Views from the third world. Earth.

The Maldives As Microcosm Of Climate Collapse

Sandbags on the approach to Velana Airport

When you fly into the Maldives you feel like the Mafia. “Nice place, shame if something happened to it.” And you’re the thing that’s happening to it.

In the Maldives you can see both climate change and the impossibility of averting it within your own eyes. In the city of Male I saw sandbags around the flooding airport, a cargo ship of liquified petroleum, and a sign saying no bicycles or walking to the airport. I could hear constant airplanes and seaplanes overhead, smell diesel from the ubiquitous boats, and simply feel the searing heat out of season. Again, these things are happening all over the world, but not right in front of you like in the Maldives. Climate collapse is an academic debate in much of the world, still, but in the Maldives it’s unavoidable. But the reaction isn’t what you think. It’s not awareness so much as a massive cognitive dissonance.

I’m at the Waterworld. I’m at the Pizza Hut. I’m at the combination Waterworld and Pizza Hut

The Maldives is a strange place in that its immediate existence depends on its proximate destruction. Everyone that comes here comes on a plane. Everything that comes here comes on a cargo ship. Everything that moves between the islands moves the same way. Most money that trickles down to Male comes through the million plus tourists that come every year. But these same tourists also bring metric shit-tonnes of pollution, making the Maldives increasingly uninhabitable. The Maldives cannot live with or without fossil fuels. This is really just the modern condition, but in the Maldives it is most nakedly so.

The Maldivian government made a big statement against climate change by holding a cabinet meeting underwater, but what are they actually going to do? They can’t put their money where their mouths are (and stop tourism) because they have A) too many local mouths to feed and, more importantly, B) too much globalized greed. Since their scuba statement, the Maldives has only sold off more islands to tourism, encouraging long-haul flights from all over the world. Now they’re setting up bunkering facilities to attract more cargo ships. Yet none of these functions can be reasonably decarbonized at all. You can see how opposition to climate change is largely circuses, while the bread is still buttered with oil.

The impossibility of battery planes, via Dr. Tom Murphy

You can see the impossibility of ‘just switching’ to renewable energy in the Maldives. You can constantly see the planes, ships, and generators it takes to make this place run and it’s simply not possible to just ‘switch’ them and carry on partying as before. You could have another, vastly reduced civilization, but absolutely not this one.

Battery-powered planes are too heavy to take off and biofuel is literally burning food. Hydrogen is mostly made with fossil fuels, hydrogen is energy storage, not an energy source. ‘Eco-friendly’ resorts crow about banning bottled water and superficial bullshit, but this is putting lipstick on a flying pig. There is no such thing as sustainable tourism to the Maldives, it’s an oxymoron.

Battery-powered ships or electrified would need to hug the coastline if they’re even possible, and other theoretical solutions are simply not economical. You could go back to wind, but the most practical solution is considered laughable. The hard truth, however, is that there is no such thing as sustainable shipping, not in the modern, get whatever you want, whenever and wherever you want it sense. People would have to get by with far less, wait a long time for it, and pay much more. And nobody’s talking about that. We’re pretending that some magical tech solution is just over the horizon. But that ship will never come.

Oil storage near the airport

This is an academic debate in most places but in the Maldives you can physically see it. How do I get a toilet here? It has to come off a boat. What boat? Well, that one. The one floating off the coast. How do I get anywhere? I have to go on a boat or seaplane, and smell the fumes myself. The only time you encounter something electric is the buggies used on resorts, and guess how they’re charged? From diesel generators. The whole place is an emission. It’s our fossil-fuelled lifestyles in stark miniature.

Whatever statements the Maldivian government makes about climate change, its actions are changing the climate right in front of you. And I’m not singling out the Maldivian government, which like most democracies is really just a dramatic distraction. The running of ‘the economy’ is left to local and foreign oligarchs, whoever is in power. It is precisely this malevolent AI called ‘the economy’ that devours the Earth for its own metabolic processes. This I really don’t blame the Maldives for their predicament. This is just the state of our world, in such a state that you can’t avoid it.

Resorts for tourists next to public housing for Maldivians

The modern Maldives is not run, in any real sense, for Maldivians. Most Maldivians are like remora fish, getting scraps from big tourism money that either goes to local and global elites. These elites, in turn, are just what Marx called “capital personified and endowed with consciousness and a will”. And Capital is what I call the artificial species, legally endowed with personhood as corporations, that actually run the world. Hence as much as these global and local elites suck (and they do), the incentives of society are such that you can remove one crop of sell-outs and another crop will grow in its place, as ‘democratic’ elections show. As Karl said, “Their own movement within society has for them the form of a movement made by things, and these things, far from being under their control, in fact control them.” I digress but it’s an important point, which you can follow through my jumbled musings here.

To return to the microcosm, the Maldivian government — in its now bipartisan corruption — sold off the one picnic island that people in Male could reasonably get to. Just a symbol of the country’s subjugation to tourism, ie colonialism with tips. Only after much protest did the government reclaim another picnic island, so Maldivians could enjoy their own beaches. Fundamentally, nobody gives a fuck about the people that actually live here (who are wonderful, and family to us Sri Lankans). Most tourists to the Maldives don’t actually go to the Maldives, they go straight from the airport to some fantasy world where Maldivian culture is a few dishes on the buffet table.

