Jack Hitt has also reported on Nauru for the Chicago Public Radio show This American Life. A longer version of this essay originally appeared in the anthology Naked: Writers Uncover the Way We Live on Earth (Four Walls Eight Windows), edited by Susan Zakin. It appears here by permission of the author. © 2004 by Jack Hitt.

— Ed.


“Millions upon millions of years ago,” goes some of the most profitable prose of the 1970s, “when the continents were already formed and the principal features of the earth had been decided, there existed, then as now, one aspect of the world that dwarfed all others.” This is the portentous opener to a James Michener book that boasts perhaps the largest protagonist ever.

“It was a mighty ocean,” Michener decrees, “a restless, ever-changing, gigantic body of water that would later be described as pacific.” This essential drama (restless yet pacific) drives page after geologic page. “Over its brooding surface immense winds swept back and forth.” Reading this writing, one suspects that Michener wanted to give his readers a sense of tectonic formation by letting them experience it (“immense tides ripped across this tremendous ocean”) in real time. “In its dark bosom, strange life was beginning to form.” Pages of inanimate drama occur before the first coral polyp appears, which livens up the action, at least for the invertebrates.

Deep into chapter one, Michener exhausts several pages of typing on a description of the geological formation of a Pacific island. He takes you down below, where volcanoes explode and cool into deep-sea mountains on which corals coalesce over millions of years to form the underwater scaffolding that will one day support on the surface, like a cake on a stand, an island. In one watching-the-paint-dry riff, Michener actually describes how sand gets made. At last, his coral atoll gets filled in with this very sand, later is fertilized by the droppings of wind-blown birds, and eventually bursts into a tropical island paradise. Just in case we don’t get the deeper significance of it all, Michener ends his inaugural pomposities with a scriptural flourish: “Master of life, guardian of the shorelines, regulator of temperatures and heaving sculptor of mountains, the great ocean existed.”

In the decades since I was required to read it for a class, that book has stayed in my memory just like the author’s ocean. Huge, immense, boring: the novel Hawaii . . . existed. But recently I returned from one of those tiny places conjured out of the ancient chaos of the sea. There I witnessed something rare and mysterious, even terrifying: the people have dug up and sold off the interior of their homeland in order to compete in the new global economy. What’s left is so strange to see and elemental to visit that it’s grudgingly led me back to the encyclopedist’s eonic prose.

Called Nauru, the island is one of those tiny nations scattered like crumbs across the belly of the Pacific. It’s just twenty-six miles south of the equator, twelve hundred miles northeast of Papua New Guinea — in the center of an expanse of the world named, as if by Michener himself, Oceania.

This island may be as far away from everywhere as you can get and still be somewhere. In the months after the turn of the millennium, I was sent there to look into accusations of money laundering. International-finance experts charged that in the late 1990s Nauru, only one-third the size of Manhattan, was literally responsible for bankrupting the former Soviet Union, which once occupied half of Asia. Cleaning dirty money in the new global economy, by the by, is quite easy. Banks of any standing are required to keep a record of each transaction, but banks registered in Nauru were not burdened by a demand for such paperwork. So money could come in and then go out to another bank with no paper trail. Any international syndicate could pay Nauru thousands of dollars to register its very own bank, and in return the island nation gained a steady income without the fuss of building a factory or putting its citizens to work.

Since that article came out, I’ve continued to check in on my little Pacific island as if it were an old acquaintance whose self-destructive ways have made me perversely eager for fresh gossip. Nauru was my introduction to the harsh reality of the Pacific: As with Tonga (plagued with the world’s worst obesity) or Tuvalu (international purveyor of porn) or Tahiti (wracked by poverty), Nauru was once a lovely place. Whalers in the nineteenth century referred to it on charts as “Pleasant Island.” But like a runaway innocent, she has spent her beauty too easily, and now she’s lost her only asset. The options are grim. The end is coming quickly, and it’s impossible not to watch.

Between the rock of ecology and the hard marketplace of the global economy, Nauru is not merely being squeezed, but is coming undone. Nauru is like that opening of Hawaii, only sped up and in reverse.

 

When I was first given the assignment to write about Nauru, I called the Nauruan Mission to the United Nations in New York to make arrangements to visit the island. I was told to call Nauru’s publicity agent. How’s that? An entire nation has a PR flack? This was my first encounter with the formidable Helen Bogdan, spokesperson for nations, headquartered in Melbourne, Australia. She answers the phone by declaring her name as if it were a single sound, or one of those long German philosophical terms: “Helenbogdan.” I told her I just wanted to visit the island.

