You find yourself on an island, an island of outstanding beauty bursting to the brim with anything you could desire. Schools of fish swim off every shore, flocks of birds nest in the lush forest covering the island. All seems good, all is good.
Your people have been on this island for many generations, existing in harmony with it. Using wood from the forest to build huts and canoes but never using too much. Here life is in balance, you fish, you build, you dance, you worship the spirits.
One festival a stone mason from your tribe presents a carving of a figure that is meant to represent the spirits. It is small, the size of a baby, but beautifully made. All are amazed at the skill and precision of the masons work and the carving becomes the tribes most prized possession. You believe having this token to the spirits will bring you more into favour with them, especially more into favour compared to the other tribe.
The other tribe have a similarly skilled mason and it is not long before they too are worshiping a delicately made carving of the spirits. All is not lost though. You live on an island resplendent with resources, you’re sure you can build something better than this small icon. You gather the best stone masons your tribe has and go off to find a boulder large enough to become a lasting monument to the spirits, once and for all asserting your tribes deference and dominance. You search for days when finally one of your men calls to say they have found the perfect stone. There seems to be a problem though, how will you get the stone back to camp. You think about carving it where it is, but it is so close to your enemy’s tribe and so far from yours, you worry it will simply be destroyed the moment you leave.
An idea comes to you. If you cut down some of the surrounding trees you can make a rolling platform with which to move this boulder all the way back to your camp. Of course you’d rather leave the trees unharmed but this will put an end to any questions about which tribe respects the spirits the most.
The members of your tribe all pull together, the men cut down trees, the women clear a path, the children and the older members clear an area for work back at camp. With great effort but greater excitement the boulder is brought back and the stone masons get to work. They carve tirelessly day after day for a week, chiselling away to reveal the face you know is hidden inside.
One morning there is an excited young child with a message, “it’s done, it’s done”. You jump up, run over to the work area and stand amazed at what is before you. A stone face the size of your largest warrior stares stoically back.
You have done it, you have shown your dedication to the spirits in a way the other tribe will never be able to match, life can now get back to normal.
Weeks pass and you get a report the other tribe has been seen cutting down trees in their territory. You wonder if they can really be trying to match what you have created. You brush the idea aside, it can’t be, you’ve seen them, compared to your tribe they are savages. The idea won’t leave your mind so just to be sure you decide to send a scout to find out if the reports mean what you worry they do.
Your fears are confirmed, the other tribe are carving their own boulder into a great icon to worship. This can’t be tolerated, you can’t let those barbarians think they’re your equals, you can’t let them embarrass them by creating a more magnificent carving. You set your tribe the task of finding another boulder even larger than the last. One of you members comes up with the idea that you could break a part off from one of the cliffs around you and use that instead of having to find a free standing boulder. You are taken with the idea but realise that moving that back to camp will be even more difficult and require even more trees to be cut down. It seems a price worth paying, the spirits will surely forgive you for the trees if it is in service to something even greater in their honour.
Your men get to work again and in two weeks have created an even more magnificent carving. You place it next to the first and marvel at how you have bested what you thought could not be outdone.
Months go by this time when you are told of the other tribe cutting down more of their trees. You know they are trying to outdo you but you can’t believe that they will be able to make anything greater than your newest carving. Life in your village continues peacefully with offerings given before the carvings often.
More weeks pass when one day you are walking on the outer edges of your territory and you see three dark objects in the distance. Can it possibly be, could the other tribe have made three new carvings all at once?
You rush back to the village, and immediately go to consult the elders about what you have seen. Some of them say that whatever the other tribe is doing it does not matter, your tribe are the favoured people and the others are just offering empty gestures to the spirits. Others though say this is very worrying indeed. You can’t allow the other tribe to think they are besting you, if not only for spiritual reasons you can’t let them build enough confidence in their own abilities lest they decide they are superior and attack. You ask what to do, most of the group is in agreement that the course to take is to create statues as fast as you can, otherwise the spirits will be angered by your laziness.
A few speak out. Would the spirits really want you to destroy the beautiful landscape around you just to move boulders to carve so that you can worship them and show your supposed superiority? After all it is not just you who enjoy the forests but all of the birds on your island use them to nest, what would happen to them? Wood is also needed to build canoes and huts, how will these things be done if there is no wood left?
