Sunday, March 3, 2013

Book 117, Nauru: "Paradise for Sale: A Parable of Nature" by Carl M. McDaniel and John M. Gowdy

Um. A bit preachy, this one. Nor is Nauru really the point: it really is just being used as an exemplar of a nation ecologically destroyed by short-sighted capitalism.

Basically, it's a clumsy version of Jared Diamond's Collapse.

We've got three chapters about Nauru - the first about geological/biological history, the second about human history, the third repeating chapter two but with a more pointed environmentalist slant... And then four more chapters looking at the greater problem of how our culture pushes humans to live beyond their resources (see the Viking settlement of Greenland and the decline of the Rapa Nui civilisation on Easter Island; for alternative, sustainable cultures see the Australian Aborigines, the Kalahari !Kung and the Ladakhis of the Himalayas).

I mean, yeah, I get it. There's actually a little travelogue as a coda, because the authors felt bad that they'd written all this without really exploring the culture of Nauru today, so one of 'em stopped by for four weeks and wrote about how it was doing.

And how is it doing? Well, it's almost always been a nice place - it was called Pleasant Island by colonists; the remarkably non-violent native population of about a thousand was living happily off fish, pandanus and coconut and had very little worth exploiting until an Australian guy realised that a doorstopper rock from the island was actually made of guano-compounded phosphate, super-useful as a fertiliser to turn the deserts of his island nation into agricultural fields.

So the Ozzies and Brits and Kiwis came and plundered the hell out of Topside, the mountain of phosphate deposits in the centre of the island. But it wasn't until independence in the 1960s that the Nauruans began to demand a proper cut of this fortune, whereupon they became super-rich and super-fat on an imported diet of Spam. And with this embrace of capitalism and wealth there was a rapid loss of native culture too - no more of the Pacific idyll described by Time Magazine, instead everyone driving around in air-conditioned cars despite the fact that it'd take only four hours to walk around the whole island.

But the phosphate's running out - and it's the island's only resource. They never tried focussing on making it renewable (seems it's possible: if they'd allowed certain areas to lie fallow during independence in 1966 they might have been able to allow the bird poop to replenish itself indefinitely). And after a series of bad investments - including a flop of a West End musical, as the authors never fail to remind us - this ship seems sunk.

Odd thing is, when McDaniel and his wife visited, he found the people were still pretty happy, thriving with their happy-go-lucky culture despite the oncoming tsunami of doom. The authors claimed this is representative of the human condition: we still live on in hope despite the obvious signs that we've cut the gravel from beneath our feet and the big Malthusian end is nigh. But seriously, I thought, if the people are happy, can't you consider that there might be something a little off about your gloomy thesis?

Then I remembered: I actually met a Nauruan girl myself in Makassar, Sulawesi, last year, and she agreed - the whole island's full of unemployed young people, angry and confused at the future of prosperity they've been denied. This book was published in 2000: a dozen years later, the collapse has happened sure enough.

The authors claim the Nauruans never gave up their forager culture: phosphate made life easy even after modernisation so they never had to develop a Protestant work ethic. Seems a little colonial in outlook, but the greater truth is that the idea of constant economic progress is what's dooming Earth right now. Our civilisation is unsustainable. Now what?

Al Gore said in An Inconvenient Truth that in order to make people change their ways you have to inspire people with some promise of better things ahead. Not much of that here. Just dooooooooooom.

View Around the World in 80 Books!!! in a larger map

Representative quote: In North American publications some westerners express moral indignation at the Nauruans' plight: "Here was Nauru with a history of affluence. But having dug out all their island for the phosphate so stupidly, they stupidly spent their money as well. They need to take the blame themselves. They are in a lot of trouble because they have not saved for a rain day," and "Nauru's decline has to do with human nature. It's what happens when incentives are taken away and people don't have to work." But what is the reality of the Nauruans' situation? They did not bring Europeans to their island, nor did they create the market economy that physically destroyed the island and destablized their civilisation. These things happened as a result of two influential beliefs in Western culture: that native cultures are expendable for progress and that natural environments exist for the purposes of making money and supporting progress by feeding the growing market economy. The Nauruans had an enduring pattern of habitation prior to 1800; therefore, these failures should not be ascribed to them but to the market economy.

Nauru has served as a crystal ball in which to view the consequences of beliefs and actions prevalent in our market-based world. We can appreciate how difficult, if not impossible, it would be for the current population of Nauruans to live at this time on their island's impoverished biological and physical resources. It is certainly not prudent to denude the entire earth the way Nauru, Banaba, Beijing, London, Mangaia, Manhattan Island, Mexico City Moscow, Rapa Nui, and so many other places have been denuded.

Next book: Tony Wheeler's Time and Tide, from Tuvalu.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I just read this one and very much agree with your assessment that it would have been nice to learn more about Nauru and have it treated less like a symbol.

Also, I'm also doing a book from every country project, so I enjoyed coming across your blog.