The Power Of Choice

Jared Diamond’s masterful Collapse:  How Societies Choose To Fail Or Succeed is a collection of case studies of societies that were unable or unwilling to correct defects which ultimately led to their destruction.  The book’s examples include, among others, the Anasazi culture of North America, the Vikings of Greenland, the Mayans, and even modern Rwanda.  But for me, the most haunting example of collapse discussed is Easter Island.  Diamond explains in great detail how the decline and collapse played out, taking advantage of the most current scientific research.  The resulting story is unforgettable.  The lessons emerge with stark clarity, if only we are willing to hear them without comforting prejudices.

When most people think of Easter Island, of course, they picture the great monoliths erected there by the inhabitants centuries ago.  Seen today, the island is nearly bare, with no trees over ten feet tall.  But it was not always so:  the island was once a thriving ecosystem, with extensive forests, numerous bird species, and a wealth of other fauna.  When humans first arrived there about A.D. 900, it was densely forested, and was capable of sustaining numerous tribes and a relatively high population.  When the first Europeans “discovered” the island in the 1720s, they found it very sparsely populated, the inhabitants reduced to a mean and pitiable state of existence, the landscape denuded of trees.  What had happened?


The scientific evidence makes it clear that overexploitation of resources by the natives set in motion a chain of events that pushed the inhabitants over the brink.  Trees were an important resource for the islanders: they were used for cremation, construction of statutes, and habitations.  But the islanders were unable—or unwilling—to manage their natural resources in ways that ensured their continued renewal.  Gradually, perhaps nearly imperceptibly, the resources began to dwindle.  Warning signs were ignored or rationalized away.  As deforestation proceeded, animal life became extinct or went elsewhere.  Crop yields plummeted.  Native plants, birds, and animals melted away.

The islanders then began to compete with each other more and more fiercely for an ever-declining volume of natural resources; vendettas multiplied, intertribal warfare flared, and a pall of hostility and fear descended on the island.  As the trees vanished, the islanders were unable to build boats to escape to other islands:  they became trapped in their own hell, doomed to fight each other in perpetuity for the last crumbs that the barren land could offer.  Eventually the islanders began to starve, and feed—literally—off each other.  As wild meats became unavailable, and escape off the island became impossible, the natural consequences followed.  Cannibalism stalked the island, animating its folklore and infecting its archaeological sites.  Perhaps the islanders compensated for their misery by focusing more and more on the empty ritual of building and raising statutes, as their means of sustenance melted away.  It is a haunting picture, impossible to forget.

Diamond muses on a question worthy of some reflection.  He asks, “As an islander cut down the last tree, what would he have been thinking?”  Cleverly, he notes that modern analogues offer a possible answer:  “It’s about jobs, not trees!” or “God will take care of it!”, or “Next year will be better!” Such responses are easy to imagine, and have the ring of truth.  Just as many today are in denial about resource depletion and global warming, so we can imagine that the ancient Easter Islanders may have had some soothing, face-saving explanation for why they were unable to take action to avert disaster.  Reason can always be counted on to provide justification for our vices.

Denial is a curious thing.  We choose to ignore the problems that confront us, because doing so involves some degree of self-examination.  I have often noticed that when people or businesses are confronted with problems, they will continue to do the same thing over and over again, even when such a course of action has demonstrably failed.  In some cases, speedy and decisive action may have saved a situation that was allowed to degrade to the point of no return.  And then it becomes too late for remedial action.  Diamond notes that even the modern Easter Islanders are unwilling to believe what had befallen their ancestors.  “Our ancestors would never have done that!” was a common response when he discussed the history of the island with them.  Delusion is of old date.


Why does this happen?  I think the answer is that on some level, people, organizations, or nations make a conscious choice.  They choose to fail or to succeed.  Faced with a fork in the road, we are all forced to make a choice.  And the truth seems to be that some people actually prefer to fail.  Perhaps failure validates some hidden prejudice, or secret self-destructive impulse, that they have; or perhaps they find it impossible to extricate themselves from the situation in any other way.  The motivations are many and varied.  Without doubt, the power of choice is not a burden sought by all.  Some men prefer to have no control over their fate, despite their assurances otherwise.  Freedom brings responsibility, which for many is an intolerable burden.  Slavery is an intoxicant.  It first blackens, then dulls, the edge of our initiative.

