A Warning From Easter Island

Easter Island (Rapa Nui), is the Polynesian island in the southeastern Pacific Ocean, most famous for its 887 giant carved stone statues (Maoi). What many don’t know is that the now desolate island was once a verdant paradise with a thriving culture.

Understanding what happened there, and why, should sound a loud alarm to all the other cultures now on a similar cataclysmic path.

The rise and fall of Easter Island can be seen as a microcosm, demonstrating the potential disastrous result that overpopulation, deforestation, and depletion of natural resources could have on a global scale. Cultural and environmental exploitation led to the demise of a vibrant society, which was technically sophisticated enough to carve, move, and erect the giant stone monuments, using a method that remains a mystery to this day.

In his best-selling book, Collapse, Jared Diamond cites Easter Island as the “clearest example of a society that destroyed itself by over-exploiting its own resources.” Diamond called this self-destructive behavior ecocide, a fate that could befall the entire planet if changes are not made.

For the sake of full disclosure, it should be mentioned that an alternative explanation for the island’s demise has been offered – one that blames the deforestation on rats. It purports that rats were introduced as stowaways on canoes, and proceeded to devour all the trees. Once the island was depleted of its vegetation and the birds that lived off the plants, the population adapted and survived with a new food source – the rats.

Believe it or not, those who support this theory actually hold it up as an exemplary demonstration of “successful” human adaptability.

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How Long Does It Take to Make A $Trillion?

If you’re mathematically challenged like me, you need help relating to numbers followed by lots of zero’s. I understand the hundreds and thousands well enough, and can even comprehend millions – at least in the abstract. But for anything beyond that, you might as well be speaking Abyssinian.

So in order to get some sort of intelligible context for the incomprehensible, I devised a thought experiment (just like Einstein!) in which I have a printing press that produces dollar bills (legally of course) at the rate of one per second. Furthermore, the machine can run non-stop, 24/7 – forever. The results of the experiment are as follows:

  • It took 12 days to print $1,000,000 (one million). Actually it was slightly less, but I rounded up (I love math talk).
  • At this rate we can print nearly $32 million in 1 year. Cool. I could live on that.

Getting from $1,000,000 (one million) to $1,000,000,000 (one billion) takes a bit longer than expected. Hint – We’re no longer talking about days. In fact –

  • Printing $1,000,000,000 (one billion) would take 32 years!

Okay, the press is running hard now, but nothing compared to what it will take to reach the next plateau. Here goes –

  • Printing $1,000,000,000,000 (one trillion) would require 32,000 years! Huh? It’s true! Check it out for yourself.

So based on our thought experiment method, at the production rate of one unit per second, the difference between 1 million and 1 billion is approximately 31 years, and the difference between 1 billion and 1 trillion is approximately 31,968 years! I don’t know about you, but I find that stunning. Had no idea just adding three zero’s could make that much difference.

No wonder Billionaires have such little regard for mere Millionaires – chump change! And if anyone ever manages to become a Trillionaire, watch out!

But aside from trivializing the very real social stigma attached to varying levels of wealth, I found this to be a surprising and sobering exercise. What were once meaningless numbers have acquired a whole new significance and appreciation.

While our experiment used printing money as the device to visualize quantitative differences in amounts represented by zero’s and commas, it’s also helpful for understanding other things involving large numbers – like space travel for instance.

Consider this: The average distance from Earth to Mars is 140 million miles. The distance from Earth to Pluto is 4.7 billion miles. Given what we’ve just learned, that makes going to Mars like a trip to the Mall by comparison. And yet Pluto is considered part of our “local” solar system!

At least now, whether confronted by federal budgets, income differences or galactic distances, there’s a better grasp on their relativity. Oops – did I say relativity?

Next up: Infinity (and beyond)!