End Time in the Sunshine

How a small island in the South Pacific sold its soul

| November-December 2006

  • nauru
    A phosphate loading station off the coast of South Pacific island Nauru
    Image by Flickr user: sadie and maude's place / Creative Commons

  • nauru

Pacific Islands can’t help themselves. They inspire primal if not mawkish emotion. Gauguin went to one and started compulsively painting images of Eden. James Michener wrote the novel Hawaii, unable to resist putting down some of the most elemental (and dreadful) prose in history. “Master of life, guardian of the shorelines, regulator of temperatures and heaving sculptor of mountains, the great ocean existed,” writes Michener as he proceeds with scores of pages of typing to chronicle the geologic formation of an island out of volcanic eruption and slow coral accretion until there pops out of the sea, like a plate on a stand, a coral atoll.

Recently I returned from one of those tiny places conjured out of the ancient chaos of the sea. There I witnessed something rare and mysterious, even terrifying: The people have dug up and sold off the interior of their homeland in order to compete in the new global economy. What’s left is strange to see and elemental to visit.

Called Nauru, the island is one of those tiny nations scattered like crumbs across the Pacific. It’s just 26 miles south of the Equator, 1,200 miles northeast of Papua New Guinea—in the center of an expanse of the world named Oceania. This island may be as far away from everywhere as you can get and still be somewhere. For millions upon millions of Michenerian years, the coral atoll matured into a fully fledged Pacific island by a unique process. Eons of birds landed at the remote site to take a bathroom break, and what existed by the time the first Micronesians arrived was an island whose core was composed almost entirely of perfectly composted phosphate.

Near the turn of the millennium, I was sent there by the New York Times Magazine to look into accusations of money laundering. Since then, I’ve continued to check in on my little Pacific island as if it were an old acquaintance whose self-destructive ways have made me perversely eager for fresh gossip. Nauru was my introduction to the harsh reality of the Pacific: Like Tonga (plagued with the world’s worst obesity rate) and Tuvalu (international purveyor of porn) and Tahiti (wracked by poverty), Nauru was once a lovely place. Whalers in the 19th century referred to it on charts as Pleasant Island. But like a runaway innocent, she has spent her beauty too easily, and now she’s lost her only asset. The options are grim. The end is coming quickly, and it’s impossible not to watch.

Between the rock of ecology and the hard marketplace of the global economy, Nauru is not merely being squeezed, but is coming undone.

When I was first assigned to write about Nauru, I called the Nauruan Mission to the United Nations in New York to make arrangements to visit the island. I was told to call Nauru’s publicity agent. How’s that? An entire nation has a PR flack? This was my first encounter with Helen Bogdan, spokesperson for nations, headquartered in Melbourne, Australia. I called and told her I wanted to visit the island.

6/30/2009 12:52:04 PM

Hello Liz, That is very odd. This version is written by Jack Hitt and reprinted (with permission) from the Sun, where he originally published it. Hitt is also a contributing editor for This American Life, where he’s done pieces about Nauru. I have no idea who Christine Armario is, but I’ll email that website and see. Thanks! Bennett Gordon

Liz T
6/30/2009 12:34:11 PM

I noticed that this article is reprinted word-for-word in its entirety on CDNN, and credited to Christine Armario. The URL is http://www.cdnn.info/news/article/a090608.html. As I was reading that article I remembered hearing the exact same story on This American Life. Very odd.

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