Salton Sea (IR)

California USA, 1 October 2016

With Jeni Bate of Skyscapes for the Soul.

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If you have not read the previous post on the Salton Sea then you really should do so.  It contains images from similar places but also includes the ecological history of the Salton Sea and the way in which it represents a modern ecological parable.

(Click on any image for a larger view).

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Desert, Ecology, Infrared, Landscape, Nature, Photography, Salton Sea, Travel, Wilderness
The sign is headed SCSB – could this be Salton City Surf Beach?  It goes on to say: Property/ Parking Lot/ XXXX (i.e. erased) & Jetty/ Open to Public Use/ Sunrise to Sunset.

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Desert, Ecology, Infrared, Landscape, Nature, Photography, Salton Sea, Travel, Wilderness

This is the end, beautiful friend, this is the end my only friend, the end (Jim Morrison, not to be confused with Van Morrison).

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Desert, Ecology, Infrared, Landscape, Nature, Photography, Salton Sea, Travel, Wilderness

Of course everyone knows that the camera presents a completely accurate representation of reality.

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Desert, Ecology, Infrared, Landscape, Nature, Photography, Salton Sea, Travel, Wilderness

What is not so commonly known is that cameras have a mind-reading chip and really show what you see when you look at the subject.

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Desert, Ecology, Infrared, Landscape, Nature, Photography, Salton Sea, Travel, Wilderness

This is why images commonly have more contrast, more saturated colours  and more pleasing renditions than reality.

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Desert, Ecology, Infrared, Landscape, Nature, Photography, Salton Sea, Travel, Wilderness

It is also why most nude photographs you see are of people who had their clothes on at the time.  It just depends on how the photographer’s mind works.

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Desert, Ecology, Infrared, Landscape, Nature, Photography, Salton Sea, Travel, Wilderness

One of my cameras is particularly honest and shows what I saw as I stood there in the searing heat with the agricultural toxins born on the wind slowly searing into my brain.

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Desert, Ecology, Infrared, Landscape, Nature, Photography, Salton Sea, Travel, Wilderness

Sometimes it is night, sometimes it is day and sometimes in the day it is night.

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Desert, Ecology, Infrared, Landscape, Nature, Photography, Salton Sea, Travel, Wilderness

We’re on a road to nowhere….

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Desert, Ecology, Infrared, Landscape, Nature, Photography, Salton Sea, Travel, Wilderness

Perhaps this is an alien landscape with a dead robot trying to emerge from the primordial slime.

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Desert, Ecology, Infrared, Landscape, Nature, Photography, Salton Sea, Travel, Wilderness

Here, though, Jools and Jeni are discussing what we can possibly say to the rental car company.

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Desert, Ecology, Infrared, Landscape, Nature, Photography, Salton Sea, Travel, Wilderness

The reality is having an identity crisis.

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It is changing before our eyes.

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Desert, Ecology, Infrared, Landscape, Nature, Photography, Salton Sea, Travel, Wilderness

So back to normal reality.  Here we are at the North Shore Beach and Yacht Club, hoping for a swig or two amongst the jet-setters.

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The streetlight is causing a total eclipse of the sun.

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It’s gone now.

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Desert, Ecology, Infrared, Landscape, Nature, Photography, Salton Sea, Travel, Wilderness

Ah, but it’s back again to normal daylight.

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You may think they are giant mushrooms but I’m assured they are palm trees.

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Desert, Ecology, Infrared, Landscape, Nature, Photography, Salton Sea, Travel, Wilderness

Notwithstanding what appears to be an orange jump suit, i can assure you this is not a person recently escaped from prison.

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Desert, Ecology, Infrared, Landscape, Nature, Photography, Salton Sea, Travel, Wilderness

Fish and chips anyone?  (Fission chips may be another option but Diablo Canyon is hundreds of kilometres away).

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Desert, Ecology, Infrared, Landscape, Nature, Photography, Salton Sea, Travel, Wilderness

I’m told the fishing has been better.

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Desert, Ecology, Infrared, Landscape, Nature, Photography, Salton Sea, Travel, Wilderness

Purple haze all in my brain.  Lately things don’t seem the same….

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Desert, Ecology, Infrared, Landscape, Nature, Photography, Salton Sea, Travel, Wilderness

The great desert paradise of Bombay Beach.  I didn’t manage to catch the frolicking Beach Boys at the time though.

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Salton Sea

California USA, 1 October 2016

With Jeni Bate of Skyscapes for the Soul.

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This day we drove clockwise around the Salton Sea.  This post show the journey from Salton City to Bombay Beach as well as comments on the history and current fortunes of the Salton Sea.

(Click on any image for a larger view).

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Desert, Ecology, History, Irrigation, Landscape, Nature, Photography, Salton Sea, Travel, Wilderness, Wildlife

As you read the account that unfolds  below, you may wish to come back to this map occasionally.  Note the Salton Sea at the top, the American Canal that is now the main source of water diverted from the Colorado River at just above the border, Canal Central (the diversion from the early 20th century) below that in Mexico, the Colorado river flowing from top right and the Gulf of California (or the Sea of Cortez) at the bottom.

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The Salton Sea at the north-east corner.

Most readers will be aware of the long peninsula below California in Mexico which is the Baja California Peninsula.  The body of water between that and the rest of Mexico is the Gulf of California.  The peninsula and gulf are a consequence of seismic activity along the San Andreas fault, a part of which runs under the Gulf of California and along the valley to the north of it, including the Salton Sea.

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Desert, Ecology, History, Irrigation, Landscape, Nature, Photography, Salton Sea, Travel, Wilderness, Wildlife

The ecology of the Salton Sea is also highly connected with the Colorado River.  Five million years ago, the Colorado River was much more minor or did not exist as such and there were massive glacial lakes in the centre of North America, held there by glacial ice.  There was a catastrophic collapse of the ice wall, like a giant dam collapsing, and huge amounts of water were released along the Colorado River, carving out the Grand Canyon in a relatively short period of time.  Around 600,000 years ago there were also several episodes where the canyon was dammed by volcanic lava and after a time spectacularly broke though.  This creates lots of sediment which has to go somewhere and the Colorado River comes out at the Gulf of California.