But it still is baffling to outside observers to see a situation, that might have been remedied, continue to spiral downward for no justifiable reason.  Call it the power of the irrational.  Easter Island’s collapse highlights the power of choice as a constant force in mankind’s affairs.  For me, it is a reminder that we, and we alone, retain the power to sketch the contours of our destinies.

Read More:  The Fears Of Being A World Traveler

64 thoughts on “The Power Of Choice”

  1. I recommend the fate of empires by Sir John Glubb. It delves into this subject.

    1. I have that! Haven’t read it yet though. too many current books to read

  2. I wrote in a recent thread how many men give up or lose their nerve after putting in all the work, and often just before the payoff. Also added that we fail to see what options are available to us at any given time and make “safe” decisions that exacerbate a difficult situation. I know this because I have committed these fallacies innumerable times.
    One should use logical analysis and not emotional thinking to avoid these traps. One book (and there are many) that presents some workable methods is “The Thinker’s Toolkit – 14 Powerful Techniques for Problem Solving” by Morgan Jones. I confess I have not implemented them but at least make a pass at diagramming alternatives for a problem instead of reacting like a woman and buying the pink Rambo knife with built in emergency clock-radio.
    “Some men prefer to have no control over their fate, despite their assurances otherwise”
    Something that has stuck with me was a tech company owner who told me : “Everyone wants to be told what to do every day and not take any risks. I need a guy who can go out and find applications for my product”

    1. That tech owner is right. The vast majority of Americans will do the minimum required for their 9-to-5 jobs and then go home, tuning out anything that doesn’t concern their immediate lives.

    2. I am at a crossroads decision right now actually.
      I’m at the tail end of my Masters in Neuroscience and I’m going nuts trying to figure out if I should go on and pursue the PhD or if I should get out and grab a Computer Science degree to round out my skillset and get into the workforce.
      Many of the graduated PhDs I see end up in post-doc hell working temp jobs in labs with overlord supervisors. My research suggests that it is really hard to get academic jobs… which is what the PhD trains you to do.
      But its like you’re saying… I don’t wanna switch paths yet kuz what if I’m wrong… what if there will be an economic swing by the time I graduate? Am I just having commitment phobia? I’m trying to be level-headed and rational about it but its still a really hard decision.

      1. It’s hard to get academic jobs and the pay can be low.
        It would be very practical to get some computer science background, not necessarily a BS but significant coursework. You could make a good earning on that.
        You bring up an important point though. From my experience a purely software background has limited long-term potential unless it is coupled with training/expertise in another discipline, such as accounting or mechanical engineering, or in your case neuroscience.
        A PhD in your future could pay off if you embarked on a technical startup or were hired by one.
        Lastly, understand marketing and proposal/grant writing. He who brings money into the organization can do whatever the fuck he wants.

      2. Neuroscience? Hey what are you interested in doing? That sounds interesting!

  3. Rambling
    As of now, I have clearly defined goals. I at this time know exactly what I am going to do in life. The tricky part is getting there. Just turned 21 today. Crafting logical plans and carrying them out is fun but is also the trick to getting there.
    For me the toughest thing is the company. They say you are who you hang with and this is most certainly true. You don’t want someone’s bad habit to rub off on you. You don’t want to waste your time doing meaningless things with them when you could be working towards your goals.
    This is the toughest part. Finding other like minded people. Can’t count how many times I have gotten weird looks or have just been flat out ostracized. It’s even worse because I’m black and I get looks as to if I am supposed to behave a certain way.
    People can literally be like poison. I can blame my failures on this but I won’t give up. Gotta look in the right places.

    1. Happy Birthday! Can you tell us what your plans are in what field or is it something you’d rather keep quiet about?

      1. The fields I’m going to get into are Biotechnology (prosthetic limbs, surgical implants, etc), Robotics, and Nanotechnology.
        My business plan is finished. The first draft of it is already finished but I cannot elaborate on that.

