment.

Since the oil price-rises and global financial shocks at the beginning of the 21st century, the Anglophone states have hugely ramped up aggressive exploitation of their own, as well as other countries’ natural resources, with horrendous consequences to environment, democracy and international politics. (War with Iraq, Afghanistan, fracking for gas, blowing the tops off mountains for coal that had been considered uneconomic half a century prior, mining arctic national parks, etc.) These consequences have shocked and alarmed their own informed citizenry and the rest of the world. Yet the Anglophone states do not seem able to exert any more control over their fates than did the Easter Islanders, the Nauruans and the Haitians.

The problem of inertia in dealing with ‘overshoot’ in the Anglophone states is worsened by their institutional and commercial investment in continued population growth.
Europe’s Roman law system seems to contain a solution in its retention of some features of traditional local societies. Starting with France, the system has been adopted by nearly every country in Europe since the 19th century, making the Anglophone system a minority one.

The principle difference between the systems is that Anglophone state citizens have very little democratic power to organize to defend themselves against a Market and destructive corporate interests to which they and their governments have become captive. In continental Europe, however, citizens and the state have quite effective power against corporate interests, largely because the state still controls most of the land-use. In the Anglophone states, private and corporate ownership of land, resources and utilities rivals that of the state.

Industrialization looks increasingly like a short-lived phenomenon. Unlike the successful Pacific Islander societies, industrial society has no experience of economies or polities lasting thousands of years. Despite this, business as usual in industrial societies, depends on a widespread assumption that industrial capitalist society will go on forever. Moreover, it is believed that the future holds material utopias which will gradually fuse into some kind of total knowledge. A popular book by Ray Kurzweil, The Singularity, is an excellent example of this new religion. Central to Kurzweil’s thesis is an extrapolation of “Moore’s Law” where trends based on past rate and production of technological improvement go on exponentially forever. [10] This works fine as an isolated theory, but the author gives little consideration to practical problems. The major practical problem is the concomitant trends in material, social and environmental costs [11] that underlie those past trends and which extrapolation of those trends would also increase.


[1] Burnham, Peter, 2003. Capitalism: The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Politics. Oxford University Press, p.64"Karl Polanyi concludes that capitalism did not emerge until the Poor Law Reform Act of 1834. Capital existed in many forms - commercial capital and money-dealing capital - long before industrialization. For this reason the period between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries is often referred to as the merchant capital phase of capitalism. Industrial capitalism, which Marx dates from the last third of the eighteenth century, finally establishes the domination of the capitalist mode of production. In contrast to liberals, writers in the Marxist tradition understand twentieth-century developments in terms of the movement from the laissez-faire phase of capitalism to the monopoly stage of capitalism. On the basis of Lenin's famous pamphlet, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, the monopoly stage is said to exist when: the export of capital alongside the export of commodities becomes of prime importance; banking and industrial capital merge to form finance capital; production and distribution are centralized in huge trusts and cartels; international monopoly combines of capitalists divide up the world into spheres of interest; and national states seek to defend capitalist interests thus perpetuating the likelihood of war (see also imperialism).

[2] The Netherlands case is explored in detail in Book 2 of the Demography, Territory and Law2: Land-tenure and the Origins of Capitalism in Britain, series in the chapters related to the Trade Wars from the 14th century to the 19th century.

[3] This phenomenon of dispossessed labourers in Britain is a core subject of the second volume of Demography, Territory and Law.

[4] Mary Nazzal, April 2005. An Environment Destroyed and International Law, p.3. "By 1906, the Pacific Islands Company reached an agreement which granted them mining rights in Nauru at which point the company was renamed the Pacific Phosphate Company. It is interesting to note that at this time the Nauruans could already foresee the demise of their island. A traditional song created in 1910 illustrates this point:
By chance they discovered the heart of my home
And gave it the name phosphate
If they were to ship all phosphate from my home
There will be no place for me to go
Should this be the plan of the British Commission
I shall never see my home on the hill.'"

"[...]The Jaluit-Gesselschaft mining rights were transferred to the Pacific Phosphate Company for a cash payment of £2000, £12,500 worth of shares in the Pacific Phosphate Company and a royalty payment for every ton exported. While the Nauruans were not part of any formal agreement, the Germans paid the native landowners a very modest amount per ton of rock removed from their land."

After Germany was defeated, Nauru became part of a new political agenda designed at the 1919 Versailles and Australia occupied and administered the island.

