Wishful sinking

Boys swim in a freshwater pond in Nanumea, disorder Tuvalu

Will atoll nations like Kiribati sink as sea level rises, or not?

The prevailing media narrative—which you encounter everywhere: in print, on air, online—is yes. And that narrative nearly prevailed in the choice of headline for my Kiribati story in National Geographic’s just-published climate change special issue.

Several months ago, my editor at the magazine sent me a layout of the story with a gigantic headline stretching across the opening spread: “Going, going, gone.”

I gulped. Only six months before I had written a story for National Geographic’s website that described scientific findings that more than 75 percent of atoll islands in the Pacific are maintaining their size or growing, despite slowly rising seas. I was deeply opposed to suggesting that these islands will soon be going down the oceanic gurgler.

I discussed with my editor the idea of putting a question mark after “gone.” But the problem with doing that, I felt, was that the familiar slogan contained such a strong message that merely adding a squiggly piece of punctuation at the end would scarcely dent its impact.

Psychologists have a term for this: confirmation bias, the tendency for the mind to interpret new information based on previous assumptions. Another cognitive bias (there are dozens of them; it’s surprising we can think straight at all, ever) would also come into play: the availability cascade, in which a collective belief gains increasing plausibility through constant repetition. Readers would expect to see a “disappearing islands” headline, I argued, and a question mark was unlikely to disturb that misperception.

I and one of the National Geographic researchers simultaneously came up with an alternative headline: “Against the Tide.” This appealed to me because not only is it the challenge that people of low-lying atolls face every month, as spring tides bring sea level within striking distance of coastal land and infrastructure, but also many I-Kiribati people are taking a stand against the tide of world opinion that their islands are doomed. They “refuse to think of their homeland as a ‘disappearing island nation,’ its fate already out of their hands,” I wrote in my story. “They do not think of themselves as ‘sinking islanders,’ rather as descendants of voyagers, inheritors of a proud tradition of endurance and survival.”

The editors approved the new headline, and the print magazine has duly been published with the title “Against the Tide” above the Kiribati story.

A fortnight ago, however, the headline battle was fought again, when the online version of the story appeared. It was published under the line “Water May Erase These Pacific Islands but Not their Culture.” Again my heart sank, and I begged the editors to erase the word “erase.”

“It’s physically impossible under current SLR projections,” I emailed. “That was the point of the Tuvalu piece I wrote. Maybe in 1000 years with tens of meters of rise.”

(Though, in truth, if the Paris climate summit doesn’t come up with the goods, it won’t take 1000 years for seas to rise tens of metres. Under the “business as usual” scenario of unchecked greenhouse gas emissions, the planet could reach that point much sooner—within two or three centuries.)

To my relief, the headline was changed from “Water May Erase . . .” to “Rising Seas Threaten . . .”

Is this just semantic nitpicking? These island nations are in the climate cross-hairs; does it matter if the threat is exaggerated for impact? After all, as I point out in my story, the political leaders of many of these nations routinely predict their countries’ demise unless the West takes action on climate change.

Some academics argue that media narratives don’t arise out of thin air, that there are political and cultural agendas at play which need to be identified and confronted.

Australian social anthropologist Carol Farbotko has coined the term “wishful sinking” to describe the “eco-colonial gaze” with which even well-meaning people in developed countries sometimes view their environmentally vulnerable neighbours.

Media publics watch from a distance, Farbotko writes, “partly in horror and partly with perverse impatience for the first islands to disappear.” Only after they sink beneath the waves are the islands “useful as an absolute truth of the urgency of climate change, and thus a prompt to save the rest of the planet.”

Low-lying atolls: the sacrificial canary that goads the West into action. It’s a distressing picture, as Victoria University Pacific studies student Holly Mansfield noted in her masters thesis on Kiribati and forced migration: “Island people, long marginalised, are denied their own agency in the climate change crisis. They are fictionalised into victim populations fleeing inundation, desperate for dry land, even drowned.”

There is even a climate-change disaster-tourism twist, says Fartobko, with vulnerable atolls promoted as places to see before they disappear.

What’s in a headline? Quite a bit, depending on your geography, the narrative you’ve absorbed, and your gaze.

2 thoughts on “Wishful sinking

  1. Hi Kennedy, I heard you being interviewed on the radio this morning and my ears pricked up. I found your blog and your article in National Geographic interesting. I have been working in Tokelau developing a land-use plan. I just wanted to say that my findings in Tokelau are similar to yours in Tuvalu. Essentially coral atolls are some of the most productive ecosystems on the planet. As the sea levels rise so probably will the coral reefs. The worst thing appears to me is the construction of sea walls. These heavy fortifications around the coast seem to concentrate the erosive energy of waves and actually lower the beach profile. The natural coastlines dissipate this energy. Its interesting talking to the people there. The young who are connected to the world via the internet have the greatest concern. One old person pointed to the highest point on Nukunonu. The ‘hill’ is man made, some centuries old, made by piling coral up. It seems they have been there before!

  2. Hi, I have just finished reading your story of Kiribati and Tuvalu and believe me my eyes are filled with tears. I was stationed at Tarawa as 2nd Officer of one of the Gov ships, namely
    “Tungaru” sistership of “Tuvalu” back in 1948-1951. My lastship there was”Nei Niminoa”
    which unfortunately we lost on a reef in the then Ellis Islands. We had Gilbertese crew at all times and agree with you when you said what wonderful people they were. Forgive me, but I just had to contact you. Best wishes, Les.

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