Disappearing Communities

4 04 2013

Somewhere over the Atlantic ocean, some 15 hours into a 23 hour travel day, I sit in an airline seat with sore hips and a nThe_Island_President_(film)eed to reposition myself. Luckily, I am traveling next to the most wonderful, generous, inspiring travel companion one could ever hope for- my wife, Bethany. I lean my head against her shoulder, our self-inflated neck pillows creating a workable cushion for us, and we leaned our ears close together so that we could share a set of headphones and watch our fourth movie together. We pulled out the umbilical cord attached to the seat and our armrest gave birth to a remote. I pressed the buttons on the tiny remote until my thumb was bruised, and finally, the screen lit up with the opening scene of  “The Island President.”

I am no stranger to climate change. I was the precocious president of Earth Club in high school in the 90s, and my sole passion in everything that I do professionally is related to spreading the word on the importance of sustainable living. (And, yes, I realize the irony of this statement giving the current setting on a jet plane leapfrogging the continents with a trail of carbon emissions). I had heard about the plight of the Maldives before. But this documentary isn’t just another sad story of natural disaster. It is about how our world responds.

map_MALDIVESAs with many other low-lying island nations, they are at risk of being completely swallowed by the rising oceans. Almost 1200 coral islands off of the Indian sub-continent combine to form this disperse island nation.Only 200 of those coral islands are inhabited, but the entire country covers 400 miles of open sea. It is one of the most geographically dispersed nations on earth, and the closest to sea level. For them, climate change is not a theory, it’s a reality. In this small country, they are way beyond mitigation. They are almost past adaptation, even. While they spend millions piling up sand along their shorelines, they are well aware that they are only delaying the inevitable. Their home country will no longer exist for the next generation.

A rise of three feet in sea level would submerge the 1200 islands of the Maldives enough to make them uninhabitable.

In December 26th, 2004, the chain of islands was hit by a Tsunami in the Indian ocean. Only 9 islands survived unscathed, while 108 people died. The tallest wave was 14 feet high. According to ousted president Nasheed, “If carbon emissions were to stop today, the planet would not see a difference for 60 to 70 years,” Nasheed said. “If carbon emissions continue at the rate they are climbing today, my country will be underwater in seven years.”

By 2020, Maldives plans to eliminate or offset all of its greenhouse gas emissions. At the 2009 International Climate Talks, President Mohamed Nasheed explained that:

“For us swearing off fossil fuels is not only the right thing to do, it is in our economic self-interest… Pioneering countries will free themselves from the unpredictable price of foreign oil; they will capitalize on the new green economy of the future, and they will enhance their moral standing giving them greater political influence on the world stage.”maldives capital

This is a powerful and inspiring story. Here is this leader of a country who, after fighting a dictatorship for 20 years, including imprisonment, finally succeeds at a regime change and becomes president at age 41. He tackles nothing less than the biggest global crisis facing our planet, even though there is ultimately little impact he can directly have that will save his country. Still, they devote their remaining efforts to becoming carbon neutral, to set an example for all the rest of us. If they can do it, with what little resources they have, why can’t the rest of us? Well, that’s simple. We don’t have nearly as much to lose.

Long before I had heard of the Maldives’ dilemma, I was actually already closely following a similar story on the island of Nauru. This 8 mile long island nation came up in a world geography game that I was playing, and I became instantly infatuated by it. Like the Maldives, Nauru is disappearing, and its denizens are becoming climate refugees in nearby nations. While it is kind of Australia to take on the lost islanders, it must be absolutely tragic to lose one’s own country. Not just fleeing it, as millions have been forced to do, but knowing that it will not even be there to go back to in the future. Unless you bring your scuba gear. It’s like a modern day Atlantis.

maldives-resort-birdseyeI find it interesting to draw a parallel between this and my own nation. You may think we have little in common with the fewer than 300,000 Maldivian people. Yet, just last fall the U.S. East Coast suffered a deluge of damage from Hurricane Sandy. The aftermath included an onslaught of criticism and discussion about the rights of property owners who choose to rebuild in an area so subject to natural disasters. Should they even be allowed to rebuild? Should insurance be responsible for those who know they are at risk, but who choose to stay here anyway? It’s a very stark contrast to the feel-good story about Nasheed’s nation. Who’s to say what is right?

We had the same discussion when Hurricane Katrina wiped out parts of Louisiana that were only in existence thanks to complicated levy systems that held back the flow of water from what would otherwise be an underwater oasis. At what point is human intervention considered desirable to alter nature’s course? Do property owners always override natural patterns? You could argue that government should buy back these at risk properties for natural preservation areas, and let them return to what they once were. Or that it’s up to the homeowners to pay for their own losses if they choose to stay in a high risk area. How does this mode of thinking translate back to someplace like the Maldives?

In our country, we assume that all people have the luxury to relocate. We have plenty of other land available, so why don’t they just get a job somewhere else? It seems so black and white. Yet, the one thing that I think the Maldives can teach us, is that sometimes is not where, but what, that matters. In their case, there is no where else to go. Almost 80% of their land mass is at risk. If they move, they are moving to Sri Lanka, or India, or another country. This seems like a devastating loss. They will loss their communities, their traditions, their very culture… likely even their language will disappear over time.

Do we not lose out in these same ways when we are forced to move? We may not have the detroit mexicantown muralsame depth of history or culture in our own communities, but you can bet that those Katrina refugees suffered from feeling lost, hopeless, depressed, when dispersed amongst the rest of the nation. They didn’t even have to leave the country. But their loss is no less powerful on an individual level.

All I’m saying, is that we need to have more appreciation for what we have. Our natural resources allow us to live in these perfect little micro-climates, each with their own cultural dialects and norms. We are all at risk. Not only due to global climate change, but due to a societal shift away from the importance of community. It doesn’t matter if you live in a grass hut village along the banks of the Mekong, or in Mexican town in Detroit. We all thrive on our communities, and we need to work a little harder to preserve not only our own, but everyone else’s too.




One response

7 04 2013

Reblogged this on Travel Grrrls.


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