The Climate of the Islander
Time has a piece today on climate change that discusses a small atoll called Ifalik in Micronesia. I spent one year of my life in Guam teaching Micronesians and was fortunate enough to spend a few vacation weeks on a nearby (relatively speaking) island called Ulithi. I even tutored a student or two from Ifalik, if I remember correctly. I can’t tell you how beautiful the water and the islands (and the people) were–there’s a photo in the essay that gives you a clue. We were so far away from major cities that in the evening the sky literally lit up a million lights. It was unbelievable. If the sea level rises significantly from climate change, these people will either have to evacuate or be in serious danger.
The outrigger canoes mentioned in the essay are the traditional form of transportation. Master Navigators would navigate (through oral transmission, nothing written down) by memorizing the patterns of the stars, waves, and common animals (e.g. birds over waters). They could navigate from The Philippines to Hawaii. Whether or not climate change would end that traditional way of life, the economics of the world already has. What I saw in those islands was (in many cases) the last years of such traditions, and it was a great honor in my life to be shown and experience the very small glimpse I was afforded.
I’ll never forget a question one of the local folk asked me one day. He asked: “What Island are you from?” I tried to explain that I wasn’t from an island….I grew up in Ohio. But then I remembered that the every landmass on earth is surrounded by water. So from then on, I said I was from “Ohio Island.” Which they seemed to dig. I was later quasi-officially adopted into one of the local tribes (which, truth be told, involved me giving lots of car rides to “relatives” and doing a traditional dance in a thu (i.e. loincloth – the dance is something like this; click the link for some video).
So it’s a very sad personal reflection on what might happen to those islands and the people who call them home. This isn’t necessarily a tirade against the West. I’m not entirely sure anything can be done (feasibly) to limit global warming. But reading that story took me back to another time in my life.