The story of Easter Island, named according to its discovery on Easter Sunday in 1722, is one of human indifference toward nature. Studies of the rise and demise of the human population on Easter Island suggest that population overgrowth and environmental degradation led to the collapse of the society. Easter Island is a remote island, 2300 miles from the coast of Chile, and was originally populated by about 400 people. Scholars, who estimate the population rose to over 8000 people when conflict and strife led to its failure, use this small island to explain sustainability: meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising future generations.
An important principle of sustainability is that a society cannot use natural resources or produce waste faster than the resources can be regenerated or assimilated naturally. A second important principle is that human society must be viewed as part of the whole natural environment. Too many people view nature as property or systems to exploit. Around the world, there continues to be the leveling of the natural environment for more building, agriculture, etc., without regard to human interconnectedness and dependence on nature. This building is viewed as progress, but often it is not carried out responsibly.
For true sustainability, ethical and moral principles must govern fairness and equity. The United States currently represents about 4% of the world’s population, but utilizes nearly 18% of the world’s generated power and creates about 12% of the world’s waste. Inequality has increased. I recently put forth the question of when have you been asked to conserve, cut down or eliminate behaviors that are not sustainable to the young students in my environmental justice class. Not one of them had been challenged either in heart, mind or actions. What does this say about our lifestyles and our communications to younger generations who will likely be challenged with outcomes of unsustainable living? Are present material excesses worth the future problems?
The message of Easter is beautiful, while the message of Easter Island should remind us to be grateful for the beauty of the Earth and ensure the gifts of nature extend to future generations.
Julie Peller, Ph.D., is an environmental chemist (Professor of Chemistry at Valparaiso University ). Julie has been writing a weekly column for the past ~6 years called the Green Junction and is helping to move the call of Laudato Si to action forward. Her Research Interests are advanced oxidation for aqueous solutions, water quality analyses, emerging contaminants, air quality analyses, Lake Michigan shoreline challenges (Cladophora, water, and sediment contaminants), and student and citizen participation in environmental work.