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Posted on on May 22nd, 2009
by Pincas Jawetz (

Wanted: A New Home for My Country
Published Friday, May 8, 2009 – The New York Times Magazine – Sunday, May 10, 2009

One recent evening at the presidential palace in Malé, the capital of the Maldives, around 100 people showed up to watch a movie. Rows of overstuffed chairs in a gaudy combination of stripes and paisleys faced a projection screen hanging on the front wall of what seemed like a grand ballroom. At the back of the hall, journalists erected camera and microphone rigs: Mohamed Nasheed, the Maldives’ 41-year-old president, was expected to make a major announcement after the film. And ever since Nasheed declared on the eve of his inauguration last November that, because of global warming, he would try to find a new homeland for Maldivians somewhere else in the world, on higher ground, local reporters didn’t miss the chance to see their unpredictable (“erratic” and “crazy” were other adjectives I heard used) president.

Chiara Goia for The New York Times


Times Topics: Maldives

Chiara Goia for The New York Times

President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives advocates extreme action to save his nation from rising sea levels. Whether his nation could survive the solution is unclear.

Nasheed appeared when a pair of French doors opened and a gust of conversation blew into the room. It was a humid night in March. Several dozen cabinet members, Supreme Court justices, parliamentarians, presidential advisers and other dignitaries trailed the young president, who wore navy slacks and a striped white shirt, open at the neck and sleeves rolled to the elbows. He took a seat in the front row, the lights dimmed and the British feature documentary “The Age of Stupid” began.

The movie opens with hypothetical scenes of environmental catastrophe: the Sydney Opera House in flames; ski lifts creaking above snowless mountainsides; raging seas in the once-frozen Arctic. Set in 2055, the film looks back to our present through a series of environmental-destruction subplots highlighting this era’s collective lack of interest in doing anything; one character concludes that we must be living in the “age of stupid.”

The Maldives is an archipelago of 1,190 islands in the Indian Ocean, with an average elevation of four feet. Even a slight rise in global sea levels, which many scientists predict will occur by the end of this century, could submerge most of the Maldives. Last November, when Nasheed proposed moving all 300,000 Maldivians to safer territory, he named India, Sri Lanka and Australia as possible destinations and described a plan that would use tourism revenues from the present to establish a sovereign wealth fund with which he could buy a new country — or at least part of one — in the future. “We can do nothing to stop climate change on our own, and so we have to buy land elsewhere,” Nasheed said in November.

When the movie ended, Nasheed approached a microphone stand in front of a giant house palm. He has a jockey’s physique, and the fronds of the palm arched over his shoulder. His wonder-boy demeanor might seem naïve, but he spent almost 20 years opposing a dictator and enduring torture; few doubt his fortitude. The audience in the ballroom listened closely when Nasheed declared that it was time to act. “What we need to do is nothing short of decarbonizing the entire global economy,” he said, his high voice cracking. “If man can walk on the moon, we can unite to defeat our common carbon enemy.” Nasheed didn’t use notes for his speech; aides say he never does. “And so today,” he continued, “I announce that the Maldives will become the first carbon-neutral country in the world.”


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