This small southwest Pacific island is of special interest because it appears to have achieved sustainable development. An island of 1.8 square miles and 1,200 inhabitants, it is described by Jared Diamond as being “micromanaged for continuous and sustainable food production” 1

Tikopia’s conservation methods have been developed over three thousand years, a period in which slash-and-burn agriculture was practiced and abandoned, bird and marine life have been over-exploited, and pigs were raised until it was found they consumed more food than they provided – 10 pounds of vegetables for one pound of pork. Whereupon the islanders reached a collective decision to slaughter all pigs.

Population control is a key element in the island’s stability. Over the millennia, infanticide, abortion, coital control, suicide and conflict have been the means of keeping the population level at about 1200 people. With western influence in the early 20th century, “reforms” led to a rapid increase, which was reversed by cyclones and starvation in 1952. Subsequent measures returned the numbers to their traditional level. This is a microcosmic illustration of how a progress trap can emerge and be averted. Tikopian agricultural methods are not modern, and according to scholars, ancient customs and traditions are proudly maintained. 2  3
The islanders have a keen sense of their isolation. They are familiar with each other, with the island and its limited resources. Could this be the ideal size and population for a sustainable community?

What can we learn from Tikopia?
If development does not solve problems, it can not be thought of as progress. Exponential population growth, perhaps the main driver of runaway progress and its side-effects, can be curtailed. The choices for slowing reproduction rates are difficult. However, there has not been a better opportunity than the present for avoiding those severe Malthusian measures that limit populations; predatory extermination, epidemic and famine. It is a fact that in societies with modern economies and material comforts, reproduction rates tend to fall to replacement levels.

True, the price of these comforts has been resource degradation, but there is every indication that fair means can be found for reconciling human needs with Nature’s provenance. We do need to evaluate progress, science and technology, applying balance wherever necessary. Modern society has the means to comprehend the effects of progress and we have the ability to modify our behaviour without going to Tikopian extremes.

See also Does the world really have too many people?


  1. Diamond, Jared. Collapse, Viking Pengin, New York, 2005
  2. J. H. M. Beattie, Culture Contact and Social Change
    Source: The British Journal of Sociology, Vol. 12, No. 2 (Jun., 1961), pp. 165-175, Published by: Blackwell Publishing on behalf of The London School of Economics and Political Science
    Stable URL: .
    Accessed: 15/08/2011
  3. Firth, Raymond, Encounters with Tikopia over Sixty Years, Oceania, 60:4 (1990:June) p.241