Peter Rudiak-Gould is a writer, an anthropologist, and a climate change consultant. His book, ‘Surviving Paradise: One Year On A Disappearing Island’, is a fantastic memoir of his first visit to the Marshall Islands. Here’s what he had to say about the country and the Blue Continent.
Pasifika Tales: Quick question. Ujae – Heaven on Earth or Hell?
Peter Rudiak-Gould: For the people who live there, it’s more like heaven, I’d say. Not that life is always easy there, not that people always get along, but I think that most ri-Ujae (people of Ujae) love the place and are able to live full and meaningful lives there. They live a minute’s walk from their friends, they have land and a house with no mortgage to pay off, they can let their kids go and play without worrying about getting lost or kidnapped, and although life gets tougher when the money runs out, they can do pretty well with local resources, at least for a little while. Some of the best modern technologies – basic Western medicine, medical evacuation if needed, communication radio, bicycles, solar panels, etc. – are there, with few of the bad ones. There is still no television reception on Ujae.
For me – it’s a little bit of both! But as I explore in my book, there were fundamental differences between me and Ujae, sort of like a rocky romantic relationship with deep attraction by equally deep incompatibility. Heaven and Hell aren’t places, they’re relationships.
PT: What are your memories of the Marshall Islands?
P. R.-G.: Too many to recount! But what they all have in common – nearly all of them anyway – is the feel of warm, humid air. If I close my eyes and imagine that feeling, it brings me back to being there much more than thinking of what the country looks like. The air, atmosphere, or weather is the basic medium of every experience we have. That’s why climate change will alter our realities so much.
PT: And what did you learn during your stay?
P. R.-G.: How to fish with a spear. How to speak Marshallese (not all that useful outside of the Marshall Islands!). How to play the guitar. How to take a shower with just one small bucket full of water. I learned how incredibly dark night can be, and how incredibly bright day can be.
PT: Why did you decide to write a book about your adventures in the Pacific region?
P. R.-G.: I always wanted to write a travel book. It’s a genre that really attracts me. The best travel books combine the best of memoir writing and essay writing – a compelling narrative that also provides a lot of fascinating information about a culture and a place, and interesting perspectives on life. Travel books also captivate me because they are about the gap between expectations and reality, what we thought we’d get and what we actually got. So they are about confronting difference and reality in all of its unexpectedness, which is not just fun and stimulating but can also be humiliating and painful.
PT: How has Ujae changed since your first visit?
P. R.-G.: I definitely noticed a difference between the first time I was there (2003-4) and the second time (2007). There were more electric lights, powered by solar panels. There were a few more gadgets than before. It seemed to me that there was more coastal erosion than before, but it’s possible I was just looking harder for it the second time because I had gotten much more interested in climate change. Locals said that they had observed erosion. I remember a particular coconut tree that had stuck out into the lagoon in a conspicuous way. It was very distinctive. It was alive and standing in 2004, collapsed and dead in 2007. Of course that doesn’t prove anything, but it did make the threat of climate change feel much more real for me.
PT: Do you think the atoll, and the rest of the country, is in danger of being swallowed up by the ocean one day? What are your views on climate change?
P. R.-G.: Chances are that it’ll be a while yet until the Marshall Islands are totally submerged by the ocean. But there’s a real possibility that the country will be uninhabitable (even though not totally submerged) within the lifetimes of children living in the Marshall Islands today. It’s impossible to know for sure because there are so many unknowns. Will climate legislation succeed? Will green energy take over the market? How fast will the oceans rise? How will the island ecosystem respond? How will the people respond? This creates uncertainty, and in uncertainty there is hope. I believe that it is much too early for Marshallese people to give up on the idea of inhabiting their country far into the future. But the possibility of eventual exile must be taken seriously, even so.
PT: Is there anything we can do to stop climate change?
P. R.-G.: It’s impossible to completely stop climate change, unfortunately. It’s already occurring, and more of more of the weird weather events we’re having now being scientifically attributed to climate change. Also, there is certain latency period in the climate system, meaning that greenhouse gases we’re already emitted will cause further climate change even if we stopped emitting any greenhouse gases immediately. There’s change locked into the system.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that it’s still to be determined whether climate change is moderate, severe, or catastrophic. It’s definitely good to bike or walk rather than drive when possible, eat less meat, only boil as much water as you really need for that cup of tea, take the train instead of a plane, etc. But I think that greater change comes about not from these individual choices, but from banding together to push for larger change. I’m not talking about something grandiose like all people becoming hunter-gatherers. I’m talking about medium-sized change like making bike lanes more available in a particular city, starting a petition to pressure your representative into supporting a clean energy bill, etc. Medium-sized change, not huge change which is unrealistic or tiny change which isn’t significant. I firmly believe in making it easier for people to do the right thing. In Copenhagen, for instance, all kinds of people bike to work, not because they care so much about the environment, but it’s been set up in a way that makes biking very safe, easy, and economical. Make it easier to do the right thing than the wrong thing.
PT: What can we, Westerners, learn from the Pacific Island countries and people?
P. R.-G.: I recently read a book called ‘Bowling Alone’ that shows a huge amount of evidence that in the US (and, I would guess, other Western countries) people’s interconnectedness to each other, trust in each other, generosity, etc. has plummeted in the last 30 or 40 years. That probably won’t surprise anyone, but the sheer amount of evidence really impressed me and made me realize what a huge problem this is, not just for having a functioning democracy but also for individual health and happiness. I think that Pacific Islanders, or at least the ones I knew in the Marshall Islands, are keenly aware of how important this ‘social capital’ is to all aspects of life. They talk about it all the time, and about how worried they are that it will erode in the future. I think that many Pacific Island communities have held onto their social capital more than most Western communities. This requires some sacrifices – for instance, in the Marshall Islands people have kept their traditional land ownership system in which land cannot be bought or sold or owned individually, and this is definitely an obstacle to economic development in the country. But, I think it is probably worth it for the social capital that it helps to safeguard.
PT: What did the visit to Marshall Islands change in your life?
P. R.-G.: It taught me that no simple story about indigenous people, ‘traditional’ people, and so forth is ever correct. For instance, colonialists have often told the story of native peoples as being savages that needed to be civilized, missionaries have told the story of native peoples as heathens who must be saved, romantics have told the story of native peoples as infinitely wise and noble, etc. None of these stories is right because indigenous people are people, full of all of the complexities of humans everywhere. Once my preconceptions were challenged by actually living with the people, it’s hard to take seriously any simple stereotype, whether positive or negative, about a culture.
PT: Do you think Pasifika is a special place in the world?
P. R.-G.: I do. It’s the most extensive group of islands in the world. Paul Theroux called it a constellation, which I think is a great description. The people who settled it were the greatest sailors in history. They found almost every tiny bit of land in an area that is larger than all of the continents put together. They almost certainly made it to South America and back. They found Hawaii, the most remote inhabited archipelago in the world, and probably sailed back and forth from there to the rest of Polynesia for several centuries.