Easter Island off the coast of Chile is famous for its hundreds of Moai stone statues, which reach over three stories tall and weigh more than a dozen elephants. The Moai are a remarkable engineering and construction feat, even before you consider they were built more than five centuries ago by an isolated society. The statues also stand as a reminder of why our current path is so dangerous. To erect the Moai, the locals cleared trees they used to move big rocks. The resulting deforestation of island ecosystems made other resources scarcer, which led to more degradation.

It became a downward spiral from which the islanders could not escape.

By the time Europeans arrived on Easter Island in the late 1700s, less than 3,000 remained of what was once a population of 15,000.

Engineers clearly recognize our obligation to design sustainably. If we only pay lip service to our sustainability obligations, we risk a fate similar to the Easter Islanders—but we won't have ignorance as an excuse. So ask yourself, will your next project contribute to a thriving, sustainable society, or will it be a Moai for future archaeologists? 

Leidy Klotz is associate professor of civil engineering at Clemson University in Clemson, S.C. He can be reached at leidyk@g.clemson.edu.