Discover more from the counter-intuitive!
Thousand years of stability!
The tiny island of Tikopia reveals remarkable lessons for us in real sustainability.
Tikopia is a tiny volcanic island in the south-western stretch of the Pacific Ocean. The P-shaped landmass is part of the Melanesian state (Solomon Islands) yet culturally Polynesian. Tikopians (approximately 1400) inhabit the tiny landmass (5 square kilometers) so far from any neighbors that they were literally forced to become self- sufficient in almost everything. 20 villages nestled within an ecosystem visibly fragile and finite. Tikopia is a remarkable example, nearly 2000 years in the making, of how people micromanage their resources and regulate their population size. So carefully, over time, that their ecosystem is still productive after thousands of years of human occupation. Archeologists and historians differ and argue about when humans landed on Tikopia - “around 100 CE” while others claim “9th century CE”. The first Europeans arrived in April 1606 (Spanish expedition of Pedro Fernandes de Queirós).
Unlike many island peoples and societies which collapsed from within, or were driven to extinction by European invaders, Tikopia provides two strong and positive references. One, that small societies without centralized power stand a much better chance to combat environmental damage, climate change, population and hostile invaders. Two, by defining their limits all this time, without any particular scientific vigor or formal knowledge, they managed to survive (and thrive) longer than the biggest civilizations, empires and kingdoms.
In his 2005 book Collapse, Jared Diamond extensively studied the ecosystem and the peoples of Tikopia, with the intent to understand how small societies operate and intervene to maintain ‘steady states’. What is a steady state you might ask? Simply put, a finite system with of a constant stock of physical wealth (capital) and a constant population size. Contrary to the fate of island communities of Rapa Nui (Easter Islands), Kirimati, Rarotonga, Marquesas etc which rapidly grew and subsequently collapsed; primarily due to human projects (construction, agriculture, over fishing, deforestation, colonization, plague etc), Tikopia persisted and adapted. These islanders are perhaps plain lucky or at best the winners of “population control”.
Not so simple. For eons, the people of Tikopia have maintained a ‘bottom-up approach’ to environmental management. Judiciously consuming what is most precious and always staying within the limits (not too many and not too few). As Jared Diamond explains “Societies occupying a small island or homeland can rapidly intervene, execute new measures when facing an environmental crisis. Because the homeland is small, all of its inhabitants are familiar with the entire island, know that they are affected by developments throughout the island, and share a sense of identity and common interests with other inhabitants.”
Hence on Tikopia everybody realizes that they will benefit from sound environmental measures and regulations (limits). What type of limits? The population density of Tikopia is high, even as the total population remains small. 800 people per square mile of farming land. Indeed a dense population, especially that of a traditional society without modern agricultural or industrial tech. “Tikopians had to produce and store enough surplus food to be able to avoid starvation during the annual dry season of May till July. The region stretching Solomon Islands is prone to cyclones at unpredictable intervals, that destroy gardens, orchards and houses…” wrote Jared, outlining the annual events and challenges that the Tikopians learned to navigate and take preemptive measures over thousands of years. People of Tikopia and the even tinier sister island of Anuta (115kms away) have maintained a peaceful bi-lateral relationship over thousands of years. Trading tools, clothes, boats, livestock and even exchanging young people as prospective marriage partners. Anuta’s population is believed to be less than half of Tikopia’s.
Tikopia is blessed in ways that may have given it an unique advantage that other island societies did not have. One being a combination of high rainfall, moderate latitude and rich volcanic ash fallout (from volcanoes on other islands). Those factors constitute to “geographical good luck”. Funny how the Tikopians do not claim any credit to such favorable conditions and instead give thanks to the “sky and sea gods”. Two, the privilege (and peril) of being isolated. The islanders of Tikopia and Anuta, as Jared Diamond explains juxtapose themselves within a finite horizon, as “the maximum distance from the center of the island to the coast is three-quarters of a mile. The native concept of space bears a distinct relation to this. They find it almost impossible to conceive of any really large land mass. They do not attribute their microcosm against the immensity of the earth.” Small is good!
