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Princeton Senior Lohmann Explores Nauru, Where the Environmental Future is Now

May 20th, 2019

When planning his stay on the remote Pacific island of Nauru last year, Princeton senior Jack Lohmann had expected that a place often portrayed as a post-environmental dystopia would present challenges. Being besieged by feral dogs the moment he left the airport was not one he had anticipated.

“It’s a mixture of the very normal and the extremely sad and disturbing,” said Lohmann, who will receive his bachelor’s degree in English and certificates in environmental studies and journalism from Princeton on June 4. “When people talk about climate change and environmental destruction, they ask, ‘What happens next?’ I think Nauru is what happens next.”

For his senior thesis, Lohmann traveled to Nauru in June 2018 on a PEI Environmental Scholarship to spend a month as a PEI intern documenting life in an environment that has been exploited to the point of erasure. Nauru is located roughly 2,800 miles southwest of Hawaii in the Pacific region of Micronesia and is separated from the nearest country by 190 miles of ocean. The world’s third-smallest nation, Nauru is, however, one of the world’s largest phosphate-rock islands, which, beginning in 1907, made it among the richest sources of phosphorus for making agricultural fertilizer.

When the deposits largely ran out 90 years later, the island had been reduced to a narrow ring of sand and coastal plain surrounding a strip-mined moonscape of towering limestone spires and deep chasms. Today, roughly 80% of the island is uninhabitable and most endemic wildlife has vanished. The lack of arable land has resulted in a dependence on processed food imported mostly from Australia, contributing to the world’s highest obesity rate.

“When you read about this place online, outsiders who have visited describe it as weird or sad, or both,” Lohmann said. “I went with an open mind to see what it’s like to actually live in Nauru. I learned a lot, not just as a journalist, but as a person.”

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