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By Kali

In my years of working at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, I was privileged to visit some of the most beautiful, unspoiled places on Earth because Scripps often goes to places no tourists and few humans ever go. I've watched dolphins riding the bow waves of a research vessel as it sailed through the ice-carved, waterfall-bedecked fjords of Chile's Magellanic Passage. I've seen uninhabited archipelagos rising out of the middle of the Pacific Ocean, surrounded by rings of transparent emerald and turquoise water - water so clear that you can see through it for 300 feet.

I've also been to once-glorious places where no tourist goes because those places have been so badly damaged by the activities of human beings. Of these, the worst was certainly the Marshall Islands.

The Marshall Islands are a double chain of atolls in the central Pacific, very close to the equator. The largest is Majuro, which also boasts the seat of government for the Marshall Islands. Like all atolls, Majuro is the ring-shaped top rim of a giant coral reef and, at its highest point, measures about 10 feet above sea level. You can walk on dry land from the inner edge of the ring of land to the outer edge - that is, from the lagoon to the ocean - in about a minute everywhere on the island.

Other islands in the chain include Wotje, Lib, Namit and Ujelang, of which you have probably never heard, and a few others you might know - Bikini, Eniwetok and Kwajalein. Those islands have been destroyed or rendered unlivable by atomic bomb testing and missile testing.

The first thing you notice in the Marshall Islands is the garbage. There is garbage absolutely everywhere. All but one beach on the 30-mile long island of Majuro is littered with everything you can imagine, although disposable diapers are probably most noticeable. The lagoon in the center of the atoll is full of garbage. Majuro has endless coral sand beaches, leading out onto shallow ocean filled with sea life. You wouldn't want to swim on the reef flats, though. You would have to pick your way through the Pampers on the beach, then dodge the floating plastic wrappers as you swim out.

The second thing you notice is the number of people. There are people everywhere and it seems like all the women under 40 are pregnant. People live in cardboard boxes in the middle of lush growths of pandanus and coconut palms. They live in corrugated aluminum lean-tos, pasted up against pressboard hovels. They don't do much. They lie in their sweatboxes in the middle of the day and pass the time.

I went to a small museum on Majuro called the Marshall Islands Alele. An alele is a small purse in which you put precious things. I'm not much of a souvenir collector but I got a few things at the gift shop there. They had wonderful t-shirts with scenes from traditional Marshallese life, accompanied by Marshallese sayings. My favorite depicted a woman in a patterned skirt woven from pandanus leaf fabric sitting before a mass of plant leaves. Her hair streams down her bare back and she raises a small club in her hand. At the bottom of the picture are the words juum ettor. The club is juum ettor, the pandanus pounder. It's made of the inner column of a huge conch shell and gets smoother and better shaped as it is used to beat pandanus into usable fibers for clothing and home use. The juum ettor is passed from mother to daughter, improving with each generation.

In Marshallese, names for objects also symbolize ideas, and juum ettor has a much larger meaning than simply the name of a domestic object. The Marshallese are matrilineal so all inheritance is through women. Land, being both necessary and scarce, is of enormous value and almost all land is part of one bwij or another. Each bwij belongs to one family and that is where the family lives and grows the vegetables needed to supplement the fish provided by the ocean. If the bwij is lost, or the land damaged by poor planting practices, the family dies. Thus, the eldest daughter in a family inherits not only the pandanus pounder but also juum ettor - the responsibility to care for the bwij and keep it as a home for the family.

I gave another shirt to a friend and I haven't seen it in a while. I do recall that the shirt had a picture of a man fishing on a coral reef and the caption meant "the life giving force of the reef and the responsibility to preserve it." As women planted, harvested and cared for the land, men built boats, fished and cared for the reef. Obviously, the Marshall Islands had a delicately balanced human ecology and a supporting culture in which everyday objects reminded them of the need to use the gifts of the natural world carefully and without waste.

The Marshall Islands' traditional, conservative way of life changed when the U.S. told the Marshallese that they needed Bikini Atoll for a secret project that would benefit everyone in the world, preserve peace and do the Marshallese no harm. The U.S. moved Bikini's inhabitants off the atoll and onto Majuro, just for the duration of the tests, and set off an atomic bomb. Of course, Majuro was fully populated, like all the Marshall Islands, and there was no land to spare for the Bikinians, but the U.S. had promised that the relocation was temporary and that they could move back home as soon as the project concluded.

