Posted by: Geoffrey Meadows | January 1, 2008

The Tikopia Syndrome

In Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, he mentions what he calls a success story in his list of failed societies. It’s the small Pacific island of Tikopia. In contrast to Easter Island, for instance, where the people destroyed the forest of the island, the people of Tikopia planted fruit trees and grew crops on nearly every usable spot on the island. The places where crops or fruit trees weren’t grown, so-called “wild” trees with edible nuts were grown, which were only eaten if the regular crops failed. A small island on which it was not possible to be out of earshot of the sea at any moment, it supported over the long-term more than a thousand people at a time.

One’s first reaction to this report is to just say, Wow! And they were able to achieve these results over hundreds of years. But one’s second reaction might be different from the first. Would we really want a “planting” instead of a planet? Would we want all the plants and animals of this world to support us and keep nothing for its own value? No wild places? Only what benefits us? If we end up thinking about “planet management,” for instance, shouldn’t there be a place for nature to regenerate itself if something happens to us? What is our real responsibility here?

I read an article in Environment magazine a while back about what we are going to have to do to conserve water in the future. (Environment magazine has quite a few articles on water.) Special water-conserving technologies in agriculture and industry will need to be implemented, even beyond what ordinary people will have to do to conserve water at home. More bang for the buck, more with less, however you want to say it.

I recently read an article in BioScience magazine on “population target levels” for wildlife.(1) The question in the title of the article was, “How Many Animals Do We Want to Save?” Natural areas and wildlife do have a value. Whether it is the people-centered values of history, aesthetics, or the ecosystem services that we receive – or the nature-centered values, the values that nature has quite apart from us: it certainly has the right to exist and perpetuate itself.

But just try telling that to someone who needs a job.

The real question is not how many animals do we want (although there are some insights in the article on this), but how many people do we want? If politics is short on solutions now, wait until there’s nine billion people on the planet (instead of only six billion), all demanding jobs, resources, and services. It’s hard to believe that our people in government don’t get this. (Right now they can only bicker over immigration with an us-them attitude that speaks to me only of how wars begin.)

And the question remains, Do we want to keep only what serves us – nothing for its own value?  Or do we presume (for presumption it is) that nothing else even has a value apart from us?

Whatever the answer to that question is, or whatever it takes before we start looking for the real answer, you can bet we are going to have to start limiting ourselves if we are going to have livable lives. We can only hope that by the time we get around to it there is something left of our natural world to save.

(1) “How Many Animals Do We Want to Save? The Many Ways of Setting Population Target Levels for Conservation,” Eric W. Sanderson. BioScience, (November 2006), vol. 56, no. 11, pp. 911-922.
How long has it been since the book, The Population Bomb, was written? To some extent you can say the picture it drew was too dire, but the same processes are still at work today. How can we learn to limit ourselves before we destroy the planet? Here’s the rather conservative Wikipedia article – .


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