        1. I took early semi-retirement from the medical field since it allowed me to make the right investments as well as buy property in Hawaii that I rent out. Gazing at my crystal ball I foresee a rise in the number of baby boomers falling down and breaking their hips…yes, I see a rise in the number of phone calls for your service…

        2. Indeed, I predict the 2020’s will mark the end of the baby boomers. They will lose much of their influence in that decade.
          I am interested in making people better and then some though. Not just helping people cope…… I am GOING to make people better and then some
          I am young but it’s perfect for me to start getting into this stuff now. I’m not going to wait until I’m 30 or something. It’s the perfect times for these kinds of risk.

        3. Its good to see other young black men frequenting this site, despite all of the hate here. The looks you get for being intelligent and conscious are never going to end, so you need to start finding ways to accept the way society has conditioned the people around you. Finding forward thinking people is tough for everyone is this corrupted culture and it is especially difficult for black men, but it is possible.
          The part about wanting to “make people better” is all well and good, but you should focus on self improvement in your 20’s. What mainstream society wont tell you is that your 20’s are still your youth, and you should be preparing for the rest of your life at this time. Build yourself and acquire skills and money so that you can give back to the world later in life. There is little that you can do for the world before you turn 30; you just dont have the experience.

        4. ” The looks you get for being intelligent and conscious are never going
          to end, so you need to start finding ways to accept the way society has
          conditioned the people around you”
          I know. I am already thick skinned and have been for years. That’s what years of getting teased in school does to you. If anything the people around me can be annoying but they don’t stop me from doing what I want to do.
          I am well into self improvement. i read books ever day. I hit the gym 4-6 times per week. I am also already speaking Japanese and Spanish.
          It’s all about time management. Time for self improvement and time to work towards my goals. I make time for both via schedule.

  4. Most dicks promise to make your life better if you will just let them get in there.

  5. Agent Smith’s speech in the first Matrix comes to mind when he says to Morpheus that humans are unable to coexist in the long-term with their natural world. The closest thing they are akin to is a virus.
    Easter Island is exhibit A.

    1. Whew…comparing humans to a virus is apt. I do believe in global warming and think humans and human activity has alot ( but not all ) to do with it. 7 Billion humans on the planet likely effect the enviroment and ecology. How could it not??

  6. Just as many today are in denial about resource depletion and global warming, so we can imagine that the ancient Easter Islanders may have had some soothing, face-saving explanation for why they were unable to take action to avert disaster.

    Resource depletion and global warming. Uh huh. Right.

    1. Yep. Although I will grant that there are a host of VALID concerns pressing down on us environmentally. Fukishima is one of those, and deforestation/desertification are actual, real and provable concerns. Global warming? Or was it cooling? Wait, just climate change in general. IT’s a non-issue. Unless you can come up with a way to mitigate the effect of solar cycles, that is. I heard a ‘global warming expert’ literally say that the Sun has NOTHING to do with the Earth’s climate. Face. Palm.

      1. Global warming? Or was it cooling? Wait, just climate change in general.

        I’m glad I wasn’t the only one who caught that. The general public views history as a linear movement (i.e. valleys and peaks). Ancient civilizations, traditional cultures and anyone left with a brain knows time is as cyclical as seasons of the year.

    2. There are some things that do harm our environment.
      I can acknowledge that some aspects of global warming are very much exaggerated though.

    3. Man-made global warming is the biggest scientific fraud of all time. Quintus writes great articles and I have the utmost respect for him, but how could he fall for this pablum? In every other geological period of Earth’s history going back 500 million years to the Cambrian explosion, CO2 levels have ALWAYS been higher, often 20 times or more higher, than they are today. The present atmosphere is carbon starved if you look at it over that timescale.
      This fake crisis is being pushed to institute a global carbon tax. Once a body is given the power of taxation over the entire planet, it becomes a de facto government and will begin to operate as such.

      1. Exactly right, we’re actually at a low CO2 point in geologic history. Were the CO2 higher, plants would consume more of it and produce more O2. Both would rise in tandem, providing a better environment for all concerned. But again, there are a lot of valid concerns across the board when it comes to the environment, which humanity is ruthlessly rape (culture)ing.

