How to save paradise: The sinking island nations


Polynesia is one of three recognized cultural areas in the pacific (the others being Melanesia and Micronesia). It is a region highly diverse in languages, culture, worldviews and cuisine – however, there exists a common thread linking the many thousands of islands and their inhabitants.

The sea and learning the means of traversing it is part and parcel of everyday life in the South Pacific islands: throughout history, the islanders of this region had developed various ways of navigating the tumultuous seas and oceans surrounding their bountiful island homes. These methods included, but were not limited to:


Seabirds throughout the Pacific have had many millions of years to perfect their navigational apparatus – something that the islander population used to navigate the waterways. Navigators would keep their eyes open for birds that would hunt fish in the dawn and morning, and would return to land later in the day to rest and mate.

Following these swarms of birds, or sometimes even small groups, successfully lead navigators to land with potable water and safe harbor from storms. The migration patterns of birds throughout the islands could often be narrowly correlated with the movement patterns of islander populations.

‍The Frigate Bird is one of the most important tools in a navigator’s arsenal.

As islands could often be met with hazards such as a storm that wipes out a harvest, pestilence that makes the island uninhabitable, or others, the islanders realized that their settlements would not be permanent – the average islander would live on several dozen islands throughout their lifetime.


Sailing by the stars was a rite of passage for the navigators’ guild in Polynesian society: rich oral tradition would teach up-and-coming sailors how to measure the (relatively fixed) position of the stars, as well as how to calculate their latitude through the stars’ elevation in the night sky.

As mining was nearly impossible in most islands, machined tools such as the sextant or chronometer never came about – instead, the Pacific navigators had to rely on instruction, mnemonics and songs for the memorization of star formations, and basic tools made from wood and animal materials that served their purpose adequately.

‍Deceptively simple, but as useful as a GPS system in the right hands.

This is, of course, before contact with the Europeans provided the islanders with such instruments, which they used with tremendous precision: Captain Cook’s travels would have been much more expensive and time-consuming were it not for his hired Tahitian navigator, Tupaia.


Navigation schools coupled with years of experience at sea would teach the Pacific sailors certain regularities in weather formations and movements of water. As many island chains are thin sand banks hundreds of miles long, this affects swell movement (and by extension, cloud movement) in a semi-predictable fashion.

This was the least reliable of the navigation methods, but would prove invaluable in cases where the previous two methods were inapplicable (such as during cloudy weather, in the evening). Polynesian seamen developed detailed charts of current and swell patterns, wind maps, bird migration cycles and many other ways of positioning themselves in the hostile environment of the open sea.


These methods of navigation, when combined with outrigger canoe crafting, sheds valuable insight into the mindset of the South Pacific peoples. When crafting canoes, they didn’t at first know the multitude of factors that influence a successful journey. Much in the same way, we don’t know what the best way to govern a society is.

What the islanders developed is a sped-up system of natural selection: if a canoe makes it back from a journey, copy the aspects of it that worked. If it doesn’t, keep a record of what systems it used and stay away from them in the future. The same can be extended to startup societies: in the vast interconnected world, which consists of thousands of microcosms and communities, we must see which among them make the journey, and which falter – noting all the while the systems they used.


We skip ahead from the early 18th century to the 21st: globalism has made the world interdependent through trade, and the once-massive world has become small through flight, GPS, and a multitude of other technological and societal developments.

The island nations of the Pacific aren’t having a good time of things, to say the least. Most island nations in the Pacific don’t have a GDP per capita over USD$4000 (with the notable examples of Nauru, French Polynesia and Palau) and those that do have a GINI coefficient that puts into question how much of the islands’ wealth actually belongs to the people living there.

These nations are not rich in resources, and those that are usually possess large fisheries or other specialized agricultural assets, relying on imports of electronics, energy, and many other basic necessities for a functional economy.

Regulatory advantages that these island nations can wield are still under-utilized.Certain economies in the islands have made a good go of things, such as Tuvalu – whose government collects royalties for their “.tv” internet domain, which is noticeably memorable for television stations worldwide. These royalties account for 10% of the government’s income.

Other economies have made a select few wealthy, but have robbed the nation of a future: Nauru’s phosphate and guano mines provided a sovereign wealth fund that could have been reinvested into the islands’ economy and provided for a population with few opportunities. Instead, the fund was ravaged by corrupt officials and the Nauruan people are left with a hole in the ground and their checkbook.


To make matters worse, the geological nature of the islands which has long been ignored is coming back with a vengeance: many island nations in the Pacific exist on sandbars that aren’t permanent landmasses (no continental shelf). A combination of heavy stone buildings, tectonic shifts, climate change and erosion is leading to the slow “sinking” of the islands, specifically Kiribati and French Polynesia.

‍The land that we see under water was agriculturally used up until 15 years ago.

This wouldn’t be much of a concern for the people living there, were it not for the agricultural projects on the land which rely on fresh-water sources. If the islands keep sinking, the salty sea water may in fact penetrate the potable water springs throughout the islands, making drinking water a luxury and ruining agricultural prospects on the land (such as breadfruit, sugarcane, and other water-intensive cultures).


The solution to this systemic problem (at least a temporary one) is the creation of floating platforms housing people and providing economic opportunities in the long term. Certain projects have already created promising prototypes, but more must be done in the innovative field of seasteading.

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