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Desert, Ecology, History, Irrigation, Landscape, Nature, Photography, Salton Sea, Travel, Wilderness, Wildlife

Once there were palm trees, planted in the 50s or 60s.  Now few survive.

So the end of the Gulf of California is also the delta of the Colorado River.  Even with water in it, the Salton Sea is below sea level, so the delta of the Colorado River has blocked it off from being part of the Gulf of California.  The Salton Sea is not thought to have previously been part of the Gulf of California though.  Rather, the whole valley it is in sunk as a result of seismic activity along the San Andreas fault.

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Tombstone for a palm tree, now in the desert.

The course of the Colorado River at the delta is very changeable since it flows though loose alluvial soils.  The area below sea level in the Salton Watershed is also much larger than the current Salton Sea.  In the last thousand years water from the Colorado River has poured in to fill this area four times, forming a body of water called Lake Cahuilla, and then receding.  The last time it dried up was around 1700.

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Salt, water, mountains.

The Salton Sea is an historical accident.  In the nineteenth century it was dry.  From 1900 Charles Robinson Rockwood constructed a canal to divert water from the Colorado River to enable irrigation of potential farmland in the Imperial Valley below what is now the Salton Sea.  The canal initially ran parallel to the river.  The mouth of the canal silted up so he cut another.  This silted up too so he cut another, larger opening.  But this time, cutting financial corners, he failed to construct a gate to regulate floods.  And in 1905, there was a massive flooding of the Colorado River.  It changed course to flow along the canal and poured into the Salton Sink unchecked for two years, creating the Salton Sea.

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Dead fish on the salt.

Eventually, after massive expense and remarkable effort, Edward Harriman of the Southern Railroad Company plugged the gap but the Salton Sea was born.

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Lots of dead fish on the salt.

In response to fears of flood and drought, and to avoid canal water sourced from Mexico, there was a massive project in the 1930s to build the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River and a new All-American canal north of the Mexican border to irrigate the land between the border and the Salton Sea.

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Desert, Ecology, History, Irrigation, Landscape, Nature, Photography, Salton Sea, Travel, Wilderness, Wildlife

This and earlier images are Salton City and surrounds.  Here we have a resident who has managed to retain and water their palm trees.

There came to be a successfully irrigated agricultural industry but the modified flow of the Colorado River affected Mexico as well as the US.  An international agreement short-changed Mexico which only received one third to one half of the water that went to the Imperial Valley.  The magnificent delta lands at the mouth of the Colorado were also greatly compromised.  Previously it had been a wetlands paradise for wildlife.

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The end, but of what?  The end of Time?  The end of Western Civilisation?  The end of Life as we know it?  The end of Memory? The end of speculative development projects? The end of water?  The end of the Salton Sea?  The end of words?  Or is it just where Jim Morrison came when he wrote “This is the end …”?.

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The level of the sea has not always remained constant though.  Notwithstanding the Hoover Dam, there were floods in the seventies and eighties that raised the level for a while and then subsided.  The level now is lower than it was in say the 1960s.

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In 1958, M Penn Phillips launched Salton City to replace the desert as “the Salton Riviera”.   There were to be 250,000 lots with roads, electricity, sewage, a golf course and a marina.  Nine thousand fan palms were planted.  Lots were sold on the never-never where buyers didn’t own anything until all payments were made.

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Once a Marina, perhaps.

Phillips bailed out in 1960 and by the end of the 1960s the bubble had deflated.

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Still a jetty and a boat though the water has receded from the original jetty.  This is probably at Desert Shores.

As early as 1927 there was fishing, boating and waterskiing on the sea and for a while there was an edge of glamour with this.  During the sixties and seventies the Salton Sea was a fisherman’s paradise and a refuge for large numbers of migratory birds.  From the 90s it has become a poisonous ecological disaster.  Millions of fish died at a time.  There were massive epidemics of seabirds.  Bad odours have wafted from the lake, especially during die-off events.

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We left the lake for a while to walk in a nearby valley.

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Desert, Ecology, History, Irrigation, Landscape, Nature, Photography, Salton Sea, Travel, Wilderness, Wildlife .

Desert, Ecology, History, Irrigation, Landscape, Nature, Photography, Salton Sea, Travel, Wilderness, Wildlife .

Desert, Ecology, History, Irrigation, Landscape, Nature, Photography, Salton Sea, Travel, Wilderness, Wildlife

Ever left your car and not sure you can find it again?  Especially a rental car?

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Desert, Ecology, History, Irrigation, Landscape, Nature, Photography, Salton Sea, Travel, Wilderness, Wildlife

The key didn’t seem to work and I couldn’t get the motor to turn over.

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Desert, Ecology, History, Irrigation, Landscape, Nature, Photography, Salton Sea, Travel, Wilderness, Wildlife

There seemed to be something wrong with the car but there was no mechanic nearby.

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Desert, Ecology, History, Irrigation, Landscape, Nature, Photography, Salton Sea, Travel, Wilderness, Wildlife .

Desert, Ecology, History, Irrigation, Landscape, Nature, Photography, Salton Sea, Travel, Wilderness, Wildlife

Lone pelican on a pole.

(For this and the next seven images, we are at or near North Shore Beach and Yacht Club).

The Salton Sea is a sink.  It is below sea level.  There is nowhere else for the deposits of the water to go.  The water there is saltier than sea water but that is not the problem because other salt lakes can be much saltier and still support abundant bird life.  It also has concerning levels of metals such as selenium, washed down the Colorado, but this is not the problem either.  It received agricultural runoff mainly from the US and also sewage and industrial waste from Mexico, which builds up year by year.

