The West is More Interested in its Immediate Welfare

The island nation of Vanuatu is among the first countries to suffer from rising sea levels. Roderick Panchaud talked to Vanuatu’s president Iolu Abil about international awareness and the importance of faith to combat existential threats.

The European: Mr. President, are you an optimist?
Abil: I believe in the God of the Christian bible, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He is the God of the living and not the dead, therefore I am an optimist.

The European: Vanuatu heads the “Global Risk Report” and the “Happy Planet Index”. Your people seem to be among the world’s happiest and the world’s most endangered people at the same time. Isn’t that a contradiction?
Abil: A common experience often expressed by many outsiders when visiting Vanuatu for the first time is the friendliness of the Nivanuatu people, noticeable by their happy smiles and their easy-going attitude and willingness to go out of their way to be of some help even to strangers. The people of Vanuatu live a fairly simple life. There is no anticipated pressure, for example, on what one must eat or what clothes one should wear. A simple meal is sufficient to satisfy one’s hunger. Nivans are brought up in a society where the local traditional value system of society encourages an environment of sharing and caring for one another within each community. These traditional values are further strengthened by the teachings of our Christian faith. The extended family ties within the community are still strong and the expectation to bear one another’s burden is considered a noble responsibility.

The European: Money can’t buy happiness, as the saying goes. What is Vanuatu’s asset?
Abil: The typical Nivan does not have the monetary resources to purchase a whole lot of material possessions, and yet they seem fairly well contented with the simple possessions that they have. If there is an alternative path to happiness without an abundance of material possessions, I believe that the Nivanuatu simple life style of sharing and caring to benefit the other person is one key factor that brings a lot satisfaction and contentment to them.

The European: You already mentioned faith: most Nivanuatu people are Christians. Does religion help with alleviating fears of a local apocalypse?
Abbil: The Christian faith is the one influential factor that is common to all 83 inhabited islands of Vanuatu. The country only has a small population of 250,000 people, but it is divided into many different island communities and 110 local mother tongues are spoken on a daily basis. That perhaps makes Vanuatu the country with the highest number of languages spoken per capita! With such an environment, you can imagine the communication barriers between different groups and the divisions within groups. That alone is a real challenge. Therefore our Christian faith and common belief in the one Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, has become the important central focal point to unite our people. After gaining independence in 1980, our founding leaders of independence adopted the national motto, “In God We Stand.” This is very significant because it pronounces our common foundation and unity, regardless of the wide diversity that existed previously. Our common Christian faith, based on the word of God, gives our people the added assurance and comfort that we serve a God who takes care of his children, when they choose to put their trust in his Lordship.

The European: Has your impression of nature changed over time? For example, you might say that you used to see nature as harmonious, but that you now regard it as an enemy.
Abil: The bigger picture of nature may not have changed that much for the people to perceive it as a real threat or as an enemy. Perhaps because of the peace and quietness they have grown used to threats from nature over the course of many years.

The European: Ultimately, climate change might result in the loss of your homeland. What does it take to bear such a burden?
Abbil: While the Global Risk Report indentifies Vanuatu as located in the most endangered zone, the historical accounts of natural disaster in the country do not really give the picture that Vanuatu is in a desperately endangered zone.

The European: If the sea level continues to rise, is there any alternative to complete evacuation?
Abil: If it comes to that, there seems to be no other alternative to complete evacuation, especially for the small and low-lying islands.

The European: When you travel to talk at the United Nations or before high government officials from other countries, do you feel that your concerns are taken seriously?
Abil: The problem of climate change is a real concern for small island states like Vanuatu. However, it is fairly obvious that the plight of small island states is hardly a priority and a major concern for the larger developed countries. They seem to be more interested in matters that concern their own immediate welfare.

The European: Could you team up with other nations that might suffer from the consequences of climate change to raise awareness internationally?
Abil: The task to raise awareness in order to get sufficient attention and reaction is indeed enormous. Therefore the idea to team up with other countries is a positive step forward, an option that has been pursued in the past. I believe it will continue to be the trend in future negotiations.

The European: There might be a time when climate change becomes a tangible threat not just to you and your people, but to all people. How can we stay optimistic despite this seemingly existential danger?
Abil: We citizens of the world must come to accept the profound reality that the production systems of the global market are unsustainable in the long run. They generate too much waste and pollution that our natural global environment cannot cope with. This is a powerful trend. Humanity must come to accept also that we need a higher intervention that is beyond our limited human capacity. This will involve our faith and belief in the supernatural realm and can give us the reason to have hope and be optimistic despite this danger.

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