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Jared Diamond on Easter Island's Collapse

A reconstruction:

Jared Diamond, Easter Island's End: The first Polynesian colonists found themselves on an island with... all the prerequisites for comfortable living. They prospered and multiplied... began erecting stone statues on platforms, like the ones their Polynesian forebears had carved. With passing years, the statues and platforms became larger and larger, and the statues began sporting ten-ton red crowns--probably in an escalating spiral of one-upmanship.... [S]ociety was held together by a complex political system to redistribute locally available resources and to integrate the economies of different areas.

Eventually Easter's growing population was cutting the forest more rapidly than the forest was regenerating.... Life became more uncomfortable--springs and streams dried up, and wood was no longer available for fires. People also found it harder to fill their stomachs, as land birds, large sea snails, and many seabirds disappeared. Because timber for building seagoing canoes vanished, fish catches declined.... Crop yields also declined, since deforestation allowed the soil to be eroded.... By around 1700, the population began to crash toward between one-quarter and one-tenth of its former number. People took to living in caves for protection against their enemies. Around 1770 rival clans started to topple each other's statues, breaking the heads off. By 1864 the last statue had been thrown down and desecrated. As we try to imagine the decline of Easter's civilization, we ask ourselves, "Why didn't they look around, realize what they were doing, and stop before it was too late? What were they thinking when they cut down the last palm tree?"

I suspect, though, that the disaster happened not with a bang but with a whimper.... The forest the islanders depended on for rollers and rope didn't simply disappear one day--it vanished slowly, over decades... any islander who tried to warn about the dangers of progressive deforestation would have been overridden by vested interests of carvers, bureaucrats, and chiefs, whose jobs depended on continued deforestation....

Gradually trees became fewer, smaller, and less important. By the time the last fruit-bearing adult palm tree was cut, palms had long since ceased to be of economic significance. That left only smaller and smaller palm saplings to clear each year, along with other bushes and treelets. No one would have noticed the felling of the last small palm...

Needless to say, most societies--or at least most societies that we are aware of because they hang around for long enough to leave stone, pottery, or papyrus trails--do not behave this way. They evolve a social institution called private property to give individuals both control over scarce and exhaustible resources and an incentive to ensure wise and balanced extraction and careful and efficient use.

It appears that the Easter Island people somehow failed to do so...