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The natural world. Looking pretty for 3.5b years.

The Center of the Earth is About to Disappear

Kiribati starts to make plans to abandon its islands

Author: Reilly Capps/Monday, May 13, 2013/Categories: climate change

File:President Anote Tong.jpgBy Reilly Capps 

Here is a small lesson in perspective, in having a sense of where you are.

If the round Earth had corners, the tiny island nation of Kiribati would be at one of them. The string of atolls straddles both the international dateline and the equator, making it the only country in all four hemispheres. If Kiribati made it onto maps at all, back when we used paper maps, it was as tiny dots at the edge. 
And the residents of Kiribati are imagined, by mapmakers, as living at the ends of the Earth. 

But this isn't how the residents of Kiribati see it. They believe themselves to be at the center of the world, and the fount of all civilization. 

They believe that the islands of Kiribati (pronounced KIR-e-bas) are the Earth's oldest land masses. Like all creation, they were created by the giant spider Nareau, and the giant spider created Kiribati before he created any other spot of land. The i-Kiribati (residents of Kiribati) believe the spider created them first, that the first humans were i-Kiribati, and humanity sailed off from Kiribati to colonize the rest of creation. In a word, the i-Kirbati don't think they live in the middle of nowhere, but in Eden.

In this, they got the story of humanity exactly backward. The Kiribati islands are atolls, newly created by oceanic forces. And these atolls were some of the last strips of land on Earth to be settled, probably by courageous (or lost) boatsmen from Asia. 

So where is the center of the world? One of the real insights of modernity is not that we have figured out where the center of the world is, but we realized that there is no center. Every place is as central as every other place. 

It's a perspective that might make a difference when you contemplate today's reality, which is that the actions of countries at the perceived enter of the world -- America and Europe -- are causing real problems in countries we think of as existing at the ends of the Earth. 

That's because Kiribati is one of those countries that are being swallowed up by the sea.

Kiribati is a quirky little place. The 33 islands that make up Kiribati are as small as New York City and flatter than Kansas. At most points it does not rise more than a few yards above sea level. 

As sea levels keep rising, most of the islands will likely eventually drown, and the people will have to flee. Already, the beaches are being eroded by more violent storms. (Environmental degradation and water pollution are happening, too.) 

It's just one of the terrifying stories from the South Pacific, along with that of the Maldives, a story told well in "The Island President." 
Unlike some leaders of the Maldives, who lobbied the world to take action on climate change, the leaders of Kiribati seem resigned to it. 

So the government is taking steps. It bought 5,000 acres of land on Fiji, which is "nearby" in South Pacific terms, 1,400 miles away. 

And the president, Anote Tong (pictured above), is actively encouraging his most able citizens to migrate to other countries. When was the last time you heard that? A president trying to get his own people to leave? 

So the question is: can they move the entire population of 100,000 people to 5,000 acres on Fiji? That would make that spot the fifth most densely populated space on Earth, after Macau, Monaco, Singapore, and Hong Kong. Seems unlikely.

Still, you'd like to see this strange little place continue on, one way or another. 

In "The Sex Lives of Cannibals," author J. Maarten Troost writes of living on Kiribati, which he found incredibly boring and strange. For instance: you can take anyone's property from them simply by saying the word baboosi. "I baboosi your shoes (or your book or your hat)." They have to give it to you.

This all seems crazy, the lunatic beliefs of those who live at the end of the world. 

But how often do all of us put ourselves at the center of the world? How much do we gauge how dangerous something is or how important something is based on how close it is to us? About climate change, for instance, how often do we say: That's a problem for the Maldives, or for Bangladeshis, or for farmers fighting drought. Not for me.

But as more and more people point out, it's a problem they're going to suffer most, but it's a problem caused largely by us in the developed world. There isn't any center anymore. We're all part of one small Earth


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