Thursday, December 16, 2010

What Nauru Means

There's an old This American Life episode that deals with the tiny island nation of Nauru. I was reminded of it when I came across this graph recently:

RankCountryUnemployment rate (%)
4Burkina Faso77
5Cocos (Keeling) Islands60

It's a shocking story - great radio, as usual for This American Life - that helps to understand how such a staggering unemployment rate is possible. It's well worth a re-listen. What happened on Nauru makes you question your faith in humanity, particularly Australia, but also the people of Nauru themselves.

Millions of years of seabirds leaving droppings on the island gave Nauru a rich phosphate deposit. After independence in the '60s, the Nauruans continued the strip-mining started by their various colonial masters. Phosphate mining briefly made Nauru one of the richest per-capita countries in the world, though they squandered all that wealth on various failed investments, most humorously on a musical who's Wikipedia article begins:
The 1993 West End production is considered one of the biggest disasters in the history of London theatre...The project, a highly fictionalized account of Leonardo da Vinci's creation of the Mona Lisa, was the brainchild of Duke Minks, an advisor to the Republic of Nauru and former road manager for the 1960s pop group, Unit 4 + 2. He convinced government officials to invest £2 million — derived from profits earned from their major export, bird droppings rich in phosphates — in the production, a fact later gleefully exploited by the critics in their scathing reviews.
Whatever happened to all the money, by the '90s the phosphate had dried up and Nauru was left with nothing to show for having strip-mined 70% of the entire island. Its own life support systems were decimated. Everything had to be imported, including drinking water. Out of desperation, the government turned to alternative forms of revenue, including an outrageous case of the Australian government refusing a boat load of Afghan refugees off Australian shores and instead paying Nauru to house them in the most appalling conditions imaginable.

There's something about this story that I find deeply unsettling, other than the unjustifiable behavior of Australia towards refugees. Nauru feels to me like an allegory for an approaching global environmental apocalypse. In recent years, I've mostly been converted to the Church of Economic Growth and Technological Improvement, which has made me a generally more optimistic person, but environmental issues continue to frighten me. The people of Nauru got rich and enjoyed a quickly improving standard of living at the expense of its environment. It ultimately led to a crash in quality of life and even a complete collapse of its own life-support systems.

There's no question that modern civilization is living beyond its means, environmentally speaking. Global warming is the most obvious, but what is happening to the oceans also feels to be of biblical proportions. Nauruans took too much too fast from its natural environment. The world as a whole is doing the same. Nauru could be just a microcosm of something happening at a global level.

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