See also, TED (Trade Environment Database) Case Studies: Case Number: 412, Case Mnemonic: Nauru, Case Name: Phosphate Mining in Nauru, Case Author: Michael E. Pukrop, May, 1997.

[5] The passage you are reading is from Sheila Newman, Demography Territory Law: The Rules of Animal and Human Populations, Countershock Press, 2013. The second book in the series is, Sheila Newman, Demography Territory Law2: Land-tenure and the Origins of Capitalism in Britain, Countershock Press, 2014. The volume in the series that includes remarks on Haiti is still being edited. It will be published by Countershock Press as Sheila Newman ,Demography Territory Law2: Land-tenure and the Origins of Democracy in France, probably in 2018.

[6] Tim Flannery, 1994. The Future Eaters, 1994, Reed Books, Melbourne.

[7] This was a yahoo list about energy resources that was popular in the late 1990s and which was one of the first run by Jay Hanson in a series of yahoo lists with an international membership. There is an associated Dieoff website at Jay Hanson has a facebook page at [Since these old addresses don't have SSL certificates, I have not activated links to them.]

[8] Sykes, Brian, 2002. The Seven Daughters of Eve: The Science That Reveals Our Genetic Ancestry, Corgi Press, UK.

[9] This slowing was a precautionary response to the prospect of oil depletion, which threatens the survival of the unprecedentedly large post-war populations. See Chapter 7 of Newman, S.M., 2002. The Growth Lobby and its Absence in Australia and France. Environmental Sociology Research thesis, Swinburne University, 2002., Chapters 6 and 7. [Note that the virtual location of this thesis at the universitiy changes from time to time, so if you cannot find it there, I suggest you use a search engine to find its new address or other copies that exist on the internet. ]

[10] Stephen D. Mumford, 1996. The Life and Death of NSSM 200: How the Destruction of Political Will Doomed a U.S. Population Policy, Centre for Research on Population and Security, Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, pp.179-352. This study also contains an appendix recommending population growth reduction as a method of combatting fossil fuel depletion.. (Appendix 2.) NSSM 200 stood for National Security Study Memorandum. This was an interagency study of world population growth, US population growth, and the potential impacts on national security. In this work evidence was given to support an argument that population policy initiatives failed largely due to interference from a lobby group of Catholic bishops in the United States. See pp.179-352).

Aristide R. Zolberg, 1993. Are the Industrial Countries under siege. In G. Luciani, (Ed), Migration Policies in Europe and the United States. Kluwer Academic Publishers, Netherlands, pp.53-82, p. 61 : "In the 1970s, mounting objections by conservative segments of the citizenry to the presence of culturally and often somatically distinct minorities, as well as the oil crisis and ensuing economic crisis, prompted the governments of the industrial countries to undertake a drastic reevaluation of ongoing immigration, but the difficulty of reducing the flows to the desired level, as well as to restoring the status quo, precipitated renewed fear of 'invasion'. In the United States, in the 'stagflation' 1970s, estimates of illegal immigrants escalated to as high as twenty million, on the basis of which it was argued that the nation had 'lost control of its borders'. The major solution proposed was to impose sanctions on employers of unauthorized labour, but this failed of enactment because of resistance by organized business interests, so that in 1979 the Congress established a commission to overhaul the entire immigration system."

[11] Ray Kurzweil, 2005. The Singularity, Penguin Group, USA. Review by Robert D. Steele.

[12] Energy costs in fuel and materials, plus the social costs of the politics of wealth distribution (piracy, slavery, environmental impoverishment, third world inequality, destruction of whole peoples through colonization, loss of biodiversity, rise in pollution, social engineering etcetera.)

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On reading the description in this article on the tragedy of Nauru, I could not help seeing the population of Nauru being re-located in Nauru House in Melbourne and being told that not only was this compensation for what happened to their island but that they were now better off than they ever were (surrounded by all those shops). But what happens to their new "island home" (Australia) when all its resources have been mined, its forests raised and it has a population double or triple what it is now all along the Eastern seaboard? Is the largest Island on the globe immune to ecological collapse? Has the process already started?

And I used to think the same thing. I worked at Wageline, in a time when unemployment was becoming the norm in Australia. It was just before Kennett stuffed up our award system and made it possible for employers to import cheap labour.
Then they closed down Wageline.
Does Nauru even own Nauru house these days?