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Desert, Ecology, History, Irrigation, Landscape, Nature, Photography, Salton Sea, Travel, Wilderness, Wildlife

A few surviving palm trees.

Corvina (cilus gilberti), a large seawater fish from Central and South America, was introduced to the sea in the 1950s.  Then tilapia, mainly freshwater fish from Africa, were introduced to the sea in the 1960s to the great delight of the corvina.  The salinity of the lake at that time, about the same as seawater, was not a problem for the tilapia and the level of nutrients from the agricultural runoff meant that they flourished.  Consequently, the population of corvina skyrocketed to an extraordinary extent.  It was easy to catch 20-pound corvina (9 kilos) and 30-pound (14 kilo) fish were also available.

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Pelican on the wing.  Perhaps the rared brown pelican rather than the white one.

From the eighties and especially from the nineties, the sea started to become too salty for the tilapia and the excess nutrients continued to build up resulting in excessive blue green algae, bacteria and parasites.  This came to include selenium-contaminated pile worms, cyanobacteria, botulism spores and amyloodinium gill parasites.  This produced die-offs of millions of tilapis in single events.  There was a bird sanctuary at the south of the sea.  Then came mass bird die offs, principally grebes, pelicans and cormorants, from eating the poisoned fish.

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Lots more dead fish again.

Given that the Salton Sea is a sewage sink, this problem is going to get worse.  The fish are largely or entirely gone now and fish-eating birds are scarce.  The sea is on their migration routes but continuing loss of habitat means there may not be somewhere else for them to go.

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The fisherman seems to have stepped aside for a smoko.  Perhaps there were no fish to catch anyway.

There have been studies on how to effect a solution and two main alternatives emerged.

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One was to physically divide the sea in two, half for “fresh” water and the other half for an evaporative sump.  In the long term though, nutrients and salts would continue to come in and this would not work.

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Desert, Ecology, History, Irrigation, Landscape, Nature, Photography, Salton Sea, Travel, Wilderness, Wildlife

Tyre and rust.

The other was to pump water from the Gulf of California to the Salton Sea, restoring the sea to the level of say the 1960s.  At the same time, there would be a controlled outflow the other way.  This could extract pollutants using the mothballed Yuma desalination plant, which was completed but never used because a flood destroyed the canals that would supply it.  The flushing is necessary because otherwise there would still be a buildup of pollutants.  In time fish could be introduced again.  However, this would require the cooperation of Mexico which would require special treatment since it has received the raw end of the deal so far.

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Desert, Ecology, History, Irrigation, Landscape, Nature, Photography, Salton Sea, Travel, Wilderness, Wildlife

More dead fish.

Neither of those options eventuated.

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Desert, Ecology, History, Irrigation, Landscape, Nature, Photography, Salton Sea, Travel, Wilderness, Wildlife

My guess is that this was a boat and what pokes up is the mast.

The Salton Sea is drying out and must have deteriorated significantly since I was there in 2016.  In 2003, measures were taken to improve efficiency of water usage in the Imperial Valley, including moving from flushing the soil with water runoff to drip irrigation.  The unanticipated effect of this though was to reduce the excess water flowing into the Salton Sea.  At the same time, there was an agreement to transfer large amounts of water from the Imperial Valley to San Diego.  An “easement period” in which it was assumed that relief measures would be taken for the Salton Sea, expired in 2018.  Nothing had been done for the sea in the intervening period.  From 1st January 2018, 40% less water flows into the Salton Sea.  That must be having a significant effect.

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Former pleasure craft or fishing craft.  Not currently much in use it seems.

Some remedial action is occurring but not much.  It follows a solution for another problem.  Owen’s Lake, inland from San Francisco and Los Angeles, was drained for Los Angeles water in the early 20th century.  By the second half of the 20th century it had become the single largest source of dust in the US.  From 1997 they replaced the dustbowl with a series of shallow ponds, which solves that problem though requires continuing maintenance.

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The shore has receded.  We are at Bombay Beach, once a celebrity destination.

A similar proposal has started for the Salton Sea.  However, it only affects a small area at the southern end of the sea.  For the rest, the sea will continue to recede and give rise to dust clouds laden with insecticides and other toxins.  In due course this will probably become a noticeable problem for LA as well.  Already there have been very high levels of asthma for decades in people living in the Imperial Valley south of the sea.  Conditions south of the border in Mexico are likely to be worse.

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Desert, Ecology, History, Irrigation, Landscape, Nature, Photography, Salton Sea, Travel, Wilderness, Wildlife

There is another solution that Nature itself may provide.  Seismic activity along the San Andreas fault could open a fissure so that water rushes in and the entire Salton sink becomes part of the Gulf of California.  That may not be a desirable solution for the many people that live or farm there.  It may even be inevitable.  But even if so, it may not happen for maybe even millions of years.

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Desert, Ecology, History, Irrigation, Landscape, Nature, Photography, Salton Sea, Travel, Wilderness, Wildlife

… and the population has receded too.

It’s easy to look at this as a severe problem in an isolated obscure area that nobody much has heard of or should worry about.  But it’s also part of an ecological crisis in the south west of the US associated with twenty years of drought in the Colorado Basin.

More generally, it is a metaphor for what we are doing to the environment and how urgently our action is required.  Climate change, over-consumption and overpopulation are rapidly undermining our world.  This calls for well considered action.  Solutions are expensive but so is ignoring the problems.  Pretending there is no problem and doing nothing will not work.

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My primary source for this account has been Salt Dreams by William de Buys and Joan Myers.  I have also made some reference to Ancient Landscapes of the Colorado Plateau by Ron Blakey and Wayne Ranney, A history of water — and the Salton Sea — in Imperial by Neal V Hitch, Salton Sea: California drought could soon see the state’s largest body of water sleeping with the fishes by Tim Walker and Dust Rising by Michael Zelenko.

