Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 501:
THE MALDIVES

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 501.

Today, harsh reality moves in on a dream. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

We all have secret places we dream about running off to. For some, those places are rooms. For others, they're forests. My secret place is the Maldive Islands. Actually it's not much of a secret. I often express the dream. When I do, people usually say, "The Maldives! Where're they?"

The Maldives are a string of 1200 coral islands stretching down into the Indian Ocean , well south of India. Only 200 of them are inhabited. Their people are liberal Muslims, and they have a history of hospitality with visitors.

The islands are a well-kept secret -- a little-known island paradise. But their people's easy warmth took a beating in 1988. A group from Sri Lanka tried to overthrow the government. The Maldives survived; but they didn't quite make it back to the same easy state. And my daydream begins to unravel.

There's another reason, more dire than the first, that the dream is coming apart. The Maldives lie low in the water. The highest elevation on the Capital island of Male is only 15 feet.

In 1987 Male suffered a nasty surprise. For no apparent reason, the waves were higher than usual. Suddenly, two thirds of Male lay under water. Those flukey waves did forty million dollars worth of damage. It was a new kind of disaster for the Maldives.

When we ask what the flood meant, we get an unsettling answer. The world is warming up. As we dump more and more carbon dioxide into the air, we form a heat trap. The short wavelength energy of the sun can still get in. But carbon dioxide won't let the energy get back out of the atmosphere.

We now think Earth's average temperature could rise five degrees
in the next century. That'd melt enough polar ice to raise ocean levels more than two feet.

Male's average elevation is only six feet. You can imagine what raising the ocean two feet will do. The recent flooding was a grim preview of the probable death of the Maldives.

Maldivians have called on the industrial nations to burn less fossil fuel. That, of course, is like the mouse telling the camel to get his nose out of the tent. They're also trying to build protective sea walls.

So my favorite day dream is collapsing. I have to find a more secure mental escape. But then, the time has come to leave mental escape, and replace it with mental fight. If we don't, all the beauty of this Earth will one day be no more than a lingering dream.

I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Crossette, B., 1,190 Islands in Danger: Sea Could Drown Them. New York Times INTERNATIONAL, Monday, Nov. 26, 1990.

Payne, B., Tropical Dreams. CondéÇ Nast Traveler, Sept. 1989, pp. 106-117, 171-173.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.
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