Creating Paradise. What can individuals do to solve social problems? Plenty. by Jeff Wrobel

Posted by freedomforall 1 month, 2 weeks ago to Philosophy
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Creating Paradise (Liberty Magazine May 2010)
One of the greatest, though unsung, heroes of the Marshall Islands is my friend Gene Savage.
With one simple act, he altered the existence of the entire population of a remote island, changing it from a
living hell into a peaceful near-utopia.

You’ve almost certainly never heard of Mejit Island. It is
one of hundreds in the Marshall Islands, on the eastern edge
of Micronesia. Chart a course from anywhere to anywhere,
and Mejit will not lie on that course. It is a peanut-shaped
island and, at 0.72 square miles, nearly peanut-sized. It is
home to about 450 people.
Most islands in Micronesia are remnants of coral reefs
that formed around ancient islands. In most cases the origi-
nal island has completely eroded away, leaving small sec-
tions of reef that are just barely above water at current sea
levels. Typically, these islands are about a quarter mile wide
and less than a mile long, which is why the region is called
Micronesia. Where the ancient island has disappeared, what
usually remains is a relatively shallow lagoon.
Mejit is an exception to this pattern. It is comparable in
size to one of the coral isles of an atoll, but it is an ancient
island that has not completely eroded away. It is not the rem-
nants of a reef, but a proper island with its own small barrier reef. And, most importantly to this story, Mejit has a little
lake in the middle of its northern half — about 2,000 feet long,
200 feet wide, and 20 feet deep at its lowest point (a bit more
after a heavy rain). Most Micronesians on other islands have
to catch and store rainwater, but Mejit has its own permanent
natural freshwater reservoir.
In 1994, my friend Gene was a civilian working on the U.S.
Army base in the Marshalls. He took advantage of his time
there to visit a few of the nearby islands; and, as a member of
a church outreach group, he visited Mejit. While each island
he had visited had its charm, they didn’t vary much from one
to the next. Mejit, however, was special. For one thing, Gene
was delighted to encounter the lake. He was also captivated
by a particular resident of the island — a young Marshallese
woman named Neyrann. He began courting her, and he
eagerly planned future trips to Mejit.
Gene loved Mejit. But there was one serious problem.
Though the human population benefited from the fresh water mosquitoes. Aside from Neyrann and the lake, the island’s
most notable feature, for Gene, was the mosquitoes. When
he examined the lake closely, the only living things he found
were algae and mosquito larvae.
Life for the people on this otherwise idyllic tropical island
was ruined by the overwhelming, ever-present swarm of mos-
quitoes. Life for the mosquitoes, on the other hand, was great;
they had a large supply of human blood, and they had no natural predators. Given the choice between being sucked dry
of their blood and inhaling poisonous fumes all night, most
islanders chose to burn antimosquito coils in their houses,
despite the clear warnings on the boxes against indoor use.
The lack of natural predators for the mosquitoes sug-
gested to Gene that the mosquitoes were recent immigrants
to the island. Most likely, he thought, they had arrived on
cargo ships when they started regular trips to the Marshalls.
But since the natural balance was already upset, Gene figured
that there was no harm in upsetting it a little further. A cou-
ple of months after his first trip, he went back to Mejit to see
Neyrann, bring Christmas toys for the island children, and
bring a Christmas present for the lake as well — a little plastic
bag containing about two dozen guppies that he had acquired
from a friend’s aquarium. He dumped the fish into the south
end of the lake. They swam off.
The next morning he returned to look for the fish but could
not find them. He figured that something in the lake hadn’t
agreed with them, and they were dead.
Six months passed. Gene went to Mejit again, this time to
marry his island girl. On his first day there he looked for signs
of the fish he had released, but he saw nothing. It must have
been true: the lake just wasn’t hospitable to them.
Two days later, Neyrann became Mrs. Savage. After the
wedding, Gene and Neyrann followed the island custom of
walking around the lake thanking people for attending the
ceremony. One woman asked what kind of fish he had put in
the lake six months earlier. He told her they were minnows
(which isn’t correct, but you have to allow heroes their little
flaws). “Too bad though,” he said, “I haven’t been able to find
any.” She replied, “Oh, there are lots of them over here,” and
she directed him to her back door near the lake. Gene couldn’t
believe his eyes. He saw hundreds of fish swimming about,
including some large ones, two or three inches long.
“Has anyone else seen them?” he asked the woman. “Yes!”
she answered. “People are putting them in their wells to eat
the mosquitoes.” She told Gene how the fish picked at your
skin when you stood still. The children enjoyed that; they
claimed that the fish are cleaning them. Later Gene got into
the water and felt the fish pecking him all over. He donned
his mask and snorkel and was thrilled to see guppies everywhere. Best of all, there wasn’t a mosquito larva in sight.
Gene worried about what the guppies were going to eat,
now that there were no mosquito larvae. But in his last trip
there, in 2002, the guppies were still plentiful, and the mos-
quitoes were gone.
You never know what the results will be when you intro-
duce a non-native species into an environment. It will pry
itself into the food chain somewhere, and it may compete
with native species in the same place in the chain. The new
species may eat too much of one thing, or create new waste
that chokes off something else. The implications of the pres-
ence of an exotic species may be too complex even to be recog-
nized. But in the case of Mejit, nothing but good seems to have
come from the introduction.
Mejit is far isolated by ocean water from the nearest place
that could support guppies, so there’s virtually no chance of
them escaping on their own and affecting some other habitat.
Before the guppies arrived there were already a lot of birds on
Mejit eating the plentiful reef fish and washing them down
with freshwater from the lake, so there isn’t likely to be much
increase in bird droppings because of an increase in birds at
the lake. The only downside I can see is if someone who used
to enjoy swimming in the lake stopped doing so because he
didn’t like the fish pecking at him. But I would think that even
that person would view it as an equitable alternative to living
with mosquitoes.
One downside for merchants only: sales of mosquito coils
plummeted to zero.
As an engineer, Gene saw a problem and, by his nature,
wanted to solve it. As a caring human being, Gene saw the
suffering of the people and wanted to relieve it. He is not the
type of person who likes to draw attention to himself. He
didn’t act to achieve fame or gratitude. But regardless of that,
the citizens of Mejit remember Gene and recognize him every
time he visits. No visit has passed without some words of
gratitude to him.

