When you think of islands – the most common scenario that comes to mind is one with white sand beaches, clear blue water, & ukelele tunes serenading you as you sip from a coconut filled with rum… However the history and present-day reality of many islands is actually much more grim than the fantasy vacation paradise that tourist pamphlets would like you to believe.

Many Americans idealize the Hawaiian islands as a piece of the United States and a similar staple getaway as Disneyland. But the colonial history of Hawaii is often left out of guidebooks, as is the tension between the ancestors of the native Polynesians who inhabited the islands prior to the arrival of colonists, and the tourists and real estate developers keen on capitalizing off the land. By drawing millions of tourists to these small fragile pieces of land in the middle of the Pacific, the Hawaiian islands suffer ecological degradation, as well as a loss of the Hawaii Creole English language (pidgin), and the re-appropriation of traditional Hawaiian culture as a means of tourist entertainment.

On the topic of exploitation at the hands of the US government, Guantanamo Bay in Cuba is a prime example of how islands are often sen as highly valuable for their geopolitical locations. The United States – through it’s neocolonial relationship with Cuba, continues to use a part of the island as a black box high-security prison, where prisoners are held without charges and often suffer abuse such as food/water deprivation and physical & mental abuse. Simply because these egregious acts against human rights take place off of the US mainland and on a “remote” island – they go rather unnoticed and become more easily forgotten in the eyes of many Americans.

Nauru is a less well-known island that has also suffered from colonial and neo-colonial exploitation – selling off it’s phosphate reserves to the point of utterly destroying most of the island’s natural ecosystem. While Nauru briefly enjoyed the wealth that the phosphate mining brought, that money was quickly squandered, leaving the population with a GDP per capita of $5,000 in 2006 (ranked #131 sharing similar GDP to Fiji, Indonesia, & Guatemala) and a 90% unemployment rate today. Because everything (even potable water) must be imported to Nauru by airplane, and the formerly phosphate rich land of Nauru itself is dwindling & eroding away, Nauru cannot possibly sustain a population of humans much longer.

Another island that faces imminent extinction is Tuvalu (#145 with a GDP per capita of $3,400 in 2012) – which due to global warming is predicted to be underwater within the next 100 years. Since it is an island 10 square miles large and only 15 feet above sea level, it is very vulnerable to weather and ecological changes – even a moderate storm or a few feet of rain could potentially be catastrophic. Other islands facing a similar fate due to global warming include: Kiribati, Maldives, Marshall Islands, & Seychelles.

Are islands like Nauru & Tuvalu humankind’s canary in the coal mine?


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