Dreampolitik and the End of the Hundred Thousand Islands // J. Lee Morsell
Recently, while contemplating a glass of red wine and the cork from its bottle, I remembered that there was a time when my primary association with corks was not wine but rather messages, thrown to sea by castaways praying to be rescued from tropical desert islands.
I suppose I got this from Popeye cartoons, but it pointed to a mythos about islands far removed from my life, islands that somewhere dotted an oceanic wilderness, islands that might save sailors from drowning only to imprison them in isolation and make the sailors desperate enough to place their hope in a corked bottle floating across the vast sea.
Even when I was a kid, there was something appealing about the strange, paradisiacal hell these islands represented. Certainly, as a boy I craved the adventure of pirate battles and catastrophic storms, of high stakes through which one could fill out into a hero. Another aspect of the appeal, though, was not in adventure but in reprieve: reprieve from the rules by which I, as a child, and as a member of our society, was bound; a place where I could be left alone and do as I pleased.
As an adult, I am happy to do without sea battles and shipwrecks. But when today I imagine a desert island, despite my better judgment I still yearn for the reprieve. Although I know I would grow terribly bored, the idea of having nothing to do but contemplate ants and drink from a coconut seems at times like the most delicious, indulgent freedom.
What of populated islands? How do we imagine those? I shudder to think of the images I retain from my Popeye cartoons: foreigners as caricatures, incapable of speaking except to babble incomprehensibly, or to reflect racist fantasies.
There will be fewer islands soon.
The Maldives are a garland of twelve hundred coral islands in the Laccadive Sea southwest of Sri Lanka. Along with the neighboring Laccadive and Chagos islands, the archipelago was known to ancient seafarers as Lakshadweepa, Sanskrit for the "Hundred Thousand Islands" that stretch from the southern tip of India eight hundred miles into the deep Indian Ocean. The history of the Maldives' first settlement is hazy: the first inhabitants may have been Gujaratis as early as four thousand years ago, but it is more certain that approximately twenty-three hundred years ago Dravidian fishermen from Kerala made the atolls home and established a Buddhist, and later an Islamic, civilization that produced beautiful architecture and sculpture and copper-plate books. The Maldives became a British protectorate in 1887, and then a nominal republic in 1968. The country was ruled by one man for thirty years, until 2008, when it held its first successful multi-party election and chose a forty-one-year-old journalist and former political prisoner named Mohamed Nasheed for its president.
Arab traders used to call the Maldives the "Money Isles," and with today's robust tourist industry they might be so called again: excluding the oil-rich Persian Gulf, they have the highest per-capita GDP of all South Asia. Prosperity and the new democracy make this a good time for the Maldives, except for one thing: the average elevation is four feet eleven inches. Already, the capital, Malé, is sometimes flooded by unusually high tides. The latest research predicts that, as climate change melts the world's glaciers, sea levels will rise a meter or more in the coming century. Within a human lifetime, the Maldives will be ravaged by catastrophic storm surges, and will probably be almost entirely swallowed by the sea.
The Maldives first came to my attention last October when ministers from that nation's government held the world's first underwater cabinet meeting. I saw a photograph of the ministers in scuba gear, seated at a long desk on the sea floor; one, his head in a cloud of bubbles, held a (waterproof?) pen in his hand and was signing a large, stiff document calling for the nations of the world to reduce carbon emissions. It was funny, really, a joke: an underwater cabinet meeting! Ha ha ha. But it was a terribly serious joke. Already, two islands in the Maldives have been evacuated due to erosion. Maldivians are building a new island, called Hulu Malé (New Malé), with a higher elevation to which they can move their capital. But nobody sees this as an adequate solution. As President Nasheed put it, if the world fails to reduce carbon emissions enough to stem the rising waters, and if the four hundred thousand people of the Maldives do not find somewhere else to go, they "are all going to die."
They are seriously considering mass exodus. Nasheed has established a fund setting tourism revenue aside to buy higher ground for his people, most likely in India, Sri Lanka, or Australia. As Nasheed explained to the Guardian, "It's an insurance policy for the worst possible outcome. We do not want to leave the Maldives, but we also do not want to be climate refugees living in tents."
It can be no simple thing to move a nation. And the Maldives is not the only nation that will likely have to move. According to a recent report by the Environmental Justice Foundation, within the next fifty years, the Maldives, Tuvalu, Fiji, the Solomon Islands, the Marshall Islands, and some of the Lesser Antilles may all be lost to the sea.
