Don Williams
Photo by Justin Williams

Don Williams is a prize-winning columnist, blogger, fiction writer, sometime TV commentator, and is the founder and editor emeritus of New Millennium Writings, an annual anthology of stories, essays and poems. His awards include a National Endowment for the Humanities Journalism Fellowship at the University of Michigan, a Golden Presscard Award from Sigma Delta Chi Society of Professional Journalists, a best Commentary Award from SDC, Best Feature Writing from the Associated Press Tennessee Managing Editors, the Malcolm Law Journalism Prize from the Associated Press, Best Non-Deadline Reporting from the United Press International, Best Novel Excerpt from the Knoxville Writers Guild, a Peacemaker Award from the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance, five Writer of the Month Awards from the Scripps Howard Newspaper chain, and many others. In 2011 he was inducted into the East Tennessee Writers Hall of Fame. His 2005 book of journalism, Heroes, Sheroes and Zeroes is under revision for a second printing, and he is at work on a novel and a book of journalism. His columns appear at and have been featured at many other well-known websites. To run his column, gratis, at your website, post this link to a dedicated spot: Need a speaker, panelist, tv commentator or teacher for your group or to lead a writing workshop, in your town? Email

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A Word on Easter Island and Other Calamitous Feedback Loops
(Copyright by Don Williams, All rights reserved   12/20/2008)

Stone faces of Easter Island gaze on as anthropologists, mythologists and space cadets endlessly debate their meaning. Measuring up to 28 feet high and more than 80 tons in some cases, the stones have elevated a ruined island paradise to the status of icon in the realm of cautionary tales.

Either Easter Island's decline was brought on by smallpox and slave trade courtesy of Europeans who arrived there in the 1700s or else, shortly after sinking roots around 1200 CE, the islanders began destroying their own world by killing their verdant forests in a vain effort to avert disaster.

It's an article of faith among tree-huggers-including me until I read up-that Easter Island fell prey to a cult or three. For centuries, the natives built enigmatic stone heads in tribute to dead chiefs. Such ancestor worship helped ward off trouble, they believed, and grew their clans' prestige, but transporting the stones and erecting them used up lots of logs, adding to the decline of forests. This caused a shortage of wood for building boats and a shortage of trees for birds to nest in, and so the seafood and fowl that provided sustenance began disappearing from their diets. Soon this once proud and accomplished civilization turned to eating rats, even to cannibalism, the record shows.

One theory goes that, as the decline began, leaders commanded their subjects to accelerate the building of statues. More than 1,000 have been counted, many left abandoned in quarries or by the roadside. The idol boom was a vain attempt to call down the favor of Gods. In short, by the middle of the last millennium, they'd mostly destroyed their own environment by creating a feedback loop that spiraled out of control. More cutting, less food, more cutting, even less food. Or so the story goes.

If true, we're wise to embrace this cautionary tale, for our leaders ask us repeatedly to feed our sustenance to idols they erect.

Idols to commerce, high finance, fossil fuel, the military-industrial-media complex. All bask in dogmas bordering on religion.

Behold Wall Street, where numbers rise like stone edifices. Today we've passed 9,000. Can 10,000 be far away? Is 12,000 once again within our grasp? Now watch as towering numbers tumble.

“More capital!” implore keepers of the Dow. $700 billion should do. No, toss in 150 more to prop up that idol, 200 for the one down on Main Street.

Be not deceived. We've rendered such sacrifice before. In the 1980s, the savings and loan industry failed, and we the people poured our sustenance into it. Behold! Wall Street recovered, then faltered. For a time leaders suggested feeding Social Security and perhaps, one day, all such safety-nets to Wall Street.

Yes, feed the mighty Dow your pensions.

Yes, feed it Medicaid.

Yes, let's have another war-there's a trillion we can feed Westinghouse and Boeing and General Electric and other makers of armaments. There's how we'll restore Halliburton and the Carlyle Group and other entities in which Bushes, Bakers, bin Ladens and others lay money on the bet that wars they insist we fund continue to pay dividends.

And so it goes.

Hear the people chant, “Drill here! Drill now!” Drill anywhere at all!

Yet deep ecologists tell us the wealth of nations is founded on drawing down deposits of natural energy placed in this earth by the sun over billions of years. In this, “the last syllable of recorded time,” to quote Shakespeare, we're drawing those deposits down, turning them into money and ruinous greenhouse gases.

England stripped her landscape of most primordial forests in a couple of centuries and then turned to coal, mostly in the 19th century. Then, along with America, Germany and many other countries, she discovered the power of oil, bestowing prosperity on millions, yet contributing to wars around the world. It's been little noted that Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in part because of our oil embargo against that country.

Beginning some thirty years ago, Carl Sagan, J. E. Lovelock and other scientists began warning that burning fossil fuels would result in a greenhouse effect. Yet the same faith-based “conservatives” who ignored the need to conserve, applauded as Ronald Reagan stripped solar panels from the White House and clean energy incentives from the national budget. Now hear the pathetic chants from their benighted tribe:

“Drill here! Drill now!”

And so such chants resound. Death to terrorists. Build more bombs. More ships. More planes. Support the Troops! They'll keep us safe.

In the next fiscal year we'll throw nearly a trillion dollars at the military, counting supplemental funding for Iraq and Afghanistan. That's more than the rest of the world combined will spend on all things military. Some among those nations have signaled they'll raise their spending in response, prompting a cry for still more from us. And so the military feedback loop spirals onward, mesmerizing the faithful.

Few pause amid the clamor to consider truths that might set us free.

Here's one: For the cost of one cruise missile or one aerial drone, we could build 80 schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan, whence terror springs. Yet we feed the god of cruise missiles while starving the benign spirit of education.

Here's another: Osama bin Laden told the world why he launched a jihad that most people agree included the terror of 9/11. It was because the feet of infidels trod sacred ground. Osama mostly won. We withdrew from Saudi Arabia as he and the house of Saud demanded. We linger in Iraq, oblivious that our presence recruits more terrorists for the likes of bin Laden.

Here's one more: Clean energy cannot compete against Big Oil and Big Coal unless nurtured, yet the President and Congress spent the last eight years giving tax breaks to gas companies, while mostly ignoring wind, solar, geothermal and other sources.

On Easter Island, the stones stand looking, silent as voices of the faithful who built them so many years ago.