When Polynesian settlers arrived at Easter Island, they found a tropical paradise waiting for them. Archaeological evidence shows that when the Polynesians landed on that island, it was covered with a thick forest of abundant flora and fauna. A new study suggests that these settlers didn’t arrive until about 1200 C.E. At the peak of their civilization, the island supported nearly 7,000 people. Yet by the time Dutch colonizers arrived in 1772, all they found was the eerie stone statues that dominate the island to this day, and a few dozen starving survivors from the original Polynesian colonists. In less than six centuries, the original settlers turned the island into a wasteland. Today, the island is nothing but a barren field covered with grasses and those enigmatic stone statues.

I wonder what happened that would lead these islanders to think that their rapid and massive deforestation was a good idea? Surely at some point in time they must have realized what was happening to the forests around them. There are no trees at all on the island today. Someone had to have been the one to cut down the last tree. I wonder what went through his mind as he put the axe to the last tree trunk on the island? Did he look upon his action with regret and remorse for what once was, or did he just look at it as a way to squeeze the last ounce of productivity out of the last resource on the island? Did the islanders realize that the destruction of the forest meant their own destruction, or did they just think that the cutting of the last tree was “business as usual” and that anyone who objected was needlessly being an alarmist?

The sad story of Easter Island is not unique in history. For decades, historians wondered what happened to the Mayan civilization. The Mayans had a sophisticated urban culture that in many ways rivaled our own, and in some ways (astronomy, for example) exceeded ours. Yet in 900 C.E. they all suddenly abandoned their cities for the jungle.

For years the reason for this abandonment had been a mystery, but archaeologists today have reached a general consensus on what they think happened.

The largest of Mayan cities had a population of between 10,000 and 20,000. All of those people had to be fed. The preferred style of Mayan agriculture was to slash and burn the jungle to create arable fields for planting. By planting the same crops year after year, the nutrients in the soil were quickly depleted. After a few decades of this practice, the soil within walking distance of all the cities had been exhausted. The fields had to be moved so far away from the cities that it was easier simply to abandon the cities altogether. In other words, the cities were abandoned because of an ecological disaster caused by non-sustainable agricultural practices.

There is evidence that other great cities of the past, such as Rome and Alexandria, had an element of ecological disaster in their falls as well. Throughout history, when civilizations have failed to live in a sustainable manner, the inevitable result has been the collapse of those civilizations.

We stand on the brink of another potential ecological disaster that would make the collapse of an ancient city-state pale in significance. In the past, when civilizations fell, the refugees could always move elsewhere and start over. The problem now is that we are a global civilization. There is nowhere else to go.

Are we, as a species, staring at the last tree with an axe in our hands?