In defense of sustainable islands

If anyone can make the case for sustainability, islanders can.  Basically, an islander understands that if they exhaust their natural resources, they could die.  Because there is nowhere else to go.

Island life in the 21st century

Obviously, this is over dramatized.  Most islanders today are not solely dependent upon their island’s natural resources for survival.  Water can be desalinized.  Food can be imported.  Livelihoods have evolved beyond subsistence. 

In fact, in the 21st century islanders live much like their mainland brethren.  They take the bus to school and drive to work.  Once in school and at work, many spend the day in air-conditioned cocoons.  Food, gas, building materials, and most everything we use throughout the day is imported over great distances and at great expense.

Island culture is somewhat sheltered, but it, along with each island’s natural beauty, brings tourists.  And while we may welcome the economic benefits of tourism, we cannot escape the creeping influence of our visitors’ lifestyles and expectations on a native population.

Environmental degradation

Most would not trade the benefits of their lives today for anything resembling those of previous generations.  We enjoy a level of comfort and opportunity that would be unthinkable 100, or even 50, years ago.

But with our well-being and prosperity come costs that we must be mindful of.  Increased traffic pollutes our land and air, clogs our streets, and adds layers of stress that belie the island image of natural tranquility.  All those imports and tourists create increasing mounds of waste that must go somewhere on islands that often have little room to spare.

As populations increase, be they natives or an increasing flow of visitors, the search for fresh water supplies as well as the worry about polluted run-off takes on added urgency.

And for those islands with relatively fewer tourist options, but that may be rich with natural resources, what do you do when the well runs dry.  Nauru, for example, struggles to search for opportunities after exhausting its phosphate reserves.

Killing the goose that laid the golden egg?

The dilemma confronting islanders everywhere is how best to respond in the face of these challenges.  We have an obligation to continually improve the lives of our native populations.  Historically these opportunities have come through growth and development.  Some do better than others, but, as the saying goes, a rising tide lifts all boats.

With growth and development, however, come costs.  We have the environmental costs mentioned above.  We also have social and cultural costs as lifestyles, and expectations, change.  How does Bali, for example, maintain its unique spiritual culture when millions of tourists descend on the island each year – because of that culture?  In a nutshell, how do we thrive without destroying that which makes our island homes so special and unique to begin with?

Fortunately, the policies and practices of sustainability – sustainable development, sustainable living, environmental sustainability – are becoming more mainstream, and offer a response to these questions.

Over the next several weeks we will discuss each of these topics in greater detail – outlining the issues surrounding how we can grow in a way that does not harm our island homes, how we can more responsibly go about our daily lives in a fragile environment, and how we can reimagine our relationship with our environment in a way that nurtures rather than depletes.

In the meantime, what are your thoughts?  What have you done to become a more sustaining islander?  What examples do you have that might encourage others to follow in your footsteps?


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