The first group responds saying that these are not real concerns, the forest is bountiful and there is no chance you would use so much of it as to really harm the birds that live there or deplete the timber you use for construction. You side with this group, you believe in your peoples ability to maintain the forest, after all you have lived in harmony with the island for as long as you can remember. Construction begins on a great production line to harvest boulders from the cliffs and bring them to the camp for work. Many trees are cut down for the endeavour but you are sure all will be worth it.
Weeks after construction has begun a great rain comes in one night, nothing you haven’t had before but these storms are always hazardous. You tell the camp to follow what they always do in these situations, go to their huts, huddle together and not to leave until the rains have stopped, the strategy has never failed before. You don’t hear it over the deafening thunder but destruction is tearing through the camp. Rocks and trees, carried in a surge of dirt and water, are raining down from the hill above rampaging their way through on their rapid descent.
The storm subsides and you leave your hut expecting to see debris but little else. As you exit and your eyes adjust to the outside light your mouth falls open. Huts lie destroyed around you, some have been seemingly carried off altogether. How has this happened? You have weathered so many past storms and all has been fine. You must push the thought from your mind, help tend to those in need and organise search parties for those that are missing.
In the days after the great destruction, once the damages have been repaired and the dead counted, the spiritual leaders are called together to discuss what befell your great tribe. Almost all the leaders claim this was the work of the spirits, clearly angered by the fact you have not been working as hard as the other tribe to praise them through your statues. One member had noticed how much dirt was mixed in with the water and suggested the flood may have had something to do with the trees they had removed and maybe it was a sign that they leave the forest alone. The rest of the group turn on him instantly, how could that possibly be the case, the trees were being removed to help create something even greater and there were still so many trees left.
You form a trade party to visit the other tribe so you can see if they have suffered damage on the scale that has befallen your camp. Normally trade between tribes is for objects like jewellery fashioned from the feathers of birds that only nest on a particular side of the island. Recently there seem to be fewer birds though so instead you bring a type of fish that only swims on your shores. You are greeted with suspicion but are allowed into their camp and are brought to their head priest. You enquire as to the whereabouts of the chief and are told by the priests, with a glint in his eye, that the tribe blamed the old chief for the flooding as he had too little conviction to the spirits. You trade items, your fish for their herbs, and depart a feeling of unease hangs over you. With the priests now in charge you expect they will only start to carve more statues and win further favour from the spirits.
As soon as you return home you command every member of your tribe to stop the work they are doing. Canoes, nets, jewellery are to be put aside and all are to work towards the building of statues. You worry if you do not start down such a course and the other tribe does then you will be left with not just a less beautiful island but fewer statues for your tribe as well. Little do you know you have just given the order that will be the end of the life you have so come to enjoy.
Over the next few years the island changes beyond what any thought possible. The forests have been stripped bare, birds are not seen in the skies anymore. Why would they stay when they have no where to nest? Animals that hid in the forests have lost their coverings and so became easy prey. Many religious feasts were had at the beginning when prey was being caught more bountifully but there are fewer and fewer animals around now for some reason. The great flood that happened all those years ago has become a more frequent occurrence with more mud being flushed though the camp every time. Every occurrence is interpreted as the spirits showing their anger at things not moving fast enough towards the creation of statues for their worship. The spiritual leaders have all but expelled any who speak out about the fact that the more carvings that are made the worse the surrounding habitat seems to be getting.
The island is covered with statues, carvings greater than any could have imagined would be made when this all began. But you are struggling now. With less food people are dying sooner and in greater numbers than before. The only thing flourishing are the statues. They line the coast and hillsides all over the island, you’ve lost count of which tribe has made more. Such matters where forgotten long ago.
You are old now, thinner and weaker than you used to be. You take a walk up the hill your camp is below, the hill that used to be filled with trees, little creatures and bird song. You reach the top and look down at all that is below. You see nothing of the island you remember from long ago. The creatures have been replaced by emptiness, the bird song by silence, the trees by statues. So many statues, dotted over the barren landscape as far as you can see. Do you really feel closer to the spirits now?
Suddenly the error of your ways overcomes you, look at what you have done to this paradise, you fall to your knees and weep. What once was will never be again.
This story is based off of the population collapse on Easter island partially due to the making of their famous Moai heads