      2. I’ve examined the evidence and believe that global warming is a scientific fact. Now, before you blow a gasket, Relampago, hear me out here.
        Can this issue be used to push varying types of social agendas? Yes.
        Does global warming mean the end of all life on earth? No.
        Will life go on? Yes.
        But to bury our heads in the sands and pretend that climate change is not happening…looks a lot like what failed societies have done in the past: ignore or explain away things that are scientific fact.

        1. I believe our society is failing because it is ignoring biology and traditional sexual roles between males and females. The ethnic group that made up 90% of American society since its founding will make up around 33% of it within our lifetime, on their way to extinction (all Caucasians will be <2% of world population by 2100) because they don’t reproduce anymore. I’ve attached a demographic image explaining the demographic collapse we are witnessing. Now that is the elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about.
          Climate change always happens, and human CO2 isn’t causing it. There are so many other things for our society to have valid concerns over other than this non-issue. In fact, natural climate change has caused such extremes as Snowball Earth (the entire planet was frozen down to the tropics) to the Holocene Maximum, which revisionist climatologists have tried to erase from their records, in which temperatures were much warmer than today worldwide for over 3,000 years.
          In fact, more warming would be good for the world and it would be a greener world. Ice is not good for life. CO2 is one of the weakest greenhouse gases there is. The relationship between CO2 and temperature is reversed – temperature leads CO2, not the other way around. CO2 levels have ALWAYS been higher than in the Quaternary (today) throughout geological history. These are facts, all of which individually can be used to dispove the polemic, but together, turn it into the biggest fraud of our lives.

  7. “And the truth seems to be that some people actually prefer to fail.”
    That is because failing is easy. Anyone can do it. And when they fail they can fire up that rationalization hamster and blame others in order to preserve their ego’s. Even when it could result in their own deaths. Sucess on the other hand, is hard and requires effort and personal responsibility. Weaklings and cowards hate personal responsibility because it forces them to admit that they are responsible for their own failures, destroying their only short of identity they have, their frail ego’s. It would be a short of psychological suicide for them. Preferring to fail is short of an self-hatred.

  8. If you want Easter Island to parallel something meaningful, compare it to our efforts to get off the planet.

      1. Not completely, but not nearly enough forward progress either.
        You should find a better place to discuss this. It is much more interesting and important than your neighbor’s thoughts about what justifies murder.

  9. I readily admit that environmentalism is very political, but why is anyone who calls for stewardship of natural resources and respect for nature shouted down by “conservatives?”

    1. Because with environmentalists, you can’t win. Okay, coal puts out carbon dioxide and causes acid rain. But… hydropower hurts the salmon, nuclear power puts out toxic waste, and wind farms pollute the landscape. Now they’re bitching that the gas fracking boom uses harmful chemicals.
      If environmentalists had their way, we’d be living in the Stone Age.

      1. I agree. On a fundamental level I believe that all of their political babble comes down to an innate fear of fire.

  10. Managing resources is good, but global warming or the new buzz word “climate change” is about carbon taxes on the sheeple.