What does it mean for a country to physically disappear?
Joan Didion wrote an essay in the late sixties called "Notes Toward a Dreampolitik." I assume that "Dreampolitik" is a reference to Realpolitik, a theory of politics based on pragmatism rather than on high ideals. Dreampolitik would then be a politics (or a complex of social relations) based on dreams.
In her essay, Didion presents a Pentecostal pastor who superficially resembles Mohamed Nasheed. Back in 1968, the twenty-eight-year-old pastor, Elder Robert J. Theobold, had recently left his native San Jose in accordance with "forcible impressions" he received from God, instructing him to start the Friendly Bible Apostolic Church in Port Hueneme, California, only to receive new forcible impressions instructing him to move his eighty-person congregation en masse to Murfreesboro, Tennessee, so as to avoid a great earthquake that he believed was about to hit California. Didion suggests that Pastor Theobold (like several secular case studies she presents) has acted according to dreams based in no reasonable way upon empirical reality.
Theobold and Nasheed: each is young, charismatic, and plans to move his people a great distance to avoid calamity. The pronouncements of each have an unreal, dreamlike quality--a legendary quality, even, not unlike Noah's flood or Moses leading the Israelites from Egypt--but there is an important difference between Didion's dreamer and Nasheed. Theobold is able to "walk around right in the ganglia of the fantastic electronic pulsing that is life in the United States and continue to receive information only through the most tenuous chains of rumor, hearsay, haphazard trickledown. . . . To an astonishing extent [he keeps himself] unviolated by common knowledge." Nasheed's dream, on the other hand, squares with the best information available, and acknowledges the terrible fate that reason says is inevitable. I daresay that the physical erasure of his nation may be in a category with the horrors of the World Wars and the threat of nuclear annihilation: the stakes are so high, and the circumstances so unprecedented, that it feels unbelievable, like something that could only exist in the imagination. Indeed, it seems fantastical that a country could simply slip underwater. Some of his countrymen call him crazy for his proposal to evacuate, but it is they who keep themselves unviolated, so to speak, by what is becoming common knowledge.
Nasheed has said that his people "can do nothing to stop climate change on our own" (although, having pledged to become the first carbon-neutral nation on earth, they are trying admirably), and of course that is because the Maldivians have done little to cause climate change. It is industrial giants like the United States--populated mostly by people for whom islands are unreal, caricatures from Popeye cartoons, playthings of the imagination only--that caused climate change, and the industrial giants alone can stop it. It must be terrifying to be an island nation and know that your fate is in the hands of people who, on some level, do not really comprehend that you exist.
And yet it appears that Nasheed has made a breakthrough. He is an island person, a brown-skinned Muslim, who can speak in a way that Westerners seem able to hear. Al Gore has invoked him on the Senate Floor when arguing in favor of legislation to reduce carbon emissions, and Western environmentalists hailed him as an "eco rock star" when he rallied crowds in Copenhagen last December. It helps that Mohamed Nasheed is many things that are valued in the West: a truth-telling journalist and a leader of a nonviolent resistance movement who was imprisoned and tortured by an oppressive regime, but persevered and won the presidency in his country's first democratic elections. It also helps that he's young for a president, and handsome; he's not just dreamlike, he's dreamy.
But more importantly, Nasheed is also able to reach Westerners because he is not merely a sympathetic leader of a righteous struggle in another country. He is becoming a leader for us as well, for our own struggle to comprehend, acknowledge, and meet the challenges we face. Just as Al Gore broke ground with An Inconvenient Truth in terms of making climate change a mainstream concern, Nasheed has improved the discussion by taking a politically risky and serious position in relation to the unbelievable inevitable: the erasure of nations by rising seas that could, in the estimation of the above-referenced Environmental Justice Foundation report, displace nearly 10 percent of the world's population, creating millions--perhaps hundreds of millions--of refugees. This is truth-telling that Westerners crave, and have sadly lacked.
As the seas rise and new refugees seek refuge, the Dreampolitik may feel ever stranger and more disorienting. Let's not allow the theater of the underwater cabinet meeting (or the exodus fund, insofar as that, too, is theater) to be a mere message in a bottle, bouncing ineffectually in the waves of culture, addressing uncomprehending ears.
If my neighbor's new toy poodle, Shirley MacLaine, doesn't step on a syringe at the shore of Lake Calhoun, mutate into a bespectacled typist, and write this column in my stead, next time I will tell you about the apocalyptic discos of Tuvalu.