Paradise for Sale: A Parable of Nature

Paradise for Sale: A Parable of Nature

Paradise for Sale: A Parable of Nature

Paradise for Sale: A Parable of Nature


The grim history of Nauru Island, a small speck in the Pacific Ocean halfway between Hawaii and Australia, represents a larger story of environmental degradation and economic dysfunction. For more than 2,000 years traditional Nauruans, isolated from the rest of the world, lived in social and ecological stability. But in 1900 the discovery of phosphate, an absolute requirement for agriculture, catapulted Nauru into the world market. Colonial imperialists who occupied Nauru and mined it for its lucrative phosphate resources devastated the island, which forever changed its native people. In 1968 Nauruans regained rule of their island and immediately faced a conundrum: to pursue a sustainable future that would protect their truly valuable natural resources--the biological and physical integrity of their island--or to mine and sell the remaining forty-year supply of phosphate and in the process make most of their home useless. They did the latter.

In a captivating and moving style, the authors describe how the island became one of the richest nations in the world and how its citizens acquired all the ills of modern life: obesity, diabetes, heart disease, hypertension. At the same time, Nauru became 80 percent mined-out ruins that contain severely impoverished biological communities of little value in supporting human habitation.

This sad tale highlights the dire consequences of a free-market economy, a system in direct conflict with sustaining the environment. In presenting evidence for the current mass extinction, the authors argue that we cannot expect to preserve biodiversity or support sustainable habitation, because our economic operating principles are incompatible with these activities.


Millions of years ago an isolated volcanic mountain began to push toward the water’s surface in the central Pacific. Eventually it reached the light just below the ocean’s surface, and the summit was colonized by coral — and thus an island was created. With the comings and goings of ice ages on the northern continents, sea level repeatedly fell and rose, exposing and then submerging the coral pinnacles that constituted the only land for hundreds of kilometers. the island, which would be named Nauru, became a haven for innumerable seabirds. Over eons the bird droppings, or guano, filled the coral canyons and mixed with marine deposits as the island was submerged and resurrected again and again. Beneath the island’s surface, the combined efforts of geology and chemistry created from guano and marine organisms an exceptionally rich deposit of what many soils elsewhere lacked: phosphate. Now, nearly all of the phosphate is gone, and the sun bakes the exposed coral skeletons at temperatures inhospitable for most life.

Nauru is just south of the equator, halfway between Hawaii and Australia. With a circumference under 20 kilometers, saucer-shaped Nauru is bordered by a narrow strip of almost infertile land several hundred meters wide. Overlooking this band is a plateau that once supported a panoply of plants and animals. the first humans who arrived there sev-

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