Last Updated on January 16, 2017 by Karl Thompson
The case study of Nauru illustrates the potential catastrophic consequences of pursuing economic growth without considering the ecological consequences. It may only be one island but Klein argues that the logic which hollowed out Nauru is the same logic which has driven the global economy for the last 400 years.
The extract below is taken from Naomi Klein’s ‘This Changes Everything‘ (2014: Chapter Five Beyond Extractivism)
Few places on earth embody the suicidal results of building our economies on polluting extraction more graphically than Nauru. Thanks to its mining of phosphate, Nauru has spent the last century disappearing from the inside out; now, thanks to our collective mining of fossil fuels, it is disappearing from the outside in.
For decades, the tiny South Pacific Island of Nauru, home to only 10 000 people, seemed to be an example of a developing country which was doing everything right.
During the 1970s and 80s, the island was periodically featured in press reports, as a place of almost obscene riches, much as Dubai is invoked today, and in the mid-80s Nauru was reported as having the highest GDP capita in the world.
All of this was due to the fact that Nauru was made up almost pure phosphate, a valuable fertiliser, which the Nauruans had been shipping to mainly Australia since they gained their independence in 1968.
Extraction had been going on long before, since 1900, carried out by a series of colonial rulers, who had a simple plan for Nauru once all the phosphate had been extracted – simply ship the islanders to another island. In other words, Nauru was developed in order to disappear – an acceptable (and largely invisible) sacrifice to make for the advancement of industrial agriculture.
When the Nauruans themselves took control of their country in 1968, they had hopes of reversing the hollowing out of their island. They put large chunks of their mining revenue into a trust fund, with the intention of winding down the mining operation and rehabilitating their island’s ecology. However, this long term plan failed as Nauru’s government received catastrophically bad investment advice and the countries mining wealth was squandered.
As a result, rather than being wound-down throughout the 70s and 80s the mining continued unabated and Nauruans benefited from the royalties which rolled in – one consequence was a radical change in diet as islanders came to eat large amounts of processed food (as one resident recalls – ‘during the golden era we didn’t cook, we at in restaurants) which resulted in Nauru becoming the fattest place on earth (today it has the highest levels of obesity and the highest levels of diabetes in the world). Another consequence of high levels of cash was high levels of corruption amongst public officials.
Another consequence was, of course, the hollowing out of the island – in the 1960s Nauru could still have passed as a pleasant tropical island, but the 1990s it was a hollow shell with a small strip around the edge where people lived.
Now the island faces a double bankruptcy – with 90% of the island depleted from mining it faces ecological bankruptcy and with a debt of at least $800 million it faces financial bankruptcy as well.
But this is not the end of Nauru’s problems – it now also faces rising sea levels and inland water shortages because of climate change.
This isn’t the end of the misery of Nauru – because in the past decade the island has become a dumping ground of another sort – In an effort to raise much needed revenue it has agreed to house an offshore detention centre for the government of Australia, in what has become known as ‘the Pacific Solution’. Australian navy and customs ships intercept boats of migrants, most from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Iraq, Iran and Pakistan, and immediately fly them to Nauru where they languish in a detention centre, unsure of their status, sometimes up to five years.
Amnesty International has called the camp ‘cruel’ and ‘degrading’ and one journalist has likened it to a death factory because conditions are so bad that people have been driven to attempt suicide.
Nauru is only an extreme case – there are plenty of other examples which are similar, if not as bad…
Unfortunately for us, the logic which has led to such devastation and cruelty on Nauru is the same logic which has underpinned the last 400 years of ‘development’. This logic is the logic of ‘extractivism’ – a non-reciprocal, dominance based relationship with the earth, one of purely taking. The opposite is stewardship, which involves taking but also taking care that regeneration and future life continues.
Extractivism is also directly connected to the notion of sacrifice zones – places that, to the extractors, somehow don’t count and therefore can be poisoned, drained, or otherwise destroyed, for the supposed greater good of economic progress.
This extractivist thinking, unfortunately, lies behind not only the whole history of modernity and colonialism, and obviously neoliberalism, but also behind Socialism, including most of the recent leftist movements in Latin America, because despite their advances in bringing greater equality, national income is still heavily dependent on fossil fuels. Even the mainstream in the Green Movement are failing to challenge the extractivist model because they have come under the thrall of large-scale, big tech solutions to climate-change, rather than accepting as necessity that the earth requires us to consume less.
Pretty much the only ray of hope for a sustainable future according to Klein lies in the Scandinavian social-democratic models, which are going to take a globalised grass-roots movement to realise on an international level.
Sources used to write this post:
Summarised from ‘Naomi Klein’s ‘This Changes Everything’ (2014)