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(I have usually been posting once a week but this post has been delayed by the time required for research.  The next post has infrared images and that is also likely to be delayed because they are time-consuming to process, and also because I have some other tasks including preparing, printing and framing three images for an exhibition.)

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Searching for a More Benign Dystopia

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Myoshin-Ji temple complex, Kyoto

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Toranokowatashi Garden (“Young tigers crossing the water”), Nanzen-Ji, Kyoto

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There is a long history of activist photographers championing the preservation of the environment.  In Australia, Olegas Truchanas and Peter Dombrovskis produced images showing Tasmanian wilderness under threat in association with the Tasmanian Wilderness Society.  For that matter, in the US there was also Ansell Adams, in association with the Sierra Club.  The images of Japan here show both historical traditions and the wildlife and environment that we must protect from the depredations of the world today.

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Pathway to Honen-In gate, Kyoto

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Much of the developed world is currently in a self-inflicted economic crisis caused by irresponsible economic policies. While this is not the same thing as unsustainable development, the causes are at least in part related.

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Diabutsuden, the Great Bhudda Hall, part of the Todai-ji Temple complex, Nara

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So where does Japan fit into this, how is it doing generally at the moment and what might the future hold?

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Otaru Lantern Festival

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Otaru Lantern Festival

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Japan is well placed in some respects and not so well in others.  One of the areas of concern is the level of debt.  Japan’s debt is over 200% of their GDP, the highest of any country in the world according to the IMF and much higher than Greece for example.  Unlike Greece, though, Japan has the third largest economy in the world in terms of GDP.

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Kenrokuen Gardens, Kanazawa

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Jigokudani snowscape

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After recovering from the war, Japan grew at impressive rates from the 60s to the 80s until there was a crash in stock market and real estate prices in 1989.  The 1990s were stagnant and growth has been moderate since.  Japan remains a major industrial nation though some of its major corporations appear vulnerable.  We have recently seen Olympus lose hundreds of millions of dollars to corruption and kickbacks.  Sony, one of Japan’s largest corporations, has been losing money for the last four or five years and lost more than six billion dollars in the last financial year.  Panasonic is also under pressure and has a projected loss for this financial year of ten billion dollars.

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Baby macaque at Jigokudani, Nagano

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White-tailed eagle near Kushiro, Hokkaido

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Organised society in Japan started in the few large fertile plains and valleys.  Today much of that fertile farmland is covered by urban sprawl.  Of course Japan is not alone in this though as a mountainous country, Japan has a relatively small proportion of arable land.    Japanese governments have tried to protect their agriculture and encourage agricultural self-sufficiency but with only partial success.  Japan is also not favoured with raw material deposits so its prosperity depends significantly on trade.

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Dawn at Otowa Bridge, near Kushiro, Hokkaido

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Japan is the World’s tenth most populated country (at 120 million) though that level is falling and the population aging.  Japan does not encourage immigration which is probably advantageous for them in this era of increasing ecological pressures.

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Whooper swan at Lake Kussharo, Hokkaido

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Steller’s eagle, Nemuro-kaikyo Strait, near Rausu, Hokkaido

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Where Japan does have an advantage is in a reverence for the environment coupled with a willingness of both Government and the population to undertake longer-term actions for the greater good of all.  Many Western countries are dominated by the illusion of the individual – that nothing should get in the way of the greed of an individual or the rapacity of a corporation.  Japan has its share of corruption and organised criminal activity but even so – the Japanese are more inclined than other developed countries to ameliorate the self gratification of the individual for the benefit of society as a whole.  This may assist them to take more effective action on ecological change.

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Silver birch in farmland near Shari, Hokkaido

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The tradition of reverence for Nature may also assist the Japanese to find more effective paths towards sustainable development.  They have an advantage here over a significant minority of the population of the US and Australia who deny the scientific findings on global warming and have no awareness of sustainability.   The danger here is that mindless exploitation of resources may lead to a illusory pinnacle of prosperity.  A concurrent exhaustion of resources may mean that no changes in individual, corporate or government behaviour can maintain anything like that level of prosperity.

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Tamozawa Imperial Villa, Nikko

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The Government of Japan adopted measures to conserve forests as early as the ninth century.  In the seventeenth century, after one of the fires that devastated Edo (now Tokyo), a Tokugawa shogun was struck by the devastation of forests required for the reconstruction effort.   This led to a system of conservation both enforced from the top and guaranteed from the bottom, as individual families were given long-term responsibility for patches of forest.  However, this responsible attitude doesn’t necessarily extend to the resources of other countries.  Australia, for example, has been harvesting old growth forests to turn into woodchips for paper-making in Japan – partly because the Japanese would not be so foolish at to use their own scarce forest resources in the same way.

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Cornice details, Taiyu-In, Nikko

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Sleeping cat, Tosho-Gu, Nikko

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I read an interesting account recently that suggested that as the Roman Empire expanded it compromised its original agricultural resources and replaced them with newer lands further from the centre of the Empire.  Dacia is one example, for wheat.  Losing some of these remote areas was then a significant factor in the decline of the Empire.

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Ryuzu Falls, near Lake Chuzenji, near Nikko

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Something similar appears to be happening today but the empire is the developed countries’ Empire of Trade.  Many developed countries, including Japan, have compromised their agricultural capacity through industrial development and population growth.  This agricultural capacity is likely to become further compromised over time for reasons including rising population (both in those countries and worldwide), unsuitable agricultural practices, effects of global warming and water shortages.  This may be why countries such as China are currently buying up agricultural land world-wide.  As well as that, demand is greatly increasing due to rising prosperity in China, South-East Asia, India and Latin America.  If agricultural supplies become slowly compromised then trade could become a two-edged sword.  Japan is well placed to deal with this due to its superior social organisation but poorly placed due to its own shortage of agricultural land.

