We thought, because we had power, we had wisdom.
We thought the long train would run to the end of Time.
— Stephen Vincent Benét

A puzzle. Why is it that some ancient societies destroyed their land and collapsed, while others were able to turn around when they saw the damage they were leaving in their wake and change their culture in the direction of co-adaptation?

Two islands in Oceania. Both so remote they could not export their problems. Both small; Tikopia, the smaller of the two, has better soils. The larger Easter Island provided a richer foraging environment when the Polynesians settled there. Both were peopled by forager/horticulturists of similar cultural stock. Tikopia was settled much earlier than Easter Island, and has been inhabited for 2,800 years, Easter Island for perhaps 1,300 years. On both islands, living was easy, with main reliance on gardens and fishing. The Tikopians brought with them pigs and chickens, the Easter Islanders only chickens (and stowaway rats).

Easter Island began to suffer deforestation from about 1,400 AD onward, partly due to burgeoning population and partly because of poor practices that led to soil erosion over and over again. In addition, the entire culture of 11 clans became intensely involved in the creation and erection of the huge statues of clan ancestors for which Easter Island is now famous. Trees were utilized to make the ropes, rolling logs and cranes necessary to transport the statues to their permanent sites. This highly competitive and ambition-driven enterprise between the clans led to bigger and bigger statues needing more extensive engineering works to move them.

The Easter Islanders could easily see the damage as they walked around their small island. The last trees were also their last link with the deep sea and the porpoises and big fish they loved to eat. The trees were their last chance of leaving the island on voyages connecting them with the larger world. And of course, the trees were their last hope for erecting new statues. Yet, they went ahead and cut down the last remaining trees. As anthropologist Terry Hunt describes it:

With the loss of their forest, the quality of life for Islanders plummeted. Streams and drinking water supplies dried up. Crop yields declined as wind, rain, and sunlight eroded topsoil. Fires became a luxury since no wood could be found on the island, and grasses had to be used for fuel. No longer could rope be manufactured to move the stone statues and they were abandoned.

As their access to protein diminished and their island home turned into a windblown grassy plain, the people began to wall in their gardens and expand their chicken flocks. But it was too late to ward off a collapse: too many people vying for too few resources, a conflict-ridden culture, and an almost incomprehensible sense of cultural madness. Ever larger statues lay in the quarry, some so enormous there was absolutely no chance of moving them. As violence broke out, people burrowed into little hidden shelters dug into the slopes and warriors took over any remaining governance. The culture eventually perished amidst famine and cannibalism. The survivors turned in fury against the statues their ancestors sacrificed so much to build; most were toppled and broken soon after the first Europeans visited the island in 1722.

On Tikopia, however, things worked out differently. Predictably enough, the Tikopians also arrived at a place where their small island held too many people, deforestation and erosion became severe, bird communities were decimated, people went hungry and wars among the clans started in earnest. At one point, the weaker of the clans made the choice to take to the sea and perish there rather than risk being murdered in their sleep.

And then, Tikopians turned around. They decided to keep their population at around 1200 people, resorting to infanticide, to sending young people on sea journeys that were perilous and highly uncertain of reaching other lands, and to restrictive reproductive customs (only first sons were permitted to marry and have children). Pottery was no longer made (presumably because it needs a lot of charcoal for firing). Gardening practices were altered in favor of forest gardens, soil was renewed, and the island remains covered by lush canopy to this day. Despite great fondness for pork, the increasing damage caused by the pigs led to their eradication. There were changes in the status of leaders; by the time Tikopia was studied in the 1920s, chiefs were highly respected but humble people who worked their own gardens and did not prey on the rest of the community. Nobody on Tikopia was dispossessed or landless. These cultural changes were made over long periods of time, and were adjusted toward greater radicalism when it became apparent that the damage had been merely slowed down and more profound changes were needed.

What made the difference? What can we ourselves learn from the lessons of Tikopia? I have a little niggling hypothesis banging around my head that still needs developing. I thought I’d share what little I understand and see if it leads to greater insights in time.

This is how it goes. In the background of every culture, there hums a process that informs the mode of governance and the levels of conflict within that particular social system. In some cultures, this generative groundwork can not unfairly be called a “power-process.” A power-process produces an accumulation of power (along with prestige and wealth). Such cultures are typically recognizable by high levels of competition and conflict and by monumental architecture — statuary, tombs, temples, and palaces — used to legitimate the entrenched sociopolitical structure.

In other cultures, there hums in the background a “wisdom-process” instead. The wisdom-process results in the accumulation of insightful, tried-and-true customs and traditions. Such cultures implement strong checks and balances, not allowing religious or secular leaders to monopolize power and prestige to the detriment of the community. This does not necessarily mean that such societies are deeply egalitarian — Oceania was settled by fairly rigidly ranked peoples. It means that the effects of power are modified and not allowed to get out of hand, and cooperation is the predominant ethos of the culture.

The power-process supersedes wisdom, and societies that rely on it are unable to deal with challenges that are not amenable to power-driven solutions. Whenever massive ecological challenges come their way, demanding profound cultural changes, particularly ones involving a shift in allocation of influence and wealth, a power-driven process retrenches and walls itself off so effectively from feedback and from any possibility of change threatening the status quo that the culture eventually collapses.

The power-process can be simplified into a diagram.

/          \
/              \
people divided       rule and conquest

In other words, a power-process promotes the “divide and rule” paradigm. There are many ways to divide the people; ideologies, ingrained injustices that turn people against their neighbors, artificially generated conflicts, intentional immiseration and the like. People divided are easy to rule. They are unable, however, to come together when the whole culture is faced with the need to change course, even when their survival depends on it.

The wisdom-process, on the other hand, supersedes power. A culture that relies on it is able to turn around because the wisdom process pays close attention to feedback from all quarters, and follows some form of the OODA spiral to evolve cultural change in hoped-for directions. It is well suited to keep adjusting the social steering mechanism in the direction of greater cultural and ecological well being.

/          \
/              \
people united       co-governance

“Unify and co-govern” is the inverse of the old strategy that aims to “divide and conquer,” and may provide an effective antidote to the poison of congealed power. How can we open the door to unity and co-governance? By using the cultural tools that defuse conflicts and support trust-based relationships. A sense of common vision plays a role. And by weaving a social fabric where intrinsic differences among humans are not artificially aggravated. But these are just a few rough guesses. It is up to us to look for hints of wisdom-process in the old records, to learn from cultures today that are still sustained by it, and to evolve it anew in our post-civ afterculture. Listening for its faint hum is surely the first step.