(Contd in post below)


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  • Posted by 1 month, 2 weeks ago
    Creating Paradise -Continued:

    It’s fortunate for all parties that Mejit is, for the most part,
    off the government radar. An alternative to Gene’s simple,
    elegant solution might have been a government effort to erad-
    icate the insect pests. I can envision endless environmental
    studies, multiple travel junkets by politicians and scientists,
    mosquito netting purchases, periodic spraying campaigns,
    and condescending, paternalistic, self-righteous bureaucracy.
    Imagine a new Mosquito Eradication Bureau in the finest
    building on Mejit, and a tax to support it all. Who could argue
    with the need for it? Mejit islanders are grateful that the mos-
    quitoes are gone, but they may not know how lucky they are
    that Gene saw the problem before government set its sights
    on it.
    Except for this story, there is no record of what Gene did.
    There are various plaques, museums, and gravestones scat-
    tered around the Marshall Islands to remind people of big
    events, such the “discovery” of the islands by John Charles
    Marshall in 1788, the epic battles of WWII, and the atomic
    testing of the 1950s. These monuments are sufficient remind-
    ers of the large, discernible events that shaped the region. But
    if we ever start erecting monuments to people who have invis-
    ibly benefited the people while slowing the growth of govern-
    ment, there should be a big statue of Gene Savage at the south
    end of the lake on Mejit Island.
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    • Posted by 25n56il4 1 month, 2 weeks ago
      My father was in the CB''s of the Navy and I think he was in the Marshall Islands. I was pretty young but I recall he was building runways and such on those islands. He said the Natives were very friendly and told the story of a little boy singing 'Onward Christian Soldiers" in his own language. He asked the child where he learned that song and the child said, "American Missionaries".
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