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Lake Chuzenji after sunset

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Kanmangafuchi Abyss, Nikko

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In Conclusion:

Globally, we’re in need of a better dystopia. We’re eating the planet and our future as well. World population is out of control, causing many countries to strip their environment. Developed nations are consuming unsustainable amounts of resources while emerging countries from Asia and Latin America vie to reach the consumption levels of developed countries. Agricultural land and many resources are relatively finite and we’re all so interconnected that no social group or country will be able to hide away for long and pretend they’re not affected.

For a more careful account of these issues see Easter Island – A Parable for Our Times?, especially if you think anything I said above was overstated or inaccurate.  My bibliography for that account is at Easter Island – Wrapup and Contents.

 

Update – Easter Island: A Parable for Our Times?

Moai at Ranu Rararaku

Easter Island – A Parable for Our Times? looks at our most important political issue – sustainable development – in the light of what happened on Easter Island.  I have added a brief introduction, seventeen new monochrome images and a  new conclusion.

(It is now a separate post).

Easter Island: A Parable for Our Times?

Anakena Moai

On Easter Island, the evidence of human activity from a bygone age is almost everywhere and asks a multitude of questions with a thunderous silence.  It’s almost inescapable to wonder – Does the dramatic decline of Easter Island society speak to us as relevant to the problems of the present?

Easter Island is clearly a small island yet increasingly so is the Earth. Improvements in communication bring us all closer together, we can travel virtually anywhere within a few days, world-wide decentralised mass production makes all economies interrelated and increasingly there are many issues that affect the world as a whole.

To consider this issue we will visit the following topics:

  • Traditional Rapanui society
  • Malthus and the Demographic Transition
  • Our World
      • Deforestation
      • Water
      • Species loss
      • Fishing
      • Overpopulation and resources
      • War
      • Is there a comparison with Easter Island?
      • Global warming and climate change
      • Nuclear power
  • The way forward
  • What Action?

Foundation of a Hare Paenga, a house for the family of a chief, appearing something like an upturned boat

Traditional Rapanui Society

First lets recap from other posts in the blog – what happened to the Rapanui due to the world they had created for themselves?  (I am excluding the direct effects of European disease, predation and colonisation.)

They landed on an island thickly forested with huge trees and populated by probably the largest wild bird colony in the Pacific.  After some centuries they had constructed a remarkable civilisation, a highly organised society with a successful agricultural system,  and undertook remarkable public works that amaze us even today.

Unfortunately, this success came at a cost.  Within a few centuries they had cleared most of the forest for agriculture.  Much of the timber at this stage of abundant resources was probably burnt and wasted.  They still used wood for construction, building canoes, moving moai and for firewood, yet the wood they cut down was slow to regenerate.  Eventually, all the forest was gone apart from some spindly shrubs up to two or three metres in height.  Wild birds and eggs had been a significant part of their diet but they were pretty much either all eaten or their habitat destroyed.  Offshore fishing was no longer possible due to the lack of canoes so dolphin and tuna were no longer available as food.  Clearing the forest had led to erosion which greatly reduced the agricultural capacity and also adversely affected water retention.  As Cook saw, water availability had become a major problem.  The population was greatly increasing at the same time as the resources to support that population were diminishing.

Moai at Ranu Raraku

How had they allowed things to come to this?  I can think of four factors – slowness of change, entrenched interest groups, destructive competition and overpopulation following their period of success.

Life expectancy was probably about 30 years but the trees took much longer than that to regrow.  Drastic change might be obvious if you could see a 500 year period whereas for any 30 year period not much might seem to change.  So if life is “normal” and things seem to be going well, there is much less incentive to become concerned about underlying problems.

The ariki (chiefs) and the ivi atua (priests) led a privileged lifestyle and demanded huge efforts in public works by the ordinary people.  Stopping that system could have stopped their privileged lifestyle.  And the whole massive system of conspicuous consumption in building ever bigger ahu (temples) and moai (statues) was driven by competition between clans and sub-clans.  No point trying to conserve what someone else would just take.

Then when the classical society reached catharsis, prosperity turned to famine and inter-clan competition turned to warfare and even cannibalism.  The population fell by 50% or more even prior to the coming of Europeans.

When Roggeveen arrived in 1722, the classical society, though diminished, was still intact and functioning but when Gonzales turned up in 1770 and Cook in 1774, the priests were no longer visible and many moai had been toppled.  It is therefore likely that the example of the awesomely powerful and wealthy Europeans exploded the power structure and the religion of the classical society and led the Rapanui to overthrow the society themselves.

When Roggeveen’s ship first approached Easter Island, it would have been visible out to sea from here but all the moai were probably standing

Malthus and the Demographic Transition

Malthus wrote in 1798 that all societies were doomed to a perpetual cycle of growth and prosperity alternating with overpopulation and famine.  In this he was opposing the eighteenth century ideal of perpetual progress.  There was no ecological factor to his thinking, so he did not consider that the period of overpopulated desperation might deplete the resource base in ways that would never see recovery.

Our society usually claims to have escaped Malthusian cycles by technological progress.  Developed countries also seem to escape overpopulation through the demographic transition.  Put very quickly, an “underdeveloped” society may have high birth rates and high death rates and exist in a Malthusian equilibrium; a “developed” country may have low birth rates and low death rates and maintain zero population growth; “developing” countries may still have high birth rates but improvements in conditions (health, farming, technology, education) lead to escalating increases in population.  So you’d think the solution would be to get all societies to be “developed”.  Trouble is, that doesn’t take into account resource usage and “developed” countries use disproportionate amounts of scarce and finite resources.

The South Coast (after dark)

Our World

Easter Island is clearly a small island yet increasingly so is the Earth.  Improvements in communication bring us all closer together, we can travel virtually anywhere within a few days, world-wide decentralised mass production makes all economies interrelated and increasingly there are many issues that affect the world as a whole.  So back to the question – Does Easter Island present a parable relevant to the problems of the present?

