Last resorts

Micronesia is shrinking. Although spread across a vast swath of the pacific, this sub-continental grouping of tiny island states and federations was already small enough in land area, but is now getting noticeably smaller year by year. Recently I heard that many citizens of Vanuatu are planning an imminent move to one of the Himalayan states, where they have already been helped to acquire land. It sounds like a script for a whacky comedy along the lines of “Cool Runnings”: erstwhile pearl-divers, spear-fishers and easy-livers adjust to a life of sub-zero winters at a few thousand metres, complete with waist-high snow, itchy wool hats, a diet of sour tea made with rancid butter and some rather dodgy dishes that heavily feature the yak. The plot seems as surreal as the reality is likely to become. Perhaps a scenario with more verisimilitude is the recent disturbing report of a request by the citizens of Kiribati for the right to settle in “neighbouring”* Fiji.

So what’s wrong with Kiribati and Vanuatu, you may ask? Nothing; they are both heaven on earth, but unfortunately they are being washed away by ever stronger ocean currents, an increase in tropical storms and steadily rising sea levels. It doesn’t matter where you stand on the issue of global warming, whether you are a naysayer or an acolyte, there is no denying the reality on the ground … or at sea in this case. As warmer oceans expand, and as those parts of the polar ice that used to be supported by land masses diminish, average tidal levels are rising. This is dangerous enough for a nation like the Netherlands, with sophisticated flood technologies and formidable barriers to contain and resist the surging sea, but to tiny island states without such means, where an increase of a few inches means that saline levels in the sweet water-table (if there even is one) rise to levels that render agriculture impossible, a difference of two or three feet threatens the very existence of the land and its people.

The changes now taking place are not the temporary vagaries of an otherwise stable climatic cycle. Meteorologists and physical geographers agree: they carry an air of doom laden finality. We are imperceptibly moving from a barely tenable situation into a prequel of “Waterworld”. The government of Kiribati currently insists that its bid to buy an available 6000-acre estate on Fiji is designed to serve initially as an additional means of providing food for its people, whose agricultural economy is being weakened by extreme weather. However, Kiribati’s President, Mr Anote Tong, gives substance to the rumour of emigration when he does not dismiss the idea of relocation out of hand. Moving 103,000 islanders from Kiribati to Fiji (population 850,000) would, he says, be a policy of “last resort”.

These incremental alterations in sea level might be nothing to get too alarmed about, were it not for the extraordinary inertia inherent to very large bodies. For once such a process has become reliably measurable in something as vast as the world’s oceans, it is already so advanced that any curative reaction to it must be given a timeframe not of decades, but of centuries. The tiny islands of Micronesia simply don’t have centuries anymore. They may not even have decades. Excessive winds and ocean currents, coupled with the steady erosion of protective coral reefs (as water temperatures become too high to support such delicate systems) mean that these already fragile islands, some of which only rise a few feet above the waves, could simply be swept away next hurricane season … or the one after.

We are taught to believe that a risk is a challenge, that dangers are to be not only surmounted, but even used to our advantage. I can think of only one way that we, as an entire species, can take advantage of this slow menace. We need to embrace the ocean as it once embraced us. What will this entail?

Firstly, we will have to open up our landmasses to accept at least some of the extra salt water. A system of well-sealed sea-water canals could serve as super-highways for entire floating factories powered by wind and solar, which would not carry commodities from A to B, but carry complete manufacturing and agricultural activities instead. Raw materials would arrive at coastal ports to be taken up by these gigantic barges and slowly transformed, over a distance of hundreds of kilometres, into finished products. The higher density of salt water would enable such colossal undertakings to deliver greater economies of scale. At least in the United States, China, Russia and Europe, the trucking industry, as we know it, would be transformed. We might even consider suburban barges, each a decent-sized village, with several decks, which would dock in our cities during the week and move out into the country at the weekend, carrying their populations and all their facilities with them.

Secondly we could consider the creation of low-displacement artificial islands out on the high seas. These would be built on a triangular web of tube frames with giant, flexible-jointed, ball-floats at every apex. Such webs could carry osmotic fibre matting which would serve as a bed for composted topsoil to develop hydroponic gardens, vegetable plots etc. The upper sections of the ball-floats would serve as dome-shaped buildings: dwellings, offices, storage and utility spaces etc. These flexible floating islands would have to be of sufficient size as to easily outride even the stormiest ocean.  Ideally, the giant triangles would be arranged to form reef-like “landmasses” surrounding a central protected harbour, itself accessible through a single channel and assuring a relatively calm haven. The islands would take advantage of their free-floating nature to follow (phototropic sensors driving thousands of electric motors) either the sun or the rain, depending on what was most needed at the time. In other words, they would not anchor in any particular place, but would “claim” a certain nomadic territory, much like a timber wolf, and roam it freely.

However, there is one project dear to my heart, which would involve a well-anchored island: the creation of a giant hotel, leisure, conference and business centre, mid-way between the British Isles and New York on the southern great-circle route – somewhere near the Azores, but with no nationality, no immigration controls, no visas, no customs duties, no sales taxes – in fact, no taxes at all other than a harbour fee for every ship that would dock, every plane that would land there. You can call my vision of a genuine “last resort” utopian, if you like. I call it Atlantis.

Edwin Drood

* By the way, moving to Fiji is not exactly like popping next door for a cup of sugar. The Fiji group of islands lies more than 2000 kilometres south of Kiribati.

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