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Paradise for Sale: A Parable of Nature

Carl N. McDaniel
John M. Gowdy
Copyright Date: 2000
Edition: 1
Pages: 239
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  • Book Info
    Paradise for Sale
    Book Description:

    The grim history of Nauru Island, a small speck in the Pacific Ocean halfway between Hawaii and Australia, represents a larger story of environmental degradation and economic dysfunction. For more than 2,000 years traditional Nauruans, isolated from the rest of the world, lived in social and ecological stability. But in 1900 the discovery of phosphate, an absolute requirement for agriculture, catapulted Nauru into the world market. Colonial imperialists who occupied Nauru and mined it for its lucrative phosphate resources devastated the island, which forever changed its native people. In 1968 Nauruans regained rule of their island and immediately faced a conundrum: to pursue a sustainable future that would protect their truly valuable natural resources—the biological and physical integrity of their island—or to mine and sell the remaining forty-year supply of phosphate and in the process make most of their home useless. They did the latter. In a captivating and moving style, the authors describe how the island became one of the richest nations in the world and how its citizens acquired all the ills of modern life: obesity, diabetes, heart disease, hypertension. At the same time, Nauru became 80 percent mined-out ruins that contain severely impoverished biological communities of little value in supporting human habitation. This sad tale highlights the dire consequences of a free-market economy, a system in direct conflict with sustaining the environment. In presenting evidence for the current mass extinction, the authors argue that we cannot expect to preserve biodiversity or support sustainable habitation, because our economic operating principles are incompatible with these activities.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-92445-1
    Subjects: Environmental Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-2)
  5. Prelude
    (pp. 3-12)

    Out of the airplane window I had seen nothing but azure ocean in every direction for hours. The fasten safety belt sign flashed on and we were instructed to prepare for landing. As the 737 banked into its glide path, I could clearly see the devastation on the small island below. For years my friend and colleague Carl McDaniel and I have been interested in the history of other cultures, especially in the many examples of “overshoot and collapse” that seem typical of complex human societies that emerged since the advent of agriculture. Just a year earlier I had walked...

  6. Chapter One A Pleasant Island
    (pp. 13-28)

    Millions of years ago an isolated volcanic mountain began to push toward the water’s surface in the central Pacific. Eventually it reached the light just below the ocean’s surface, and the summit was colonized by coral—and thus an island was created. With the comings and goings of ice ages on the northern continents, sea level repeatedly fell and rose, exposing and then submerging the coral pinnacles that constituted the only land for hundreds of kilometers. The island, which would be named Nauru, became a haven for innumerable seabirds. Over eons the bird droppings, or guano, filled the coral canyons...

  7. Chapter Two Progress Comes to Nauru
    (pp. 29-51)

    The blanketing of european influence across the South Seas commenced on November 28, 1520, when theConcepción, theTrinidad, and theVictoriaunder the command of Ferdinand Magellan sailed into the Pacific Ocean through the strait that now bears his name. Magellan’s ships ventured into a vast, uncharted ocean as they sailed up the South American coast and then out across the Pacific Ocean. After six weeks, provisions were exhausted, and crew members began to die. The island of Pukapuka provided water and turtle eggs, but after several more weeks of sailing west all provisions were exhausted. With only old...

  8. Chapter Three Nauru’s Shadow
    (pp. 52-69)

    Nauruan culture was successful for several millennia prior to Western influence, in large measure because its cultural patterns of behavior preserved social harmony while maintaining the biological diversity required for living. Prior to the 1800s Nauruans were able to accommodate the biological, physical, and social changes they experienced on their island, yet it might not have happened that way. The earth’s climate could have changed; for example, La Niña durations could have altered so that Nauru could have experienced decades, rather than years, of drought. Or the earth could have warmed, releasing the water frozen into polar ice and raising...

  9. Chapter Four Living the Myths
    (pp. 70-94)

    Our ancestors evolved in Africa, where 5 million years ago they separated from the lineage we share with chimpanzees. The earliest representatives of the familyHominidaeappeared perhaps 4 million years ago and the earliest members of the genusHomobetween 2 to 3 million years ago.Homo erectus, the first of our line to migrate out of Africa, evolved in another million years. Emigration probably continued to take place, and perhaps migration back into Africa from elsewhere occurred, too, but paleoanthropologists now believe that, from 100,000 to 200,000 years ago, the modern form ofHomo sapiensevolved in Africa...

  10. Chapter Five Science as Story
    (pp. 95-108)

    The australian aborigines, the Kalahari !Kung, the Nauruans, and the Ladakhis lived socially and spiritually rich lives for thousands of years. Individuals within these groups were secure as members of a society in which people took care of each other. Their social systems maintained populations below the carrying capacities of the areas where they lived. Most of their time was spent socializing and performing rituals that connected them to their place and to each other. In contrast, the Rapa Nui and the Greenland Norse—and many other cultures—failed to live according to the biological and physical constraints of their...

  11. Chapter Six To Love a Cockroach
    (pp. 109-130)

    Before 1800, Nauruans depended on the island’s biological diversity for their existence. If the coconut palm had become extinct during this time, the Nauruans would have had to rely on pandanus fruits,ibijafish, coral reef resources, and other plants and animals; and the loss of this source of vitamin B1 could have been devastating. If the coral reef had died, its fish and other organisms would have vanished, eliminating an essential source of protein. If insects and other animals that pollinated the island’s flowering plants had disappeared, many plants would have become extinct—another disaster for the Nauruans. If...

  12. Chapter Seven The Market: Master or Servant?
    (pp. 131-155)

    Among the Indians of eastern Canada a craving for material objects is considered a disease. The treatment involves isolating the individual and lavishing the patient with gifts until he or she is cured. In western North America, groups of coastal Indians in British Columbia accord honor and prestige to those who give away their possessions in a special ceremony, the potlatch, which is an earned privilege. Accounts of these and numerous other cultures offer glimpses of human behavior far different from that guided by market relations and Western ideas of individualism. Our present socially constructed industrial economy may encourage consumption...

  13. Chapter Eight The Chimera of Reality
    (pp. 156-174)

    Pleasant island is not so pleasant now. The island and its people have been hammered for the past one hundred and fifty years by cultural forces as powerful as the La Niña droughts that profoundly shaped the first pattern of human habitation on Nauru. Guns and alcohol precipitated tremendous social turmoil in its recent history, but the discovery of phosphate in 1900 swept the people of Nauru onto the world stage. Had they forcefully resisted the mining of their homeland at the turn of the century in an effort to preserve the island’s natural and cultural heritages, they would have...

  14. Coda
    (pp. 175-196)

    As I scrambled to finish preparations for my talk at Grinnell College’s spring symposium titled “What Is the Earth Worth?” a conversation with Jeff Gersh, an environmental video producer, thrust the subconscious nag center stage. He had read the latest draft of this book and bluntly said, “The story of Nauru has yet to be written. Go there for a year and connect with the people. Understand what is going on by being there.” Jeff was right. The book had been written and only fine-tuning remained, but although my coauthor, John Gowdy, had visited Nauru once, we knew little firsthand...

  15. Notes
    (pp. 197-218)
  16. Index
    (pp. 219-225)
  17. Back Matter
    (pp. 226-228)