Schooner Quinnipiack

Although many environmental scientists are interested in solving problems, it would be incorrect to confuse environmental science with environmentalism or environmental activism. They are very different. Environmental science involves the scientific study of the environment and our interactions with it.

In contrast, environmentalism is a social movement dedicated to protecting the natural world—and, by extension, people—from undesirable changes brought about by human actions. Science is a systematic process for learning about the world and testing our understanding of it. The term science is also used to refer to the accumulated body of knowledge that arises from this dynamic process of observing, questioning, testing, and discovery. Knowledge gained from science can be applied to address society’s needs—for instance, to develop technology.

A mere speck of land in the vast Pacific Ocean, Easter Island is one of the most remote spots on the globe. Yet this far-flung island—called Rapa Nui by its inhabitants—is the focus of an intense debate among scientists seeking to solve its mysteries and decipher the lessons it offers. The debate shows how, in science, new information can challenge existing ideas— and also how interdisciplinary research helps us to tackle complex questions. Ever since European explorers stumbled upon Rapa Nui on Easter Sunday, 1722, outsiders have been struck by the island’s barren landscape.

 

Early European accounts suggested that the 2000–3000 people living on the island at the time seemed impoverished, subsisting on a few meager crops and possessing only stone tools.