Tikopians “micromanaged for continuous and sustainable food production” instead of the ‘slash-and-burn agriculture’ which was widely prevalent on many Pacific islands. Almost every plant species on Tikopia is ‘used’ by people in one way or another. “Even grass is used as a mulch in gardens, and wild trees are used as food sources in times of famine” (Collapse - Jared Diamond). Tikopians have enacted population control at every level possible, including their own numbers and of their livestock. Some measures may seem highly problematic, in the modernist perspective. On rare instances, Tikopians sacrificed hundreds of pigs at a time - not to please the gods, but to maintain an equilibrium or a steady state. Means of birth control, including abortion is widely practiced by the women of Tikopia and Anuta.
These islanders are visibly cleverer than us, when it comes to maintaining a balance between capital, demand, production and consumption. Their ‘business as usual’ is about 60+ generations in the making, while our ‘high modernist society’ is just about 6. There is no doubt as to which one is in danger and in severe overshoot. Our world is a “vanishing Eden” and not theirs?! No, they don’t spend billions of dollars making “Green New Deals”.
Baffling why the first European visitors labelled all such islanders and their abilities (and practical knowledge) as “primitive” and “weak”. European explorers, naval commanders, missionaries, even historians, scientists and artists viewed the Pacific Ocean islands as “new found paradise”. The pristine islands and innocent islanders framed inside an “Eden on earth” (John Patteson, 1st Archbishop of Melanesia 1835). These islands, numbering thousands would be eventually colonized, robbed, sliced and diced amongst the rival invaders. Rich tourists are still at it, seeking paradise, cruising the same colonial maritime routes. The going price as of now for a visit to Tikopia by sea, on a luxury cruise is about $12,000 (source: superyatchstories.com). Surely the Tikopians are humble and welcoming. They may sing and dance for the millionaires who visit them, but they are not stupid enough to let airports, hotels, cars, beer and toilet-paper roll in! Perhaps all such ‘modern trash’ is not part of their little yet not-so-primitive civilization by construct.
In 1936, Raymond Firth wrote ‘We, The Tikopia: A Sociological Study Of Kinship In Primitive Polynesia’. Firth concluded, after a field study which lasted 12 years, that the key to Tikopia’s success as a society was (and still is) it’s kinship system. That every Tikopian places herself / himself next to the natural systems, and not on top or outside. Their kinship, mythology, rituals and ceremonies point to collective loyalty, embracing their fragile ecosystem. Seven decades later, Jared Diamond's Collapse also concurred Tikopia as a “success case” - surviving 2 millennia as well as sustaining a steady state in terms of population, resources and strength of community. In his essay ‘Overshoot and the population conundrum’ Prof. William Rees drives the point home, outlining what we should learn from the people of Tikopia, vital to our incoming future. “About real sustainability, we have much to learn from the tiny tropical island society of Tikopia. Hardly anyone has ever heard of Tikopia, but its history should be known by everyone who cares about the future of Earth…”.
Lapita people, who first colonized Tikopia and then Anuta were ancestors of the medieval Polynesians. Both Raymond Firth and Jared Diamond posit that the evolution of human life on the tiniest islands (in the Pacific Ocean) is valuable for modern humans in two aspects. One, as exemplary models of survival and sustenance. Second, as deeper ecological philosophy. What can we learn from ecologically sound people and their not-so-grandiose systems? That Tikopians and other island peoples view their world as their ecosphere, and also their limit. For them, an island is an entire planet by itself, passed on from generation to generation. Their kinship and loyalty has remained with the natural world, based on respect, ritual and morality.
Cheering for the peoples of Tikopia and Anuta 🏝👼🏽 👩🏽🦱 👨🏽🏝👵🏾🥇🧓🏾👼🏽 the next 1000 years…