In the same way, the modern world is not run for any national interest, not really. The real game is multinational. Most countries are about as relevant as sports teams, they’re just playthings for globalized billionaires which the crowds cheer for like it makes a difference. Like a sports team, the common people get really worked up about their flags, especially against other flags, but we fundamentally don’t have any control over our nations, even less in so-called democracies. The premise of Democracy™ is that you give up control of the economy, which is where the real game is. The modern world is run for profit and the globe spanning AI we call Capital simply cannot understand the planet as anything more than a marketing slogan, just the latest bullshit to drive its own metabolic processes, consuming energy and producing the waste heat they call profit. And we’re willing fools, like people cheering on a sports team that a billionaire will just sell to another town next year.

Man, fed by corporation, feeding stingray

To visualize this, I think of the daily stingray feeding they had at a resort. They put big floodlights on the water and throw tuna flesh to the rays flopping over each other on the shore. Do stingrays naturally hang out here on the beach, do they naturally eat giant tuna? No. But that’s where the food is and so they show up. There are much bigger artificial forces at play, but what the fuck do they know? And we think we’re so much smarter than them, as we head off to the buffet to do the same thing. We are also part of the natural world, and the artificial circulation of capital that makes all this possible is what’s ultimately killing us. Yet we keep showing up, for the scraps we’re thrown. We don’t understand our situation any meaningfully more than those rays do.

You can think these things with your brain, but then completely block it out because you’re hungry and what the fuck are you going to do about it. This is the cognitive dissonance I was talking about. We mistake the constant noise capitalism gives off as a dinner bell, but it’s actually the ringing dissonance of a system that seems to deliver the world while actually destroying it. In most places this contradiction is hidden behind polished packaging and shiny storefronts, but in the Maldives it’s right in front of you. You can see the blood in the water, followed immediately by the blood on your fork. Seen this way, the buffet table is what William S. Burroughs called a “naked lunch, a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.”

In most places, these contradictions — these costs — are kept out of sight and out of mind. Airports are kept far away, shipping containers are kept even further, and energy and goods just appear out of nowhere, maybe with some packaging saying how ‘sustainable’ it all is. People on non-sinking islands can bicycle and recycle and pretend like this actually makes a difference in the grand scheme of things. It’s like people buying papal indulgences so they can sin without the guilt.

People in the West talk about climate change all the time because, quite frankly, they’re further removed. They think they can practice ‘conscious consumerism’ because they’re completely unconscious of the production process of anything. How anything gets delivered, how anyone gets around, how anything gets built (even ‘renewables’, which are made and delivered with fossil fuels). Westerners dump their dirty work in places they only experience through bullshit packaging or sanitized vacations. They think climate change is choice you can make on a restaurant menu or at the car dealership, which is just the tip of the rapidly melting iceberg. Out of sight, out of they damn minds. What the fuck are they even talking about? It’s like when the rich man asked Jesus what he could do and Jesus said ‘give up all your stuff and follow me.’ And then the rich man was like, ‘uh, not like that. What if I use paper straws?”

In the Maldives the trade-offs we need to make to meaningfully ‘stop’ climate collapse are clear. We need to give up everything. The Maldives has to completely shut down and go back to their ‘sustainable’ lifestyles, which were a fraction of the population and little connection to the rest of the world. My parents told me about old-timers that would sail to Sri Lanka when the winds blew that way, then wait a few months until the winds could blow them back again. The old ‘industry’ here used to be fishing, which man cannot live on alone (though it is excellent fish). Very little actually grows here, and no grains in any quantity. I was told that Maldivians used to store up breadfruit to eat for months on end. What’s the point of even talking about this? When I was hanging out with Maldivians, bringing up the irony of their existence just felt pointless and even rude. It’s my existence too, and at best I’m just posturing more. I’m the one dumping emissions on them, and then asking, “have you thought about that dump I took on you?” I have no pat answer to how people should respond to climate collapse. I think it’s like any disaster in the past. It’s interesting and scary but it’s not now, so we just don’t think about it that much.

Modern humans cannot process the reality of climate collapse and what is actually required any more than the rich man talking to Jesus. As the late Mark Fisher said, “environmental catastrophe features in late capitalist culture as only a kind of simulacra, its real implications too traumatic to be assimilated into the system.” Fisher was looking at stuff clearly and he died by suicide. Honestly, much better to live in the simulacra, which you can experience in picturesque miniature in the Maldives.

People fly from all over to see the oceans in the Maldives, and the oceans oblige by rising to greet them, higher and higher every year. People come for the warm weather, which the gods oblige by turning up the temperature. People come, really, as the placeholders of capital, flying into islands segregated by income, operated by multinational corporations, to both watch the stingrays and be the stingrays, ultimately destroyed by the artificial lifeforms that consume them as so many inputs into a spreadsheet. This is climate collapse in microcosm, the growth of the artificial world at the expense of the natural. You can think about it everywhere, but you can most visibly see it in the Maldives. What a view.