Of course, the people of Bikini never went back. It wasn't a problem for the U.S.. Payments were made so that they could continue to live on Majuro even though there was no land or areas of the reef or even industry on which they could make a living. The free money attracted U.S. businesses which moved in and started selling goods to the people of Majuro. In a human chain reaction, the disruption of the islands' human ecology by bomb testing was swiftly followed by the loss of the culture that supported that ecology and by ongoing deterioration of the natural environment of the remaining islands.

These acts of duplicity and indifference by the United States unbalanced the human ecology of the Marshall Islands such that it is now horribly, irrevocably, irredeemably out of whack. What do you do with the garbage produced by the U.S. consumer goods? What do you do with the displaced people whose homes were poisoned by radiation on Bikini, blown off the face of the planet on Eniwetok or cemented over on Kwajalein? The garbage went into the lagoon and onto the reef. The people went off the island to find jobs elsewhere and into lean-tos and cardboard boxes. Without the bwij, there is nothing to tie families together, no place to call home and nothing to do. Without a home, there is no meaning to life and no sense of responsibility to the land and the reef. Recently, the Marshall Islanders put forward their archipelago as a suitable place to receive urban garbage from the United States, as though there wasn't enough garbage there already. The traditional culture of the islands is gone and, without wholesale forced exile or mass slaughter, the human population will never again be low enough for the Marshallese to resume their way of life. They may as well take the world's garbage - they have to eat somehow.

Without a culture of responsibility and with U.S. aid to rely on, people resort to the one source of meaning always available - producing children. When I was in Majuro, it had the highest birth rate of any nation on earth, eclipsing even that of Kenya. These children have a bleak future but their parents won't hear of having fewer. A physician on a visiting hospital ship said that one in four teenaged boys on Majuro tries to commit suicide. One in 16 succeeds. Its hard to think of suicidal depression and a sunny tropical atoll in the same moment, but if you can, Majuro is the place. The hospital ships try to introduce birth control use to the Marshallese, but poverty, disconnection from their own culture and Mormon missionaries conspire to keep the birth rate high.

There is one bright spot on Majuro - Laura Beach. It's at the far end of the island from the stores, where the currents sweep the trash past the beach and out to sea. I put on a borrowed mask and snorkel and went swimming out on the reef flat. It was covered with glowing corals in delicate shades of peach and pink and gold. A sea snake lazily inspected me - intellectually I know that sea snakes are very easy-going but they are also the most poisonous reptiles on earth and I had a nervous moment in its company. Giant clams gently waved luminous blue and green fringes and any otherwise unoccupied space was completely filled with discarded shells in which squatted an army of hermit crabs. A school of iridescent, pearly fish executed a lazy water ballet; everywhere I looked, there was life. What a pity to destroy such beauty for the satisfaction of paranoia.

The whole issue of American culpability in the death of Marshallese culture is moot at this point. Fossil fuels allow the industrialized world to put far more people on the rest of the planet than it can otherwise sustain but they also produce carbon dioxide. That carbon dioxide is, without question, already warming the earth. As the planet warms, the water of the oceans will expand from heating and the level of the oceans will rise. Melting mountain glaciers and the Greenland ice cap already contribute excess water to the ocean. So far, sea level only appears to have risen about 10 centimeters, but with accelerating warming, it won't be long before the ocean claims the Marshall Islands and its people move once again, this time to the shrinking continents.

The Marshall Islands is a textbook of all the lessons we didn't learn from a hundred other places on earth, brought together in one tiny, meaningful archipelago. The irrevocable damage caused by human overpopulation, the universally evil results of colonialism and the essentially selfish nature of human beings are all miserably illustrated once again by the story of the Marshall Islands. It shows us that we can always rely on human stupidity in the face of crisis.

Go visit the Marshall Islands. Swim on Laura Beach and marvel that something so wonderful still exists in a place so sad. Take joy in what is left of the unspoiled natural world; soon there won't be much of it left anywhere. Buy t-shirts in the Marshall Islands Alele and carry home their messages about how responsibility to other people starts with responsibility to the place in which they live. While you're there, don't collect corals or shells or touch the living things on the reef. It's probably too late to make things any better but you don't have to make them any worse.

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Last modified on Wednesday, March 26, 2008