Helenbogdan didn’t buy a word of it. Helenbogdan told me the seventh Nauruan president in three years had been forced out, and though she would ask the new one, Bernard Dowiyogo, about my request, Helenbogdan was fairly certain it wouldn’t work out. On a subsequent transplanetary phone call, Helenbogdan told me that Helenbogdan was sad because Helenbogdan would not be able to help me in my quest to look into the face of the new global economy and that — Helenbogdan’s voice deepened suddenly — under no circumstances would I be permitted on the island.

I booked a flight at once.

When I arrived at the airport in Brisbane, Australia, Nauru’s link to the Western world, I started to get nervous and wasn’t able to sleep. Truth is, I’m not much of a macho journalist, and the place I had now signed on to visit was the preferred haunt of international mobsters. And a personage no less than the nation’s PR person, Helenbogdan herself, had specifically stated that I was barred from entering the country. I began to sweat when I read a paragraph in a visa application saying that people without stated business had better have “sponsorship from a resident of Nauru.” At the counter in Brisbane, I was asked to state my purpose. I said, “Tourism,” and the woman fixed me with a gimlet eye as I struggled to keep my Adam’s apple from dancing. I yammered about an adventurers’ club that collected entry visas. It made a crazy sense — and, I later learned, exists.

On board the plane to Nauru, I began to get a deeper sense of the country’s desperation. Air Nauru was down to one plane, and I was lucky to be on it: the year before, the plane had been seized under a Philippine court order on behalf of a creditor. The flight was full, mainly of Nauruans and a few Aussies. The back third of the plane’s seats were taken over by huge crates. Nothing is made in Nauru, so everything must be flown or shipped in — which, given the failure rate of the island’s desalination plant, includes even water. Strapped in with bungee cords and lengthy, customized seat belts, the enormous boxes shifted with the occasional turbulence and seemed to cause the plane to fishtail at thirty thousand feet. I brushed up on my rote mastery of the Lord’s Prayer.

My room at the island’s only hotel looked like any old Holiday Inn room, with its sagging bed, balsa-weight furniture, and threadbare curtains — except for the printed notice on the side table that asked guests to be considerate in their water use, since the country was in its third year of drought. The shower worked for me only once, for about a minute. One afternoon I had to brush with all that I had handy: a Coca-Cola and some minty toothpaste.

Soon after arriving, I decided I would walk up the road about two miles to a knot of a dozen or so official buildings, which locals grandly call the “capital city.” It’s as if everyone on the island has decided to play a child’s game called “nation-state.” The entire country is ringed by a single circular paved road; that’s it. So nothing’s hard to find. On the way, I passed the Nauruan golf course, which must rank as one of the world’s oddest. Because of the drought, there is no grass anywhere to be seen on the nine holes. The entire course is an enormous, rectangular sand trap marked by a few struggling trees. But, then, all the trees on the island were struggling. The shore was lined with the usual tall palms (which might have swayed in the breeze had there been one), but many of the trees were obviously moribund from drought — coconutless, frondless, slightly obscene poles curving upward to a pale blister against a paler sky. I turned back, groggy and weepy from the exposure, hoping to refresh myself, maybe with some chemotherapy.

Later I took a cab — the only cab on the island — to the “capital city” and went to the place where the Nauruan government maintained all the bank records. It was a one-room joint, half of a small duplex. The only evidence of the global economy was the number of humming air conditioners sticking out of the windows, cooling the place to the operating temperature needed for computers that contained little more than bank names and addresses. I knocked on the door. A woman holding a broom answered. She insisted that she knew nothing and nervously said she couldn’t let me in. The cleaning lady of the new global economy. I’ve met her.

 

In the late-nineteenth-century heyday of colonialism, when every European nation with a boat charged open-throttle to the Pacific to claim tiny islands, Germany was the first to put its jackboot on Nauru’s shore. According to island legend, an early colonial officer took note of a big rock being used as a doorstop and realized that it was made of pure phosphate, a valuable ingredient in fertilizer. Right away the Germans built a small-gauge railroad into Nauru’s interior and began carrying off, shipload by shipload, the island’s soil.

Australia later seized the island, and during World War II the Japanese conquered it easily and moved the Nauruans to a Micronesian island north of New Guinea called Chuuk. It was the wartime Japanese who built the airstrip my plane landed on, and throughout the island one can still see Japanese emplacements, artillery, and even a crashed plane. At one point during the Chuuk exile, a Japanese commander asked the leader of Nauru to kindly send out some Nauruan girls to work as “tea mistresses” aboard his ship. The leader replied that the commander would have to cut his throat first. The Japanese found their tea mistresses elsewhere. This proud moment, when Nauru’s leader defended his people’s virtue, is a story that still gets told more than half a century later. Maybe because it’s the last time it happened.

