Friday, April 23, 2010

Lessons learned from bird poop

Nauru is one of the smallest countries on the face of the planet. The only countries that are smaller are the Vatican and the Principality of Monaco.

Nauru’s territory encompasses 8 square miles, not much more than the territory of my hometown of Evanston, which controls 7.75 square miles. From “sea to shining sea” Nauru probably covers about 3 miles, considerably smaller that the good old U.S of A.

Despite its small size, Nauru can provide some important lessons to all of us Americans, as well as the rest of the folks that inhabit this thing called “planet Earth”

For thousands of years, ocean going birds have left their, um, deposits on this little spot of land that is fairly close to Australia, and just north of the territory known as the Solomon Islands.

At the turn of the 20th century, Nauru was under the control of Germany. Being efficient managers, the Germans discovered that the all those airborne droppings could be mined as phosphates, an important ingredient in fertilizer, which ultimately was sold, principally, to Australia.

At the end of WWI, control of Nauru passed from the Germans to the Australians, who controlled the country until January 31, 1968, when it became an independent country.

For a period of time, the government employed 95% of Nauruans, and lavished free medical care and schooling for its citizens. Most didn't take advantage of this offer: only one-third of children went on to secondary school. The adults didn't really work, either - office hours were flexible and the most popular pastime was drinking beer and driving the 20-minute circuit around the island.

no particular place to go

For a while, Nauru was a paradise. In the 1970s, Nauruans were amongst the richest people on the planet.

Eventually, of course, the phosphate ran out. Since phosphate mining was essentially the ONLY source of income for the country, there suddenly became an urgent need to find another source of income.

In times of dire need, many people turn to the Mafia for help, and that’s EXACTLY what Nauru did.

With no natural resource left, in the 1990s, Nauru decided to become a tax haven and offered passports to foreign nationals for a fee. This attracted the wrong kind of money (but a lot of it): the Russian mafia funneled over $70 billion to the tiny island nation. Things got so bad that most big banks refused to handle transactions involving Nauru because of money laundering problems.

This led Nauru to another extraordinary money-making scheme: it became a detention camp for people applying for asylum to Australia!

Eventually, Nauru decided to go “legit”, and the country is currently promoting itself as a tourist attraction

Nauru applied for membership to the United Nations in May of 1999, and was accepted as a member on September 14, 1999. Due to its status as an “official” United Nations member, the country gained prominence in Michael Crichton’s novel, State of Fear.

Amazingly, Naura has managed to simultaneously become a source of irritation for Russia, China, and the United States, but the country still conducts day to day business as though everything was fine.

To sum up the contributions that Nauru has made to the world, I’d like to offer the following:

1) just because someone craps on you, it’s not necessarily a bad thing

For most of the 20th century, Naura survived by selling deposits of bird droppings, econstituted as phosphates. If you’ve ever experienced Kopi Luwak coffee, you may be unaware of the fact that the coffee beans used in the process of making the world’s most expensive coffee are EXCRETED by the civet cat.

2) there IS some wisdom in “Animal House”

3) being a well rounded individual isn’t always good

Naura has the highest obesity rate in the world, at more than 90%, and 40% of the population suffers from Type 2 diabetes. In the United States, Mississippi has the highest rate of obesity, at 32.5 % of the population, and it has held that “honor” for the last five years

4) don’t put all your eggs in one basket

Just as we as individuals should always have an alternative source of income, the countries of the world should also have diversified economies. In the oil-producing regions of the world, Qatar has done the best job of investing in industries other than oil. When the Sultan of Brunei finally runs out of oil, the only thing that he’ll have left is the world’s most expensive used car lot.

5) it’s always better to look at the big picture

25% of the world's pharmaceuticals are derived from substances found in tropical rainforests, but only 1% of the tropical trees and plants have been tested. In addition, the Amazon Rainforest has been described as the "Lungs of our Planet" because it provides the essential environmental world service of continuously recycling carbon dioxide into oxygen. More than 20 percent of the world’s oxygen is produced in the Amazon Rainforest.

When the invaders from Earth destroyed Giant Hometree on Pandora in order to get access to the Unobtainium buried beneath, they essentially sealed their own doom.

6) be careful what you wish for

The Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010 is the most significant piece of health care legislation to pass since Medicare since 1965. Although I personally think it has a lot of merit, there IS one detail that should worry us a little bit.

Even today, there is a shortage of doctors, and many towns don’t have any. In the future, more and more of our health care will be provided by nurse practitioners, and not doctors.

7) be wary of easy money

We’ve all gotten letters from bank officials in Africa that want to send us millions of dollars because some obscure official died in a plane crash. All we have to do to get the money is to (1) send them some earnest money (2) give them your banking information so that the money can be wired directly to it (3) give them your Social Security number so that they can send your taxes directly to the U.S. Government and (4) give them your mother’s maiden name as an added security measure.

That all many seem a little far-fetched, but how does this one sound?:

The State of Illinois has the second highest deficit in the nation, at $5 billion. Only California has a larger one.

Illinois also ranks very close to the bottom of the 50 states (48th, to be exact) in terms of being attractive to new businesses. Rather than trying to fix THAT problem, the state just approved the granting of the 10th land based casino in the state, and it will be built a short distance form O’Hare Airport.

By now, you’ve already read more than you can digest in one sitting, and my computer is becoming s-l-o-w-e-r than ______, so I’ll bring this story to a close.

Thanks for listening.

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