The people of the Marshall Islands are saying goodbye to the nation as global warming and its attendant sea-level rise claim their homeland.
War has been popularly described as “hell on Earth” and, through our own experiences or those of others we can know something of it, though we may never accept its horrors. Many of the catastrophes now upon us humans, or the ones which linger in our subconscious minds – hanging over our heads, one might say – cannot fully be reconciled with knowledge or experience for the basic fact that few, if any, living human beings have ever experienced losses quite like these.
Inundations, the proverbial floods, of course, are common now as they have been throughout the history of Earth. But who among us has been through the disappearance of an entire nation due to inundation? This is what citizens of the Marshall Islands are experiencing right now.
“The Marshall Islands are disappearing,” was the December 21, 2015 headline in the New York Times. We may have become accustomed to, “Syrian refugee crisis hits Europe,” and even, “Deadly tsunami in Indonesia” but, if you’re like me, “(Fill-in-the-blank nation) is disappearing” is a deeply unsettling headline. And this doesn’t come from some tree-hugging, environmentalist press release. This is from the New York Times!
As the financially and industrially developed nations of the world have been hemming and hawing on how to address climate change, who should make the first move, etc., we are, according to NASA and others, already locked into a three-foot sea-level rise by 2100. That’s minimum. To demonstrate that, as the natural world tends to do, the very place where more than 60 years ago the United States (among the worst carbon polluters in the world) exploded a hydrogen bomb is becoming submerged in the rising sea.
In the mid-1940s, the U.S. Navy bungled the relocation of Marshallese from the Bikini Atoll nuclear test site so badly that the locals nearly starved to death as American scientists went about their tests. The atoll itself was rendered uninhabitable by the residual radiation which permeated the ecosystem thoroughly.
Now, lifelong Marshallese islanders are packing their belongings and moving to higher ground (away from the islands) for good. Between detonating a hydrogen bomb that rendered Bikini uninhabitable and the significant U.S. role in carbon pollution which causes sea-level rise, the United States of America has not given the Marshall Islands a fair shake at survival. We have been horrible, actually, to a nation that, perhaps naively, believed our promises and trusted our scientific savvy.
The truth is we didn’t have the savvy then, and we don’t have it now. Sure, we have technology that astonishes us daily. But what of the interactions between human beings and those technologies? We haven’t an inkling of that, do we? We pat ourselves on the back and congratulate ourselves for the newest smartphone app, but we haven’t a clue what to do when our children ignore us in favor of using the device.
If there’s a pattern in how humans develop technology, it’s that we do so with a nearly purposeful disregard of possible unintended consequences. We do that. And we must stop.
My upcoming novel, ULTIMATE ERROR, deals with the proximity of widespread calamity at any given moment. It is an unflinching look at how terribly good humans are at destruction and an affirmation of how, fortunately, we are also hard-wired for redemption.