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The Contemporary Pacific 14.1 (2002) 271-273

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Book Review

Paradise for Sale: A Parable of Nature

Paradise for Sale: A Parable of Nature, by Carl N McDaniel and John M Gowdy. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. ISBN cloth, 0-520-21864-7; paper, 0-520-22229-6; xiv + 225 pages, illustrations, maps, notes, index. Cloth, US$45.00; paper, US$17.95.

The authors of Paradise for Sale: A Parable of Nature use the current state of affairs in Nauru--in their view a devastated and unproductive physical environment and irretrievably diminished "native" culture--to extrapolate the 21 square kilometer Pacific island's dire circumstances to Planet Earth as a whole. Simply put, they believe Nauru symbolizes our global island of limited natural resources and distinctive cultures in danger of being overexploited and homogenized by rampant capitalism. Relatedly, the book explores different cultures' worldviews (or "myths") and examines how seemingly inherent (and mostly unquestioned) cultural cosmologies determine humans' interactions with the natural world and the sustainability of the society in the long term.

Biologist Carl N McDaniel, director of undergraduate environmental science, and economist John M Gowdy, director of the PhD program in ecological economics at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have written numerous works focusing on the negative environmental impacts of current economic systems and explored various alternative approaches they feel can lead to greater sustainability. They bring considerable knowledge to the general topics explored in this book. [End Page 271] However, their lack of Pacific Islands experience, their preconceived notions of what is happening to the world, and prescriptive views of social behavior and change, leave Nauru, the supposed topic of this study, submerged beneath the politics they wish to promulgate.

Most Pacific scholars will have a visceral aversion to yet another idealistic portrayal of the Pacific Islands as fallen paradise and Pacific peoples as noble savages--carefree natives living in harmony with nature. In spite of the off-putting title of their book, to their credit McDaniel and Gowdy initially avoid overly simplifying Nauruan culture and the complex history behind Nauru's current dilemma. Yet, despite their obvious concern for and interest in other cultures, the authors do not avoid being constrained by their preconceptions. Almost apologetically, they admit that "the book had been written and only fine-tuning remained, but [we] knew little firsthand about the Nauruans" (175), a situation that inevitably makes Nauru and Nauruans superfluous in the substantive portion of the book. In their eagerness to shove Nauru into their predetermined framework of societal "overshoot and collapse," which supports their overarching agenda, they unwittingly replace the complex, dynamic Nauruan society from earlier in the book with a generic, romanticized, static culture corrupted by the influences of modern civilization.

Chapter 1 attempts a comparison between "western" philosophy and "traditional" Nauruan perspectives. While there is adequate discussion of the roots of the "western" worldview, from Plato and Aristotle onward, and the subsequent development of rationality, the scientific method, and a separation of humankind from God and nature, their lack of knowledge of Nauru limits that discussion to an ethnographic catalogue of physical appearance, clans, marriage, sexual relations, subsistence production, and recreation. The hollow descriptions offer little to support the assertion that, in contrast to "western" society, precontact Nauruan civilization was intimately connected to nature.

Chapter 2 provides a standard overview of Nauru's recent history of cultural and environmental upheaval brought about by initial European contacts, the monetization of the economy, the colonial experience, the development of the phosphate industry, independence, and the social and economic challenges currently faced by the island's ten thousand inhabitants. Those unfamiliar with Pacific Islands history gain some understanding of the multitude of forces at work in the region over the past five hundred years and are provided with some grounding on which to ostensibly explore the thesis that Nauru's experience can be applied to the world as a whole.

Unfortunately, this is where Nauru largely becomes redundant to the discussion. Chapter 3 is essentially an effective primer on global environmental challenges such as biological diversity loss, overpopulation, and climate...


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