Steve Goodall’s lifeline for sinking islands
By MELODY KARPINSKI / Santa Rosa Correspondent
Sailing off into the sunset sounds like a recipe for happiness, but while doing just that in 2008, Steve Goodall discovered something so troubling he charted a new course.
He came upon a cluster of coral islands in Micronesia inhabited by villagers who were nearly untouched by modern culture but who were experiencing something odd.
Their island was slowly sinking. Water from the ocean had begun to creep in, eroding their shoreline, flooding their fields and ruining their crops. Worse, it had begun to infiltrate their freshwater supply.
“I thought I was living the dream, sailing off into the sunset,” said Goodall, “but really I had just sailed into the ground zero of climate change.”
The inevitability of what lay ahead galvanized him to action, and for the past four years the Santa Rosa resident has dedicated himself to helping them find a solution.
He halted his around-the-world voyage, sent for a video camera and began to film a documentary that outlined their plight. Called “Someplace With a Mountain,” it was narrated by Chevy Chase and released in 2010. It picked up awards along the independent film circuit but so far has failed to generate the kind of help he had envisioned.
“I’ve failed miserably to get them any support,” Goodall said in January. “I thought the film would generate a lot of help, but the reality is, it didn’t.”
Goodall explains that he has always been passionate about environmental affairs and, as a Lake Tahoe native, spent more than 17 years working on Nevada’s first renewable energy power plant.
Disillusioned by the re-election of George W. Bush in 2004, he sold everything, bought a boat named “Manta” and planned to sail around the world.
“I just threw up my hands and left the country,” said Goodall, now in his mid-50s.
He spent three years sailing through the Caribbean, Panama, Venezuela, the Galapagos Islands and Tahiti, and often stopped to ask people if they were prepared for global climate change.
“Every time I saw a very low island, I would ask them what they were doing,” said Goodall. “Most of the places were westernized, so I wasn’t worried about them, but the rest… I just kept thinking how tragic it was going to be.”
He arrived in Micronesia in 2008 and came upon a cluster of atolls encircling lagoons about 1,100 miles southeast of Guam. They are inhabited by descendants of the Lapita Navigators, seafaring explorers who settled the area around 500 years before the birth of Christ.
Although many residents had gone away to attend American schools, most returned home to resume the simple lives of their childhood.
“It’s this society where everyone cares about each other and works with and for each other,” said Goodall. “Until you see it, you don’t realize (that) this is the way we’re supposed to live.”
He became captivated by the culture and made friends with Ioka Alet, one of the village chiefs on the atoll called Pulawat. They told him of a growing farming problem. Water from the ocean had begun to creep in, flooding their fields and ruining their crops.
“The sea keeps getting higher and higher, and our homes and our crops are beginning to flood,” said Rapwi, a master navigator. Worse, it had begun to infiltrate their freshwater supply.
Goodall believed he knew that global climate change was the source of their problem, but for weeks he wrestled over whether to bring up the subject with Alet.
“I would think, ‘I’ll ask him tomorrow,’ and then tomorrow would come and I wouldn’t be able to do it,” said Goodall. “I knew it was the worst possible news ever and I was the guy bringing it.”
Eventually he worked up the courage to explain projections that water levels would rise around the globe. “(Alet) grabbed my arm and said, ‘That’s what’s happening to us!’”
He gathered a group of chieftains and elders, and Goodall showed them a copy of Al Gore’s movie, “An Inconvenient Truth,” on his Macbook.
“There was just a look of horror on their faces,” said Goodall. “They turned to me afterwards and said, ‘What are we going to do?’”
Using his video camera, Goodall first thought he could record a few of the villagers and fly home to look for help. “I thought I would just fly back to America and try to get National Geographic or someone like that to come,” he said.
“Then I looked at the charts and realized just how far away I had managed to get in the last four years.” Instead he ordered a new camera and decided to shoot the footage himself.
“All I needed was a good camera,” he said. “I would try to hold it steady and let the people tell their own story.”
Armed with some footage, Goodall journeyed to Yap, an island within the Federated States of Micronesia about 800 miles west of Pulawat. He met with government officials and gained permission to show the film.
They were compassionate, agreeing to be filmed and to let the Lapita Navigators immigrate to their island. But practical obstacles remain. They want to prepare for as many as 1,500 people from the atolls by building infrastructure that would cost an estimated $5-$10 million.
“Yap did a study on the sea level and they’re planning for it now, but they don’t have any money,” said Goodall. “Their total economy is something like $18 million a year.”
Goodall returned home to America in 2009, and moved to Santa Rosa when his girlfriend got a job at Sutter Hospital. Santa Rosa became his home base. Along with most of the editing, he did some of the studio and voiceover work in Sonoma County, eventually spending about $125,000 to produce the film.
“Someplace with a Mountain” was released in 2010 and in 2011 won the Audience Choice Award at the Nevada City Film Festival, the Silver Ace Award at the Las Vegas Film Festival and was a Social Justice Award nominee at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival.
Stan Martin, director of operations for KRCB-North Bay, helped Goodall release the film.
“I was struck by Steve’s commitment to the culture of the Pacific Islander people,” he said. “With the film’s many broadcasts on public television, in film festivals and on campuses, it has raised awareness of this impending global disaster … that will inevitably affect us all wherever we live.”
That recognition has fallen far short of Goodall’s goal.
“I’ve failed miserably to get them any support, and I haven’t gotten any response from the government or even the ambassador to Micronesia,” he said. “I really should have just given them the money that I spent on making the film.”
And time is running out. Though scientists hesitate to predict when the island will become uninhabitable, Goodall points to crop failure as an indication.
“The contamination of their crops is so bad that I would say they only have a year left before they’ll have to begin completely supplementing their food from outside,” he said.
In the meantime, a few Americans have taken notice. Abbey Jaine, a young Girl Scout in North Carolina, saw the documentary early last year and put together a private showing at her church. Her troop is holding a petition drive, hoping to add signatures to an ongoing petition asking President Obama for help.
And Goodall’s journey continues. He keeps tabs on the atolls and keeps working to gain momentum from the petition and the film.
“With me, I can’t walk away from this,” he said.
To learn more or to download the movie, visit someplacewithamountain.org.