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What To Do When Your Country is Drowning

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About thirty-seven hundred kilometers southwest of Hawaii, and thirty-seven hundred kilometers

northeast of Australia, lie The Marshall Islands.

Getting here is not particularly easy.

The only flights from the United States are through Honolulu, only with United, and only

a few days of the week.

Which helps explain why only about 6,000 people visit each year.

16, a day, on average.

But once you arrive, getting around is quite easy.

While the country is spread out across a thousand islands and 29 atolls, altogether, the size

of Washington DC, about 40% of its 75,000 people live on the capital, Majuro.

There are, generously, four hotels, a couple ATMs, and one main road.

No traffic lights.

No street names.

A taxi downtown costs about 50 cents, or, across the island, at most, two US Dollars.

Some may see its isolation from the rest of the world as inconvenient.

But for the people of the Marshall Islands, that’s its charm.

Life here is relaxed, care-free, and, rather slow.

Cars rarely move much faster than 25 miles an hour, appointments are loosely scheduled,

and Hawaiian shirts, the national dress code.

In the last few years, however, the world has been intruding.

As sea levels rise, its beaches are slowly being swallowed by the ocean.

And, unfortunately, the Marshall Islands are almost entirely beaches.

Most land is barely 6-feet above sea level, and in many areas, only 4, 500 feet wide - so

narrow you can almost always see water from two opposite sides.

Some years, like 2013, floods damage hundreds of homes, schools, and stop planes from being

able to land.

The same thing is happening around the world, but here on small, faraway islands, the clock

is ticking, and the question of what to do, yet unanswered.

For the first time in history, countries may totally disappear.

Not politically but literally and physically.

Where once lay a thriving, tropical paradise community may one day be only a floating sign

explaining what once was.

Unless, something can be done to save them.

Like many islands in strategically useful places, the Republic of The Marshall Islands

has a long history of foreign imperialism.

First, by the Spanish, then the Germans, some brief contact with the British, invaded by

the Japanese in World War I,

And, finally, during the next war, captured from Japan by the United States.

It, and its neighbors now known as Palau, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the Federated

States of Micronesia, were put under the administration of the U.S. Navy as the Trust Territory of

the Pacific Islands.

Later, in the ’80s and ‘90s, the Islands slowly gained their independence.

The U.S. government officially recognized its constitution, allowed it to hold elections,

and signed a Compact of Free Association.

Today, the Marshall Islands are less than a United States overseas territory, like Guam

or Puerto Rico, but much more than simply a friendly foreign ally.

Legally, an associated state.

The islands have access to its federal agencies, including the National Weather Service, Federal

Aviation Administration, and Postal Service.

The U.S. also agrees to protect and defend the country, although it cannot declare war

on its behalf.

This part of the United States but not really relationship can create some… awkward situations.

In 2015, the Iranian Navy seized and detained a Maersk container ship traveling 12,000 kilometers

away, in the Strait of Hormuz.

Maersk is a Danish company, and the ship, owned by a Singapore-based operator.

However, for tax-avoidance and legal reasons, it was registered, like many ships, in the

Marshall Islands.

Which, because of its defense responsibilities, technically obligated the U.S. Navy to respond

with a destroyer, although it later clarified it won’t do so in the future.

Besides a small coconut, breadfruit, and fishing industry, the Marshall Islands just doesn’t

have that many ways to make money.

Without many natural resources, it’s had to resort to creative ways of bringing in

revenue, like, becoming the second most popular ship registry in the world, after Panama.

And, although sometimes lucrative, these niche markets can make the entire economy of a small

nation vulnerable to the whims of foreign actors.

Its neighbor, Kiribati, for example, is geographically blessed as the closest non-American soil to

the Hawaiian islands.

So, despite having almost no infrastructure or tourist attractions, its Tabuaeran island

became a regular stop for Hawaiian cruises, who, as foreign-registered ships, are legally

required to stop, at least once, outside the country.

Recently, though, Norwegian Cruises introduced American-flagged ships, rendering the detour

unnecessary.

And Tabuaeran, back where it started, with virtually no source of income.

In a similar vein, Palau is lucky to be home to a unique species of golden jellyfish which

draw tourists from around the world.

Unfortunately, they too are slowly dying, which researchers suspect is due, in part,

to rising sea temperatures.

So, inevitably, with no other options, these states turn to diplomacy.

Of the 17 other UN members who recognize Taiwan as a country, for example, nine are small,

island nations.

It shares embassies with the Marshall Islands.

And Taiwan’s president, at the time, was the first head of state to officially visit

the country.

The Islands also receive $78 million dollars in U.S. foreign assistance each year, of the

1.5 billion they’ve been promised from 2004 to 24.

Of course, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

And perhaps nowhere is that more apparent than here, at the giant, concrete, American-built,

radioactive dome on Enewetak Atoll.

When the U.S. assumed control of the islands in the ‘40s, it used them as a nuclear test

site for some of the largest and most destructive bombs in history.

Including, the famous Castle Bravo.

At 6:45 on March 1st, 1954, its mushroom cloud could be seen 250 miles, or 400 kilometers,

away, eventually reaching 47 thousand feet, or 14 kilometers, expanding at 220 miles an

hour, and leaving a 250-foot deep hole in the ocean.

The explosion was two and a half times stronger than expected - 15 megatons of TNT, instead

of the predicted six.

It instantly destroyed many of their measuring instruments, contaminated a nearby Japanese

fishing crew, and, although inhabitants had been evacuated beforehand, because of the

unexpected size of the explosion, covered surrounding islands in a white, snow-like,

radioactive powder.