    1. Word the fuck up. Remember the old joke, “They’d tax you for the air if they could!”…it’s not a joke anymore, boys.

  11. Quintus – interesting and thought provoking article, thank you.
    My two pennies worth: civilisations emerge when masculine virtues predominate, and fail when their very prosperity and success leads to a replacement of those masculine virtues with feminine vices. They become soft and weak and unsure of themselves, then they collapse.
    We can see the same process going on in modern society. Hard nosed reality, planning for the future, sacrifice, courage, and vision are in short supply these days. Instant self gratification, narcissism, make-believe and self-flattering bullshit abound.
    The only reason feminism exists is because men have created enough excess wealth and personal liberty to allow women to pursue feminist fantasies. 500 years ago ladies were too busy being pregnant or washing their husband’s clothes in the local river or being burned as a witch to have time for feminism.
    But I have to disagree with you on one point:
    many today are in denial about resource depletion and global warming
    They’re not in denial, they’re pointing out that the environmentalist narrative is a lie, and a very dangerous lie at that.
    We’re not running out of any significant resources. People have been warning about Peak Oil for over 100 years, and they’ll still be warning about it in 100 years time. And they’ll still be wrong. There is no shortage of oil. The Earth’s crust is chock-full of hydrocarbon resources, and as our technology improves we discover better ways to exploit it. Shale gas – the greatest energy success story of recent decades – is just one example. Of course, the environmentalist reaction is to try to ban fracking for shale gas.
    If we were ever in danger of running out of oil and gas – and on current estimates we have centuries of it under our feet – we’d replace it with other resources like nuclear power. But environmentalists hate nuclear power too. Funny, that.
    As the legendary geologist William Pratt put it:
    “Where oil is first found is, in the final analysis, in the minds of men.”
    This speaks of a deeper truth. Man doesn’t just blindly consume resources in the way animals do. Man has the imagination and ingenuity to use the natural abundance around him to meet his needs, and to change his behaviour when it makes sense to do so. That is why we can take otherwise useless tar, or fossilised vegetable matter, or radioactive rocks. and turn them into light, heat, and power. If we don’t completely screw up our civilisation in the meantime, our great grandchildren will be doing the same thing on the Moon or on Mars, or in the asteroid belt.
    The second leg of your point is about global warming. Global warming is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on Western civilisation since the days when people cowered in fear of witches.
    Yes, the planet has gotten slightly warmer since the end of the Little Ice Age in 1870, which isn’t a bad thing. But more and more people are noticing that the earth hasn’t become measurably hotter for nearly 20 years now, despite rising CO2. They’re also noticing that the environmental movement’s standard operating procedure is to tell outrageous lies (The polar bears are drowning! We’ll be deluged with climate change refugees by the year 2000! Snow will be a thing of the past by 2010!) designed to scare people into submitting to socialism on a global scale.
    The global warming myth isn’t about saving the planet. It’s about controlling you. It is directly opposed to all the things – freedom, technological progress, capitalism -that made Western civilisation great.

    1. I agree with much of what you said. It’s a complex issue and not all resources are being consumed at the same rate. I never said that we were running out of petroleum. Although that, too, is a finite resource.
      But who can deny, looking around the globe today, that more and more people are competing for less and less resources?
      Not all environmental and anti-global warming information is leftist propaganda.

      1. Good point Quintus – and perhaps certain resources are being held back to increase prices.

    2. Oil is plentiful but there is one problem. Access. Some of the most plentiful oil and gas resources are in areas that are very hard to obtain. Even with our current technology standards.
      I’m not so concerned about oil. However, I am more concerned about deforestation. I’ve seen it’s effects and that is a real problem. Some societies, like the Japanese, recognized the need for proper forest management. Heck, during the feudal Tokugawa shogunate era, the Japanese already came up with sophisticated forest management plans. But some societies can’t seem to get this right. Indonesia at the moment, is going crazy. They are mass chopping and burning their forests at a crazy pace while causing smoke problems for their neighboring countries.
      America has got quite good forest management practice. The industry recognizes the need for growth while balancing the need for responsibility for sustainability. It’s the developing and 3rd world countries that have the serious deforestation problems.

  12. The more I think about it, the more I’ll be happy to see the Human animal become extinct.

  13. Diamond’s conclusion is that it’s down to the elites – which every society has. When the elites acn effectively insulate themselves from the hardships faced by the commons, society is doomed.
    Gated communities are the death-knell of the west.

  14. ” Just as many today are in denial about resource depletion and global warming,”
    Quite dogmatic there Quintus. Science is never settled, so if one takes a scientific approach then anything based on science will still be in question. That’s how science is supposed to work.
    Besides, nobody denies that the climate changes or that the globe warms and cools over time. It’s the anthropomorphic “cause” that is and will remain in question. That whole “sun” thing kind of makes short shrift of “man didditt” viewpoint.