– Deforestation

The World is not likely to fell all forests quite to the extent of Easter Island.  For example, some countries such as Germany and Japan have had effective forest conservation policies for centuries.  However, worldwide deforestation is a very serious problem.

Japan preserves its own timber but imports timber from other countries.  Australia, for example, sells wood pulp to Japan for making paper.  The prices are very low compared to the price of the paper yet in Australia’s fragile ecosystem, the forests regenerate extremely slowly.  In most cases similar exporting countries are poor and in return wealthy countries are exporting their deforestation problems to poor countries.

The largest remaining forests are in third world countries, especially the tropical rain forests of  the Amazon and Zaire.  About half of the tropical forest that existed in 1800 has already disappeared and at the current rate of destruction, there will be little left outside protected areas by 2050.

Timber may be increasingly in short supply in some countries.  Deforestation can severely degrade cleared land as erosion removes soil, lowers the water table or increases salinity.  The most serious issue, though, is the likely effect of deforestation on World climate.

Overturned ahu and their pukeo (topknots) at Ahu Hanga Te’e O Vaihu

– Water

As Captain Cook saw, availability of drinking water was a serious issue for the Rapanui.  Most people take the supply of water for granted but it is slowly developing into a serious issue, for some countries at least.  Many regions are drawing on underground reserves at an unsustainable rate. This water can be hundreds of thousands of years old and unrestricted drawing up of bore water can also cause problems in soil salinity.

There are also many areas where agriculture depends on spring runoff from glacial melt.  Most glaciers are in rapid retreat and this kind of runoff may reduce substantially.  For example, serious problems for agriculture in Northern India and Bangladesh are likely to develop due to sharply reduced spring water flows resulting from climate change.

– Species loss

The Rapanui managed to wipe out most of their wildlife.  Essentially this was their birds, reduced from a great host to a few seabirds nesting on small offshore islands.  We’re not at a comparable stage of species loss yet, although we’re heading in that direction.  We are in the early stages of a global extinction event and it already has a name – the Holocene extinction.  While this extinction event covers the whole 10,000 years of the Holocene, it mainly relates to the last couple of hundred years and the primary cause is human activity.

Fish petroglyphs

– Fishing

The Rapanui lost access to most of their fish stocks due to lack of wood for canoes which prevented ocean fishing.  Our problem is rather different.  We have no shortage of big metal canoes which bring back huge amounts of fish but we need to be careful we don’t strip the fishing stocks.

It is all too easy to view the oceans as an unlimited resource and awareness of this has improved since the 1970s and 1980s, particularly with the development of maritime reserves and aquaculture (farming of fish and other marine organisms).  The main barrier to sustainability is illegal fishing, which can also devastate areas with illegal trawling methods.

International trade accounts for 38% of fish and fishery products, making it the most traded food in the world.  Over 80% of that trade goes to developed countries, so if other countries continue to become more affluent, it is easy to see there could be greatly increased pressures of demand.

Easter Island’s deep sea fishing stocks and marine diversity were significantly reduced by illegal fishing in just the last few years.  Without appropriate conservation measures, world fishing stocks could be essentially fished out by 2050 (this according to a UN study).

Petroglyphs in a landscape. What may look like vehicle tracks is a canoe carved in the rock.

– Overpopulation and Resources

Sometime after 1400, the Rapanui found themselves in an eroded, treeless land that had a reduced capacity to support them and with a population that had grown to an untenable size.

There can be no question that overpopulation is a serious issue for the world today.   Population growth is most acute for Africa and to a much lesser extent, South America and India.  We cannot isolate ourselves from this; increasingly, like the Easter Islanders, we are living in a small and shrinking island (the Earth).  Just as with Easter Island, it’s not in anyone’s interest for one group to ride roughshod over the rest.  In the words of John Kennedy:  If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.

One thing that can happen is that when a country sees it is over-exploiting its resources, it takes measures to safeguard them but transfers the exploitation to other countries.  This is ultimately self-defeating; when the resources of poorer countries are gone there is nowhere left to turn.

While developed countries often have stable population levels net of migration, they use disproportionately large amounts of resources compared to the world as a whole.  Many of those resources come from less developed countries.  Increasingly there are newly prospering nations that want a share (China, India, South East Asia).   We are already familiar with the essentially fixed supply of petroleum that has already peaked.  It seems likely that resources will not increase to meet demand this time around.

Fortifications inside a lava tube. The piles of rock are about five feet high.

– War

Ecological crisis on Easter Island gave rise to vicious warfare.  The same thing happened to the Southern Maya when their civilisation overran its ecological basis.  Where nations face the exhaustion of resources upon which they depend, such warfare is obviously possible and war in our world can be truly horrific.  We can only hope it doesn’t work out like that.  At least some of the time, we may be able to contribute to public opinion and help prevent inappropriate, hasty or even illegal wars.

Vinapu stonework

– Is there a Comparison with Easter Island?

Deforestation, water availability and species loss are serious problems for us though not often as severe as the outcomes that Easter Island experienced.

The Rapanui experienced a reduced supply of fish due to reduced capability to fish, though their fishing stocks, for deep water fish at least, were not greatly affected.   We run some danger of exhausting world fishing supplies though effective measures may be in place, as long as we can control illegal fishing.

Easter Island experienced severe overpopulation (hand-in-hand with ecological degradation) and their capacity to take effective measures was probably hampered by excessive resource demands of the privileged elite.  Many areas of our world suffer overpopulation, especially Africa, while the developed countries (and even elite groups within developed countries) tie up a high proportion of world resources.

So if that were it, we could say that there are strong parallels with Easter Island and also significant differences.  The world is not as degraded as Easter Island became and we can still address the issues.  In the worst case, we would need to settle for a degraded lifestyle, as did the Rapanui before the arrival of the Europeans.

However, we also have global warming and climate change to contend with and we need to be very sure we understand and deal effectively with those issues as well.