After the war, Australia restarted the mining operation and earned enormous profits before the island managed to achieve independence in 1968 and take control of its finances. The Nauru Phosphate Royalties Trust raked in the cash over the subsequent decades. Healthcare and education were guaranteed for Nauruans. The quality of life, from a Western perspective, soared. Cars, electrical appliances, air conditioning, and imports of every kind were available to nearly all. The Chinese arrived to provide backup labor. In the early nineties the Trust had an estimated principal of $800 million, making Nauru, per capita, the richest country in the world. Nauru’s leaders made a number of smart investments and became absentee landlords for many residents of luxury apartments in Melbourne, Australia; Honolulu, Hawaii; and Portland, Oregon.

But, in that volatile decade, some extremely bad investments were made, too. Maybe you were in London in the early nineties and caught a musical based on the life of Leonardo da Vinci called Leonardo: A Portrait of Love. It was a major flop, and its primary backer was the entire country of Nauru. The Nauruan government officials flew themselves, their families, and friends to London first-class to catch the show. They booked the front rows of the theater for opening night, which was smart, since closing night was soon to follow. The entire fiasco cost $4 million.

In 1992 Nauru bought into a scheme of “prime bank notes.” This was an early-nineties scam that convinced naive investors that the super-rich secretly traded these notes for enormous, fast profits. It played into the idea, easily believed in those days, that the wealthy had set up a hidden finance system available only to those with special access. Nauru put up $8.5 million in the deal. But, of course, the money was quickly laundered, and the investment counselors who’d conned Nauru into the scheme were long gone.

Now that the scams are over and the bubble has burst, Nauru’s entire national endowment is estimated (i.e., exaggerated) to be $130 million. And there is no other economy in waiting. Unlike on other tropical islands, tourism is nearly an impossibility. The beaches are raked with small, razorlike coral formations, making swimming dangerous. There is no natural harbor. Even the phosphate container ships are loaded via an impressive, Rube Goldbergian cantilever-piping system that reaches out into deep water. The work creates a huge phosphate cloud that often hovers just offshore, a frightening industrial phantom.

Oh, and there is one other problem — the elephant sitting in the room, and certainly the most profound explanation for Nauru’s contemporary interest in money laundering: a century of phosphate mining has denuded roughly 80 percent of the island.

At five in the morning one day, my body clock woke me up, and I headed outside my room to stand on the beach in the starry darkness. Dawn came suddenly, like a bucket of blood sloshed across the floor of the distant horizon, and in the brightening crimson light, I decided to take a walk. I wandered the island’s perimeter for an hour or more. Most of the houses on Nauru are made of unpainted cinder blocks. The yards are squares of talc. Everyone has a car. Trash, which is apparently too expensive to export, is simply piled in yards. There is an Appalachian quality here. Few yards lack either a dog, a pig, or some critter of unknown phylum, one of which chased me down the road.

It wasn’t even 7 A.M., and the heat was slaying me. A car pulled over, and the curious driver offered me a ride. He said his name, which I asked him to repeat three times because I couldn’t quite understand the sounds. He had the same eyes as a childhood friend of mine named Brian, so that synapse took command of his identity.

“What are you doing on Nauru?” Brian asked.

“Just visiting,” I said.

“You’re a tourist?” Brian asked and chuckled.

“Um, yes. Always heard of the place.”

Brian looked at me sideways for the longest two seconds I have ever suffered through.

“Let me ask you something,” Brian said with sudden formality. “Have you ever practiced the profession of journalism?”

“I. Have. Been. Known. To. Practice. Something. Like. Unto. Which. Journalism. Technically. Is,” I said, or mellifluous words to that effect.

“I would not want to talk to a journalist who would use my name,” Brian said.

I told Brian that were I ever to find myself practicing some journalism somewhere, I would not use his real name. (To repeat: Brian is nowhere near his real name.) Then Brian offered to take me on a tour of the island.

For twenty minutes we drove the circumference of Nauru, stopping once in a small store to buy the only item it had for sale: processed white bread. The tour occurred in complete silence. Nothing was noted or pointed out. The eerie, persistent silence of Nauru exists because there is only one thing anyone really wants to see, and people are loath to talk about it. Brian drove all the way around the island and then pulled up beside the giant factory where huge, stony clumps arrived from the interior to be roasted and processed into refined, powdery phosphate. “You want to see Topside, right?” he asked, using the local nickname for the interior of the island. At least he asked. The hotel tour never even mentioned the one truly distinctive feature of Nauru.