Children played with it, not knowing of its cancerous effects.

Decades later, in 1977, four thousand US soldiers were sent to clean up the fallout.

Over three years, they collected 73,000 cubic meters of soil and 400 chunks of plutonium-239,

an isotope with a radioactive half-life of 24,000 years.

It was then thrown into the crater created by the explosion, and covered in a 328 foot,

or 100 meter, 18-inch thick, UFO-shaped dome.

This was said to be only a temporary solution, as it was not covered with a lining, meaning

there’s a good chance, according to the US Energy Department, that the toxic, radioactive

material has already begun leaking out into the ocean, where Marshall Islanders fish and

play.

Today, in exchange for its payments, the US continues to operate the Ronald Reagan Ballistic

Missile Defense Test Site.

The US Army is one of the biggest employers on the islands, which have a higher per-capita

enlistment rate than any state.

And because of its proximity to the equator, SpaceX has launched several of its rockets

here in the past.

So, while the Marshall Islands have little leverage with the U.S., there is some hope

it will be forced to deal with rising sea levels as it begins to affect military operations.

Aerial images show six islets disappeared between 2007 and 14 alone.

Although, not all islands are equally at risk.

Some, like the Maldives, are almost completely flat, offering no place to retreat.

Others, like Palau, have upland areas residents can move too.

Each is differently susceptible to erosion, and some have more or less powerful waves.

A few islands, like Tuvalu, may actually grow as storms carry sediment, which varies with

seasonal trade winds.

But almost everywhere on earth will be, somehow, affected.

Venice, the Everglades, Waikiki, and Alaska, are all at risk.

One small Alaskan town, The Last Frontier of The Last Frontier, Shishmaref, has been

losing ten of its thirteen hundred feet every year, as winter waves slam into the island

and the permafrost underneath it thaws, weakening its foundation.

All these islands have, essentially, three options: Mitigate, Innovate, or Relocate.

If land is disappearing, the obvious solution is the China or Dubai approach: add more.

Barriers and jetties could also dampen the blow of incoming waves.

Unfortunately, these would likely harm marine life, be extremely costly, and, as long as

the sea continues to rise, require continual maintenance.

Better, of course, would be slowing climate change altogether.

But raising awareness is quite difficult.

It’s geographically far-away, happening relatively slowly, and the dynamics of wave

exposure aren’t the most exciting… the trifecta of Not Getting News Coverage.

Another option is to innovate - try something, anything, no matter how bizarre sounding,

to generate revenue or attention.

In 2018, the Marshall Islands signed the Sovereign Currency Act, which created its own national

cryptocurrency.

If it works, the plan would give the Islands more control over their economy, and new funds

to experiment with.

Another idea, proposed by the mayor of the Rongelap Atoll is to build “The Next Hong

Kong” - a Special Administrative Region in the middle of the Pacific.

The idea is to use the Marshall Island’s special relationship with the U.S. to create

a tax-haven and pathway to the mainland much like Hong Kong’s special status with China.

Most islands are trying a mix of these ideas, while, also, planning for the perhaps more

likely worst-case scenario: relocation.

In 2014, Kiribati purchased a 20 square kilometer patch of land from the Church of England in

Fiji.

Its president announced, “We would hope not to put everyone on (this) one piece of

land, but if it became absolutely necessary, yes, we could do it”.

The Marshall Islands, meanwhile, has an easier escape: As part of its agreement with the

United States, its citizens are allowed to live, work, and study on the mainland without

a visa.

About a third of Marshall Islanders have migrated, many to Springdale, Arkansas, or Salem, Oregon.

Although, there’s a catch.

Marshallese living on the mainland are not legally considered ‘citizens’, but also

not ‘immigrants’ or ‘refugees’, they’re “permanent non-immigrants”, which makes

them ineligible for some federal services, including Medicaid.

And, if the Compact of Free Association is not renewed when it ends in 2024, this door

will close entirely.

Years ago, the US government swept its radioactive misdeeds, quite literally, under the rug.

And, as sea levels rise, it seems to be doing much the same.

Ignore the problem as it grows, until, one day, it’s too late.

Today, The Marshall Islands, Tomorrow, Waikiki, Eventually, New York.

Those who’ve survived drowning report the same pattern:

At first, an overwhelming feeling of panic.

Arms flailing, legs kicking - anything, no matter how ridiculous, to try to get the attention

of the people around you.

Eventually, though, dread turns to tranquility - a calmness, a dangerous complicity - a feeling

that it’s too late, that nothing can be done.

The reality is it’s not too late - yet.

The world is well into the panic stage, but, also, at serious risk of turning into acceptance.

It always feels like you can just hold your breath a few more seconds, until you can’t.

When the U.S. military arrived on the Marshall Islands in 1946, asking locals to give up

their homes for what they claimed was the good of humankind, their leader responded

with the words now imprinted on the flag of Bikini Atoll: “Everything is in the hands

of God”.

Now the future is in ours.

Not everyone has an up-close view of rising sea levels, but, I, for one, can really relate

to the feeling of having your head underwater - being totally overwhelmed with so much to

do and so little time to do it.

Recently, after watching this class on Skillshare, I started planning pretty much every minute

of my day.

I used to put everything on a to-do list.

But, let’s be honest, I usually ended the week with more to do than when I started - it’s

a lot easier to add to the list than remember to check it.

I highly recommend checking out Thomas Franks’ class on Productivity, or one of the others

on design, programming, investing, cooking, and lots of other topics.

You can try Skillshare today with a 2 month free trial with the link in the description,

for the first 500 people.

Thanks to Skillshare, and to you for watching!