There’s no land out there for thousands of miles….

– Global warming and Climate Change

Sometime between 1400 and 1700, the Rapanui experienced an ecological crisis that resulted in starvation and warfare so that the population fell by 50% to 70%.  After that, they may have reached a period of relative stability.  They still had a viable agriculture although life was much less comfortable and the numbers they could support had fallen.

The issues for the current world that I have summarised above loosely correspond to the crisis that Easter Island went through before European contact.  In the worst case, we will turn many regions arid while many species and  a significant part of humanity will die.  After some time, the chastened humans will regroup and hopefully develop a sustainable way of living under a reduced resource base.

Unfortunately, there is more to it than that.  In the case of the Rapanui, the cataclysm of European contact – disease, exploitation and slavery –almost wiped them out after 1722.  In our case, the somewhat equivalent danger has a quite different cause: global warming and the potential for climate tipping events.

Ahu Te Peu

Some people deny the possibility of global warming when they say “but it’s cold this year, there’s no warming at all”.  This is to misunderstand what it is.  Overall there is warming, the glaciers are melting, the oceans are getting warmer and giving rise to more hurricanes, but it also means greater climatic extremes and in the short-to-medium term, some regions will get warmer and drier while other may get cooler and wetter.  It is true that there can be large natural variations in climate.  It is also true that the great majority of scientists believe that global temperatures have been rising in the last 200 years and that this has a large man-made component.  This view is virtually unanimous for climatologists, those scientists who specialise in climate and climate change.

The most unsettling risk is the possibility of the world ecosystem degrading to fundamentally change the conditions for life.  It has happened before, in previous global extinction events.  It could happen fairly quickly and only be reversible in the very long term, and then to a completely different world, a climate tipping event.

As it stands, if we keep on as we are without effective remedial action, the consequences will be severe.  However, we are not yet at the point of no return.  We can still turn things around.  I think that no-one really knows how much time we have so it is better to act sooner rather than later.  The complication is that there are significant lags involved.  The effective action we take today may take several years to bite.  If necessary, we must be prepared to take one step back to take two steps forward.  If we wait until the situation is catastrophic, it might be too late to recover from.

Te Pito te Kura, Ahu Te Pito Kura

– Nuclear power

In economic terms, we are used to assuming we can always have progress but it’s not necessarily so.  In Europe, for example, Greece’s debt is 150% of its GDP, Ireland’s government deficit is 33% of its GDP, Spain’s unemployment is 20% and Italy owes France $500 billion.   A number of developed countries including the US and Japan appear to have long-term economic problems that will not be easy and quick to address.

We have seen the Japanese experiencing serious problems with explosions in their nuclear reactors, still supposedly under control but unresolved.  Germany and two other European countries have abandoned nuclear power after studying what has happened in Japan.

Indonesia is a much poorer country also prone to earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and tsunamis.  If a situation like Japan’s were to happen in Indonesia, I don’t know what it might develop to if it were to keep on getting out of control.  It couldn’t be good, especially if there were other severe problems to deal with at the same time.  Other countries could at some time descend into economic chaos, civil war or anarchy in such a way as to imperil their reactors.

The economics of wind and solar power keep improving while nuclear power is a short-term solution (plants last for 20 to 50 years) with long-term dangers (waste stays radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years).  Tim Flannery has an interesting view here, though.  He says that notwithstanding the dangers of nuclear power, the dangers of coal power (for global warming) are larger and more immediate.  He also says that wind and solar energy may be cheaper than nuclear by 2018.

Moai at Ranu Raraku

The way forward

We have no way of knowing whether the Rapanui saw their oncoming ecological problems and tried to do something about it while they still had time.  My guess is that they didn’t.  There might have been a groundswell of opinion from the common people for sustainable change but it was probably too unequal a society for that to be possible.

The ariki mau (the divine paramount chief) could have summoned the ivi atua (priests) & the ariki of the clans and compelled them to accept new social & ecological practices to achieve a sustainable society.   Something like this happened in Tokogawa Japan and in quite a different way in the Polynesian island of Tikopia.  My guess is he didn’t, and any attempts were certainly unsuccessful.   The ahu and moai got larger at the end so the Rapanui classical culture probably went out in a spectacular display, trying to persuade the Gods to restore their prosperity. The ariki and the ivi atua were also entrenched interest groups who probably felt threatened by any prospect of change.

Today, progress towards a constructive outcome is impeded by politicians who serve their own interests rather than the common good and by special interest groups who represent ecologically questionable practices.   In both cases, they are arguably not acting even in their own best interests.

We’re not doomed yet although we are clearly facing risks.  I think all of us have a responsibility to Life itself to understand these issues.  Progress will require concerted and enlightened action by government bodies at national and world levels.  It also requires that “we, the people” support appropriate and positive action wherever we can.  Developing a consensus for change is much more productive than competitive argument.

Any risks of moving to a more sustainable society and then finding out it wasn’t as bad as we thought are nothing compared to the risks of doing nothing until it’s too late.

Moai at Huri A Urenga

What Action?

Let’s imagine a world in sustainable balance in fifty or two hundred years – how could we get there?

Developed countries will not be able to wall themselves off from the rest of the world, even if they can attain sustainable development internally.  Therefore, as well as considering the problems of our own countries, we must consider how we can solve ecological problems all around the world.

Action on global warming is under way and if successful it will avert a climate tipping event. In that case, the developed countries will probably achieve some measure of sustainable development sooner or later. The later that is, the more reduced the resource base will be to operate from (and perhaps, the more like Easter Island).

