Category Archives: History

Sacrificed Nauru – A tale about our mentality of carelessness

The tiny Pacific Island nation  Nauru is today trapped in a nightmare: The country is degraded  by unsustainable phosphate mining and the state is searching for an economical lifeline. On the same time, the island’s future is threatened by sea level rise. In her new book “This Changes Everything. Capitalism vs. the Climate” the author Naomi Klein chose Nauru as an example for an area sacrificed to our mentality of carelessness.

Phosphate – A poisoned natural gift

Only 21 square kilometers large, the Pacific island Nauru was gifted with huge phosphate resources. Since the days of colonisation, this attracted miners from all parts of the world. In 1968 –  when Nauru became independent, the phosphate industry got nationalized. The state exploited in record speed the resources in the name of progress.

The big party in the 1970s

In the 1970s, Nauru became the wealthiest nation on the planet. People could have made wise investments for the future. But instead, the inhabitants preferred to celebrate a big party. Money was used up for consumption: People bought big boats, sports cars and immense housings. Many residents quit their jobs. The government paid even household staff. This sounds like paradise. But it turned out to become a tragedy.

Leaving a moonscape desert

In the 1990, the phosphate reserves of Nauru were almost entirely exhausted. A seriously harmed environment was left. Phosphate mining turned the central Plateau to a moonscape of barren terrain. 80 percent of Nauru’s land area is today uninhabitable. Marine life was seriously harmed by silt and phosphate runoff.

The desperate search for money

Since the wealth was used up by consumption, little cash was left. Investments of the national “Nauru Phosphate Royalties Trust” failed and the country run out of money. In the search for a financial lifeline, Nauru became a tax haven and illegal money laundering center. In 2001, Nauru entered into an agreement with Australia to host Australian refugees in exchange for foreign aid. Nevertheless, the state is still on the brink of bankrupcy.

Becoming the fattest place on Earth

During its wealth period, people forgot about healthy food habits and turned to a lifestyle of fast food and less physical activity. Obesity became thus an important problem of the country. According to the WHO, 40 percent of the inhabitants of Nauru suffer from diabetes. Media consider Nauru often as fattest place of the word.

 A manmade nightmare

Today, Nauru is a manmade hell and a tale for the absurdity of globalization. The country struggles with a failed economy and a health crisis. The economy relies on imports for almost everything – from food and water to fuel. The environment is destroyed. Since the elevated zones of the islands are uninhabitable, people are very vulnerable to sea level rise. Islanders feel that they are trapped in a nightmare.

Why bothering about Nauru?

Nauru could have been exploited in suicidal way, because it was for the rest of the world unimportant and far away. This was paired with a local mentality of carelessness. Today, Nauru’s leaders use the fate of their country as warning example for the rest of the world. Like Nauru in the 1970s, we are living a lifestyle of overconsumption and facing the risk of an environmental collapse.

Naomi Klein reminds us with this story that we are currently dancing with the devil.

Klein, Naomi (2014): This Changes Everything. Capitalism vs. the Climate, New York, Simon & Schuster.

Naomi Klein This Changes Everything

Moai Easter Island

History matters: The collapse of Easter Island

About 400 year ago a complete deforestation on Easter Island lead to a collapse of the Easter society. Jared Diamond described in its bestseller ’Collapse’ the reasons for this ‘ecoside’. The author pursues the question why some societies collapsed and others didn’t. 

Different pathways of Tikopia and Easter Island

Tikopia Island and Easter Island are both tiny South Pacific island which faced similar environmental problems of forest destruction in history. On Tikopia Island people were able to manage their problems by micromanagement of resources and a strong regulation of population size Tikopai successfully gardened the island and hold their population constant. On Easter Island people took the disastrous decision to fell the last tree. This environmental collapse lead to starvation, civil war and cannibalism on Easter Island. 

The failure of elites

What made the difference? Tikopia was a small island with a bottom-up governance. Village leaders were familiar with the entire island and identified the common sustainable long-term interest of sustainable. Decisions were taken collectively. However on Easter Island central political were blind to deforestation problems and failed to make decisions because they were preoccupied with short-term motivated power conflicts of the elites and were distant to the problems of the People. 

Shifting baselines

People on Easter Island failed also to notice the problem because gradual change of the surrounding landscape was taken for granted since people experienced in their personal life no other way how the environment looked like. The state of a deforested island was normal for them because they did not know how the island looked like 50 years ago. This creeping normalcy lead to a ship in baselines, so that people failed to notice the urgency of the problem.

Learning from history

The collapse of Easter Island can been seen as metaphor for the challenge of climate change laying ahead of us. Societies can fail. But Jared Diamond showed with the example of Tikopia Island that there is no environmental determinism of doomsday scenarios. Mindful long-term motivated political decisions of political leaders makes the difference. Diamond highlights that it is important to consider the time-lag of climate change and the momentum of political decisions. If decisions are taken too late, we might not be able to solve problems any more.

Though the book is already some years old, the analysis of Diamond is still brilliant and up-to-date more than ever.

Diamond, Jared (2005) Collapse. How societies choose to fail or to succeed, New York, Penguin Books.

.Jared Diamond: Collapse