Learning in Island Ecologies: Aina Pomar, