The spider-web fisherman

Mirihi Island Resort, MaldivesI feel such solidarity with all things, it does not matter where the individual begins and ends. So wrote Einstein when contemplating death. His words encapsulate the state of being needed if we are to confront the great challenges of our age: climate change, the global financial crisis, and mass movements of refugees seeking new lives.

These challenges are interrelated and entwined. If we do not nurture a sense of wonder at life's mysteries, if we do not develop a concern that goes beyond our individual life spans, there is little chance we will succeed. Without a long-term vision we will remain becalmed in the moment, governed by the imperative to live for the day, for my self, my immediate family, and to hell with the rest.

Can we afford to save the planet? Better to ask, do we have the understanding required to save the planet? As Einstein's words imply, this understanding has something to do with our sense of the natural world. We can call this means of knowing the world, ecological awareness, a term that reflects a way of life I observed on Kitava, in the Trobriand Islands.

The Trobriands, now known as the Kiriwina Islands, are an archipelago of coral atolls off the eastern coast of New Guinea. On the first of three journeys to the island of Kitava in the late 1970s, I made my way by boat from Milne Bay to the town of Losuia, on the main island of Kiriwina. I met the boatmen of Kitava in the township and trekked with them to the east coast, where the boats were waiting — two magnificent outrigger canoes beached on the sand, beneath a thatched shelter, their hulls intricately carved, their furled sails of pandanus leaf.

I was impatient to get moving, to sail the ten miles further east to Kitava, my intended destination. 'We cannot sail today,' one of the men replied. 'Wind is boss.' Two days went by with the same reply. 'Wind is boss.' By that time I had begun to succumb to the leisurely pace, the languid passing of time.

At dawn on the third day I was suddenly awoken from my stupor. The men were shouting, we are leaving. The wind is up. There is no time to lose. Their demeanour had changed dramatically. Their bodies were tense; their entire being was focused on their immediate task.

They dragged the canoes to the water, pushed them through the shallows, and steered them through a gauntlet of choppy waves. They did not relax until the sails were set and the boats moving over open seas. Yet they remained alert, attuned to the shifts of the wind, the movements of the currents.

During my third stay on Kitava I joined Toganiu, a villager I had come to know on previous journeys. We met, as pre-arranged, early morning, on the shores of the island. He constructed what appeared like the frame of an elongated squash racket from bamboo. When the racket was done he moved into the forest in search of spider's webs. I later learned that he was after the Nephila, commonly called golden-orb weavers, a genus of spiders distinguished by their impressive webs.

When he came upon the metre-wide webs, Toganiu thrust the racquet into the hubs and twirled the sticky strands around the bamboo frames. When the racket was full, he rolled them off and divided them into wads, about six inches in length. He fashioned a kite out of pandanus leaf to which he attached a line baited with a wad of spider's web. He launched his small outrigger canoe from the beach while I watched from the shore.

It is hard enough to maintain balance on a small outrigger, let alone manoeuvre it while flying a kite in strong winds. Toganiu positioned the kite so that the wad of webs skimmed over the water. The web acts as a lure, an imitation of a flying fish. It entices garfish to leap and grab the lure in its sharp needle teeth. The kite is reeled in and the catch secured.

It was while contemplating this means of fishing, and the way of life I had observed on Kitava, that I realised an alternative intelligence was at work, an ecological awareness born out of the islanders' relationship to the environment, a means of survival in which the elements are keenly felt, the turn of the seasons on open display.

In a recent speech that questioned the foundations of economic growth in our times, former Czech president, Vaclav Havel suggested: 'The world is a huge mystery, we should approach it with humility.' Speaking to an audience of European Union bureaucrats, non-government activists, and industry lobbyists in Brussels, Havel argued: 'It is not good to think that growth is something that can go on forever.' He returned to an idea famously promoted by the Club of Rome in a 1972 report entitled 'The Limits to Growth External'.

The report, written in response to a global oil crisis, made a considerable impact. It was one of a number of reports that acknowledged the finite nature of earth's resources, and argued for a model of economic growth based on this awareness. The call for a radical change in attitude towards the planet and its resources has been around for quite a while. It intensified and developed greater urgency with mounting evidence of the impact of climate change. Its principles can also be applied to a global financial system, which is currently based on an economic model that relies upon infinite growth.

Despite the current crises the model remains dominant. While politicians bicker, and the public wavers in the face of the contrary views of climate change sceptics, action is put on the back burner. The challenges seem too immense, the trappings of modern life too alluring.

An alternative model based on sustainable growth and renewable energy requires a major shift in attitude, a change in consciousness. On Kitava I observed in miniature, a way of life based on a simpler model. I saw that such a state of being could be nurtured if we are more directly exposed to the elements and the sources of survival, and more attuned to the fine balance between human activity and finite resources. We have much to learn from such cultures if we are to survive on this planet.

Ironically, Kitava is one of a growing number of islands that are facing inundation by rising waters due to the impacts of climate change. The dangers can be sensed when approaching the island by sea. Kitava first appears, from a distance, as a flat disc on the horizon. As the canoes draw nearer, the disc rises and raised coral cliffs topped by tropical rainforests take shape.

It is a homecoming to an island of plenty. The job is not complete until the canoes are dragged ashore and secured under their shelters. We climb up a track from the shore and make our way into the rainforest. We walk for several kilometres until we reach the clearing in which the village houses are neatly arranged. The welcome is complete.

Consider this vision of the future, in which the impact of climate change and the mass movement of peoples intersect: The waters are rising, the people are in trouble, and in the cities of distant lands the opinion makers are arguing. Some say the changes are man made, others deny it is happening. Others argue there is little we can do but accept the cycles of nature. For those on the islands it is simple. The land is sinking. The acreage for crops and gardens are diminishing. It is time to lay plans for the journey.

As the impact deepens it does not take much imagination to envisage vast armies of the displaced, wandering the seaways, fleeing across borders in search of new pastures. There will be fierce wars fought over lebensraum, driven by a tribal instinct for survival.

The nexus between climate change and the mass movement of refugee populations is already taking upon us. Most dramatically on Tuvalu, a small Pacific island nation made up of nine coral atolls. The UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has projected a rise of up to one metre in the waters surrounding Tuvalu this century, due to melting glaciers and the thermal expansion of ocean. This represents a catastrophe for an island where much of the land is merely one metre above the high tide mark.

Already there are signs of climate change impacts. Land is being eroded on the cusps of the atolls, salt-water intrusion is adversely affecting drinking water and food production, and there are growing instances of lowland flooding. Islanders now talk of a need to find a place for their 11,000 potentially displaced inhabitants. New Zealand has been touted as a possible destination.

The stakes are higher in the Maldives, an archipelago in the Indian Ocean with a population of 311,000 living on 1196 tiny coral islands. Since taking office in November 2008, the country's newly elected president, Mohamed Nasheed, has spoken of plans to divert a portion of the country's billion-dollar annual tourist revenue into buying a new homeland as an insurance policy against climate change.

The plan is a response to UN forecasts that the seas are likely to rise by up to 59 cm by 2100, due to global warming. Many of the islands are barely two metres, or less, above sea level. Just a small rise in sea levels would inundate large parts of the archipelago.

The President has spoken of Sri Lanka and India as possible new homelands, because they have similar cultures, and of Australia, because of the amount of unoccupied land available. He has said: 'We do not want to leave the Maldives, but we also do not want to be climate refugees living in tents for decades.'

As I contemplate these figures, I return to just one figure, Toganiu, on the shores of Kitava. I see his lithe body as it moves so easily over rainforest paths. I see him balanced on a tiny outrigger, positioning his kite over the ocean. I see the star-filled night as I travelled with him and his fellow boatmen to neighbouring islands. The men travel light, unburdened by heavy baggage. All they require are the clothes they are wearing, and the pandanus leaf wallets with betel nut and cash to acquire what is necessary. I think of islanders throughout the Pacific farewelling their sinking homelands, seeking asylum, and forced to rely on the dictates of others.

There are no easy answers, but the way we educate our young is critical. It is their generation who are going to face the consequences. They will have to know how to live with finite resources. They will have to relearn how to move in the world, and come to know the fragile balance that underlies ecological systems. Havel has pointed out that while technological measures and regulations are important, 'equally important is support for education, ecological training and ethics — a consciousness of the commonality of all living beings and an emphasis on shared responsibility'.

Yet we have nothing to offer the young if our generation does not feel obliged to look beyond the immediate future. That, in turn, will require a sense of life's fragility and mystery. The people of Kitava know it through their daily encounters with nature. Einstein acquired it through decades of contemplating life's deepest mysteries. His scientific explorations deepened his sense of reverence. In turn, he developed a vision that extended far beyond his individual self, a sense of solidarity with all things.

Arnold ZableArnold Zable is an award winning writer, storyteller and human rights advocate. His most recent novel is Sea of Many Returns. This essay was Highly Commended in the 2009 Eureka Street/Reader's Feast Awards.

Topic tags: Arnold Zable, Eureka Street/Reader's Feast Award, climate change, Kiriwina, Kitava



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