    1. Qunitus’ entire article is based on the work of a hack and Dogmatic author:Jared Diamond.His Easter Island story ignores the evidence that it was rat infestation that wiped out those trees,and provides no strong evidence that logs were used to roll those statues around the place.Indeed these statues were designed to be moved upright, as evidenced by actual scientists who replicated the statues and moved them

      And Easter Island people with such brilliance to engineer these amazing walking statues somehow had no brains to reforest even when they were down to their last tree!
      Jared Diamond at heart is an eco whiner with obvious Marxists leanings and if you read his books(which I nevertheless would recommend),do so with a truckload of salt.
      But I do partially agree with the message:To an extent,one chooses to succeed or Fail.

      1. Trees were used for many things on the island: cremation, houses, tools, etc. Diamond’s work is well documented and the conclusions are convincing.

        1. I enjoy a good debate, Ferig. Feel free to disagree with me anytime.
          Unlike other websites, we here at ROK are open-minded enough, and well-adjusted enough, to handle challenges to our pet theories.
          I certainly don’t have all the answers. But I’m glad I have stimulated you to challenge my premises.

  15. Simple: It is far more difficult to operate with future in mind than it is to operate in the here and now. This has been an issue that has plagued humanity forever. Our desire to sustain and progress often times outweighs our willingness or even our abilities to accommodate or stop ourselves from going to far. Assuming all this research yielded the truth about these ancient civilizations, then the most plausible and predictable reason as to why they starved themselves of resources was because they did not have the idea in their heads to replant and replenish what they consumed, or to stop fucking for a minute so they would not outgrow their habitat. humans don’t have natural predators – we are the top of the food chain. The only thing that can thin our herd is ourselves essentially – save for freak natural or cosmic disasters.
    Forget about global warming and that horseshit, the best modern example of this phenomenon is the ocean (there is actually a fantastic documentary about it here: The global fishing industry has irreparably destroyed the largest and most important ecosystem on the planet. In our modern industrial era of mass production and consumerism, our dependency on the the fishing industry and our technology we have to catch fish far surpasses our ability to stop ourselves – and no one even talks about it. Fish that used to be abundant on a few decades ago are in danger of going extinct because we fish the fuck out of them, and it’s at a point where it is actually impossible for it to properly go back to the way it used to be. As Quintus states – these things could have been taken into account and adjusted for ahead of time, but we did not bother because, well, the going was good so we kept going. “Fuck it” basically. Federal regulations on fishing have been imposed but we waited far too long and they are not enforced strongly enough anyway.
    Ever wonder why you have been able to get lobster for as low as $4/lb at the end of the summer for the past few years? Because cod have almost been fished to extinction and cod eat lobster. We now have an over population of lobster because their are so few cod left. That’s drastic, considering just 20-30 years ago Atlantic Cod was so incredibly abundant. Shoot first ask questions later.

  16. Long time reader, first time commenter. You and Athlone McGinnis put out some of the best articles on this site. Most of your posts are high value, and are very good at inspiring me to think and make the most of life.

  17. This is what sets us apart from other animals. War and conflict to secure natural resources are part of humanity and other beasts since the beginning of times. It is difficult to gain perspective sometimes on whether these resources are becoming scarce or the access to them is.
    Most problems with vice and lack of perspective have usually been solved with great leadership and education. I do not see anyone fighting for education and thought leadership, but this is indeed what is scarce today.

  18. Here’s an idea – how about choosing a case study that doesn’t have inexplicable paranormal phenomenon involved?
    The actual statues are significantly taller than what the scientists reproduced for their “statue moving” experiment.

    1. There’s nothing paranormal about the Easter island statues (or anything at all in the gods, ghosts and ghoulies sense of the “paranormal”).
      While it’s not possible to travel back in time and observe precisely how they were moved into position there’s still workable theories that have had proof of concept demonstrations performed for.

  19. Actually, Easter Island’s demise was caused by European colonialsm, as they ruthlessly exploited the island’s natural and human resources. Whalers used the men were used as slaves and the women as prostitutes, introduced diseases like smallpox decimated the population, missionaries tried to destroy what little remained of their culture, and slavers found that the population had dropped so low that they had to import slaves from other islands. Meanwhile introduced pests like cats, rats and dogs decimated the wildlife, and the forests were clear-cutted for lumber.

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