Moai with eyes inserted, at the Tahai Complex

Here are some policy suggestions for a sustainable future:

  • Sustainable Development
      • We need Population Policies at least on a National basis, to determine what populations our environment can support and what infrastructure this requires
          • In the absence of migration, most developed countries would probably already have zero population growth (due to the demographic transition discussed above)
      • We need independent scientific organisations, well-funded and specifically set up to identify what resources we are in danger of exhausting and to recommend policies
          • They should be able to publish reports without political interference and there should be careful measures to ensure scientists do not represent commercial interests where there might be conflict of interest
  • Global Warming
      • We need effective policies to ensure that world climate remains amenable to human life. This has started but there is much to be done. There can be long time lags for measures to bite.
          • Awareness is probably relatively high in Europe, Canada and New Zealand but in the US and Australia there are currently a disturbingly high number of people who think there is no problem and are not prepare to sacrifice a cent for a problem they can’t see.
  • Preserving the Ecology of Poor Countries
      • Developed countries should move towards providing 5% of their gross national income to assist poor countries towards sustainable development
          • In the longer term, this is more important than disaster relief because it will help to prevent disasters. There of course needs to be safeguards against corruption and against siphoning off to first world salaries.
          • The objective of this would be to protect resources, improve living standards and to stabilise populations (eg low family programs, contraception, public awareness campaigns).
          • This may be hard to achieve politically, especially if countries become more and more immersed in their own problems, but if we do not help to solve the ecological problems of poor countries, they will also become ours.

One clear warning Easter Island shows us is that the point of greatest apparent prosperity can also be the point at which the resources that generate that prosperity are exhausted.  Prescience rather than mindless greed is at a premium.

Reality will inevitably be untidy and incomplete.  We have a responsibility to understand as much as we can and support sustainable policies where we can.  We can at least try to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

Ahu Tongariki

– Comments welcome

Comments are welcome.  Differing opinions are fine.  Please ensure that comments are polite and reasonable.

(Note:  I have separated out this post from 27th April: Easter Island (Ahu Runga Va’e and Ahu Hanga Te Tenga).  Earlier comments on that post relate to the analysis above).

22nd & 24th April: Easter Island (Ovahe)

Ovahe is a pink sand beach not far south of Anakena, the only other beach on the island and a much larger white sand beach.  On the 22nd we followed a side road at Anakena and ended up on top of the cliff north of Ovahe, which fortunately we avoided driving over.

 

This is the view looking directly down on Ovahe from the edge of the cliff.

 

Here is a view from the same spot, looking south along the east coast towards the Poike Peninsula.  You can see a much larger view of the image if you click on it.  (Then click the bottom right icon for full screen and use mouse, icons or mouse wheel to zoom in and out).

In the expanded image, you may find a few dozen horses, a few houses, the odd car, not many trees (though there is a eucalypt forest in the middle of the island), many ancient structures visible and  many ruined ahu near the shoreline (… but often hard to tell from a distance which are ahu and which are just rocks.  The ahu also have often been plundered for materials for stone walls.)

On the 24th, we drove from the other side of the island to get here before dawn.

 

The red scoria cliff is glowing in the pre-dawn light.  Caves in the cliff are reputedly used as trysting hangouts but that is probably for an earlier time with fewer people and few cars.  You can also see a much larger view of this image by clicking on it (instructions as above).

 

Here is the sky in its full splendour, just before the dawn.

 

… and finally, the sun peeks through.

Google maps location
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Ecology and History

When the Rapanui arrived at Easter Island some time between 300AD and 800AD, it was a remarkable widlife haven.  The island was also covered in trees and it may have been the largest seabird rookery in the world.

Easter Island forests mainly comprised an endemic palm (closely related to the Chilean wine palm) and the Toromiro tree.  The now-extinct Easter Island palm would have grown to about a metre in diameter and 65 metres high.  Many of the trees were cleared for agriculture soon after settlement and around 85% of the land area of the island came to be under cultivation.   Trees were then in high demand for moving moai, and no doubt many other activities we have little direct evidence of.

The Rapanui harvested most of the trees, though rats eating palm seeds may also have been a factor hampering regeneration.  However, it seems that the Rapanui did not cut down the last tree during the classic period, as often suggested.  Europeans or their cattle probably elimated the last palms in the nineteenth century while the last wild toromiro tree grew in the Ranu Kau crater until it was chopped down for firewood in 1962.   Small numbers of toromiro trees have been reintroduced to Easter Island from the Kew Botanical gardens, who received seeds from collected in the early 1960s from the last wild tree by Thor Heyerdahl.

Loss of tree cover lead to widespread erosion and loss of topsoil.  Though this would have affected food production, the volcanic soil on the island would be very fertile.  Another significant constraint was and remains water, which quickly drains away through the porous rock.  There are only two permanent bodies of water on the island, the crater lakes of Ranu Kau and Ranu Raraku.  Rano Aroi, near the summit of the largest volcano Maunga Terevaka, has a swamp from which flows a stream that persists for a kilometre before it leaches away.  The island may have been subject to periods of drought in the past and water supply remains a delicate issue for the future.

Of the 25 original species of seabird on the island, only one survives today.  There were land birds as well, including herons, owls, parrots and rail, none of which survive.  Loss of habitat may be as much a factor in this as hunting.

Fish remained a plentiful resource.  According to a plaque at Papa Vaka, fishing was not a common occupation and some species of fish were protected by tapu, with only the king’s boat exempt from that.  However, probably somewhere between 1500 and 1650, the supply of wood became insufficient to build fishing canoes so the capacity to fish was severely curtailed.

Netting from illegal fishing trawlers?

Environmental degradation is not merely confined to the classical era.  Nineteenth century farmers with large flocks of cattle and sheep would not have helped.  And recently the fish stocks have fallen sharply due to illegal trawling activities by commercial pirates from Taiwan.  Easter Island has a very large underwater land mass that harbours abundant life including many species not found elsewhere.  Bottom trawling operations have apparently reduced this by about a half since 2005.  One of the local guides also told me of nets from illegal trawlers that wash up on the shores.  I think this may be such a fragment of net on the beach at Ovahe; you can also see it on the left of image 3, Ovahe before dawn (if you expand that image).