PRINT February 1993


Andrew Ross' Weather Report

AT SOME POINT in our youths, most of us were invited to ponder the “mystery” of the Easter Island statues. The fantasies may have varied from culture to culture, but the basic narrative, whether it involved visits from extraterrestrials or Thor Heyerdahl’s colorful wars of conquest between long-eared and short-eared peoples, was probably the same romance about lost civilizations that still holds sway over some part of my own barnacled imagination. It’s only recently that environmental history has given us the straight dope about Easter Island (and other “lost civilizations” to boot).

In the first chapter of A Green History of the World (Penguin, 1991), Clive Ponting presents Easter Island as a “lesson” in how hierarchical societies can turn their limited resource-bases into instruments of environmental collapse and self-destruction. The story is one of clan chiefs competing in symbolic self-aggrandizement through the erection of stone statues, which were transported around the island on vast tracks of felled tree trunks. The resulting deforestation leached the soil of nutrients, deprived the islanders of essentials like fishing nets, canoes, and timber huts, and eroded local belief systems. The first European visitors, in 1722, came upon an environmentally devastated land, its people in perpetual warfare, their food economy in a cannibalistic phase, and a state of amnesia prevailing among them about the origins and meanings of the statues. Surely, writes Ponting, the Easter Islanders must have seen what was happening to their forests and soils. And yet, far from devising ways of staving off ecocollapse, their leaders intensified the competition over available timber by carving more and more statues.

Perhaps, Ponting concludes, there is a lesson here for us today, facing ecological collapse on a planetary scale. Whatever you think of this lesson, it is by no means a simple story: the shift from mystery genre to didactic genre provides no opportunity to introduce the voice of the islanders, who are silenced in new ways, and cast, yet again, as exemplary types in the latest morality play about the survival of, mostly, Western civilization. Polynesians are long used to stepping in and out of the fantasy lives of Westerners. But this new, revisionist picture of their life before “first contact” is at least filled by peoples with histories, peoples with politics, and peoples with physical effects upon their habitats, so it is likely to replace other, more familiar stories about people without history: the European story, which started the whole Polynesian romance, about the noble savage living in a state of benevolent nature; or the equally reverent story favored by cultural nationalists all over the Pacific, about ecologically wise peoples living in respectful harmony with nature by practicing responsible resource management.

Right now, indigenous peoples are fixed in the limelight of environmentalists’ concerns. (This is one way of ignoring the fact that most frontline victims of environmental violence live in our own inner cities, or in unspectacular rural communities.) Indeed, third world peoples have learned that they stand a better chance of having their claims heard by environmental groups if they present themselves as fourth worlders, members of traditional, “primitive” cultures, which is what the global tourist industry, for its own reasons, encourages them to do. And as for echt fourth worlders, they are increasingly under pressure to preserve their “authenticity.” The injunction is to shut out the modern world, eschew all trade with cash economies, and shun postneolithic technologies.

If you hadn’t already noticed, the pattern here is to reverse the neo-Darwinian order that used to govern thinking about the survival of cultures. In the new version, the less developed cultures are ecologically the fittest. Hence all other occupants of the great chain of being (now more like the food chain), but especially first worlders, have an investment in preserving these traditional cultures.

This logic is at its sharpest in high-media-profile regions like rainforest lands that host indigenous peoples, but it can be viewed more widely in places where colonialism has long muddied the waters that divide third from fourth world. In French Polynesia, where I recently paid a visit, the French have finally suspended nuclear testing, after thirty years of vainglorious military preening and colonial high-handedness with the natives. Dicing with nuclear death and contamination may have been a stiff price to pay for the artificially inflated economy that accompanied the colony’s atomic rent, and there is a good deal of irony attached to the presence of such technologies of extinction among peoples supposed to symbolize the last thing in low-tech subsistence living. Alternately dubbed the happiest and the most miserable people on earth (Touche pas a mon Gauguin!), the Maohi of the islands are now beginning to look beyond the protective colonial mask that provides them with the appearance, but not the economic base, of a thriving third world society.

With cold war testing over, the move from class tourism to mass tourism is the most likely avenue of development, and the least destructive one. Tahitians are not thrilled at the prospect of an invasion of Long Islanders, but tourism, if confined to limited zones, allows them to live off their most valuable financial asset—the myth of Polynesia—and saves them from the most un-Polynesian fate of industrialized workplaces. The good-natured presentation of Polynesia as a fourth world culture is a small price to pay for evading proletarianization in the microelectronics net of the Pacific Rim. The Kon Tiki routines are corny stuff, but the tourist appetite for them only reinforces Polynesians’ view that the Western way of life must be insane if it requires such thin fantasies as relief from its work regimes.

All the more reason, say the islanders, to pursue an alternative path of development. Cultures of the periphery, some believe, have a chance to survive, not by leapfrogging over the industrial phase of development, but by forging a tourist industry that profitably exploits the utopian fantasies of Westerners in ways that Westerners have come to accept in their own environments; there is barely a large town in Europe or North America untouched by the “heritage industry.” As for the notorious abuses often associated with the tourist gaze, Polynesians seem no more confused about their cultural identity than are Texan cowboys, Scottish Highlanders, or Alpine herders.

In Tahiti, I talked at length to the leaders of Te Niu Nu Ananahi, a new organization pledged to the “construction of tomorrow’s Polynesia.” After a march to protest chronic corruption among the ruling elite (“dictatorship” was a term used to describe the current president’s ambitions), the protagonists spoke of their nonpartisan agenda for the region’s moral, cultural, and socioeconomic development. The values they named were as much those of the French Enlightenment as they were recognizably Polynesian. Most conspicuous was the absence of primordialist appeals to racial or ethnic value-systems: the indigenous values in effect here were those of inclusion, drawing upon the creation of “new traditions” of social and cultural life in ways more truly Polynesian than the fierce doctrine of “authentic” cultural preservation shared and exploited by romantic environmentalists and by power-hungry nationalists. Given the paltry options left by colonialism, here then was one dynamic model for renovating cultural traditions in the crucible of a multiethnic society. After the “lessons” of Cook, Diderot. the London Missionary Society, Waikiki, and Easter Island, here were Polynesians trying to teach by their own examples

Andrew Ross books include Strange Weather and No Respect. He contributes this column regularly to Artforum.