Brian turned up a dirt road. Right away, as we slipped behind the outer scrim of trees, shrubs, and ground cover, all things green disappeared to reveal a sight at once both terrible and spellbinding. The road itself became a kind of levee laid atop a frightening expanse of pure ruination. On we drove to the very center of what’s left of the interior mound of the atoll, where we could see in one sweeping view the belly of the island.

There are no words or pictures that can adequately capture what mining has wrought in Nauru. The small atoll has essentially been tonsured. The sickly collection of water-starved vegetation on the periphery — the dead palms, the pandanus trees with black crowns, the greenless golf course — is the good news. It masks the horror that lies just inside that ring of scrub: The entire interior has been clear-cut, and the underbed of phosphate strip-mined so deep that the only things left are the coral bones of the atoll as it might have existed a million years ago. With all the topsoil and phosphate gone, what’s left are sinuous canals marked by sun-bleached limestone towers and coral outcroppings. One would be hard-pressed to find a place that has been more wasted by the global economy. The winding, dug-out channels among these coral spires are lined with an appallingly silky dirt. Old trash blows around this blistering desert, the shredded plastic bags snagging on bits of coral, the weightier garbage eventually sinking into the ruts, where the rot manages to service the root systems of a few brave weeds. If there is a speck of nutrient to be found there, it is hunted by feral dogs that long ago fled the domesticated life on the shore for a brutal, dystopian existence in the coral channels.

One environmental theory that explains why Nauru’s natural periodic droughts have grown so much worse in recent years is called the “oven effect.” Under the equatorial sun, the exposed white hot-plate of Nauru’s interior creates a column of scorched air that rises fast enough to blow away rain clouds.

Brian pointed to a place — it seemed almost hypothetical — out in the powdery distance and said it was his. I later found out that every Nauruan owns a piece of the island. There are thousands of these tracts of land, some not much bigger than a double bed. I have seen a map that breaks up the entire island into microparcels. Despite the fact that most of the island has been exported to fertilize crops in the West, almost every Nauruan knows precisely where his or her designated splinter of homeland can be found within this coral boneyard.

Brian had almost nothing to say as we drove slowly with the windows down. Then he stopped at another place, and we got out and scanned the skeletal landscape. He told me how, when he was a boy, all this had been dense tropical forest. He and his friends would hunt the black noddy bird and then bring their kill home to prepare it in the traditional Nauruan style. The population of the country’s signature bird had since collapsed, as had those of the once-populous frigate bird and tern. So Nauruans no longer ate the noddy bird. We sat in a hissing silence for a while. There was no breeze, just fine talc, airborne and stagnant, like particulate suspended in the stillness of a laboratory vacuum. It seemed to crackle and pop in the heavy, birdless air. The emotional sensation of standing there was one of intense, primal fear, as if I could be murdered. Have you ever found yourself alone after hours in a cathedral or a stadium? There is an uneasy feeling of immense absence — of a congregation, of fifty thousand fans. Here, on Topside, what was missing was the very life force of nature. Stripped clean, literally to the bone, all that was left was a silence that scared me in a way I hadn’t been since childhood.

Brian sat still and stared ahead. Perhaps more unnerving than the landscape was his stoic face — absent of all affect, tensed by some unnamable sadness. He held himself immobile, as if his chiseled profile were part of the tour: an expression of shame I had never before seen.

He and his people, perhaps unknowingly, had sold off their motherland. It had been done gradually, by accretion, and amid the joy of sudden wealth. There are probably rationalizations and explanations, and yet it’s an incomprehensible thing to see it and feel it. Imagine destroying the forty states from West Virginia to Nevada so the remaining ten could be temporarily wealthy. Imagine France paving Bordeaux; Israel salting Jerusalem. Brian said he hoped one day I’d get the chance to eat a noddy bird, and then, in a spent silence, he drove me back to the post office and dropped me off.

 

After I’d returned from Nauru in 2000, I learned that the president would be visiting New York City to address the United Nations during the Millennium Summit. Bernard Dowiyogo had served in this office four times in the previous decade (and would serve a few more times in the new millennium). He’d been tossed out of power in 1998 after he’d told his constituents that they would have to rein in their lifestyle. His replacement was a phosphate-mining executive named Rene Harris. Since then the politics of Nauru had essentially revolved around these two men. Harris tolerated the most brutal form of capitalism: sell anything and everything. Dowiyogo had tried to steer the country toward some sort of moral economic reform, hoping the West would reward him for his virtue. So far, he’d been disappointed.

