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