A courtly man, Dowiyogo invited me up to his Park Avenue hotel room for breakfast. He and I sat together over plates of sausage and eggs scrambled in that flawlessly yellow hotel style. We were joined by the country’s ambassador and two other officials. Dowiyogo greeted me with the solemnity of a man whose acquaintance with smiling seemed as remote as Brian’s.

As we ate, he explained that the current plan to rehabilitate the interior of the island would take twenty years and cost $300 million. It wouldn’t be easy. Geologists who had studied the limestone pinnacles said they were so hard that knocking them over to fill in the labyrinth of channels on the island (which is the bulk of the rehab plan) would require bringing in the biggest, most powerful land mover in the world. But since there is no topsoil left, their plan to reforest the entire island couldn’t possibly work.

“One of the ideas we have in mind,” Dowiyogo said, “is that part of the dug-out area should be left as it is, so that future generations can see what it was like.”

“Like a museum,” added the ambassador.

So maybe there is a new economy ahead: reverse eco-tourism; instead of seeing the environment at its most lush, you’d see it at its most debauched. Which is why I keep up with Nauru. The details arrive as pathos and then quickly turn into bathos.

At breakfast, for instance, I asked President Dowiyogo what other moneymaking ideas were kicking around Nauru. He said they were “studying” a proposal to slice the limestone pinnacles into cross sections, polish them, and offer them for sale in the West as coffee tables. When I asked what other business opportunities his country was contemplating, he took a bite of toast.

Another government official later told me in confidence that there had been talk of permitting the country’s phone code to be used for 1-900 sex lines. Vanuatu, another island a few thousand miles from Nauru that had also been reduced to money laundering, had already gone this route. Nauru, perhaps recalling the invitation to become Japanese tea mistresses, was holding out for the coffee tables.

Nauruan natives now exceeded ten thousand, and with the hope for the future balanced on coffee tables, I gingerly asked the president what might happen to the people on Nauru in the next ten years.

“That’s not a problem,” he said, explaining that there were at least two more years of full mining, and engineers were studying how to extract “residual phosphate” from the limestone pinnacles when they get knocked down. He explained that early estimates of the remining potential added up to another eight years of income for the island.

“What do you see as the future in twenty years?” I replied.

“That may be a problem,” the president of Nauru said quietly. I had other questions, but I no longer had the guts to ask them. By now, the awkwardness had reduced the breakfast interview to little more than the sound of forks scratching plates.

 

Win or lose, the choices for Nauru have now dwindled to a very few. Try to think like a Nauruan president for a moment. (Hurry!) The phosphate is running out. Water must be either desalinated or imported. No food can be grown locally. There is no hint of paradise: birds are rare; trees are bare; 80 percent of the land is denuded. Tourism is nonexistent.

There is only one thing left to sell: Nauru’s authority as a nation-state. Its very sovereignty. The country’s leaders have no choice but to root through the last valuable trinkets of their independence — a UN seat, a batch of “embassies,” a passport stamp, bank regulations, a vote on certain international councils — and trade them with the same brutal, hard-core, used-car capitalist spirit that they learned at the knee of their teachers, the factory managers at the phosphate plant. This was Nauru’s ultimate import from the West: an economic ethic that enriched one generation of Nauruans while finishing off the country.

Critics of Nauru in the U.S. government have long held that Nauru is an example of what happens when a country steps too far outside the banking and regulatory codes of the new global marketplace. Other observers have seen the island nation as a symbol of a larger problem. “Nauru is the tip of the iceberg,” says Professor Carl N. McDaniel, a biologist with Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, whose book Paradise for Sale, coauthored with John M. Gowdy, examines the nation’s collapsing biosystems. “Nauru is what happens when you treat natural resources as economic resources. You can’t sell off your own habitat for long, but this is what we’re all doing everywhere. Nauru is only the canary in the mine shaft.”

Could it be that Nauru will become the first nation-state of the modern age simply to go out of business? Once, Australia offered to give the Nauruans a new island off the Great Barrier Reef. The Nauruans declined, since it would have meant completely surrendering their sovereignty. But it does seem likely that some future leader will have to plan for such a contingency.

Should economics not finish off the country, it seems that nature will. Few scientists disagree about the inevitability of rising ocean levels. New environmental studies suggest that the ocean’s waters will engulf the meager inhabitable outer ring of the island. Soon enough, we’ll be out of the realm of metaphor and deep into the prose of Michener. Nauru will return to the mercy of our guardian of the shorelines, regulator of temperatures and heaving sculptor of mountains. Topside’s bleached and bony labyrinth, scarcely visible in the high water, will be the sole proof that people once lived there before it was abandoned, bare and alone at sea, available once again only to the birds for millions upon millions of years.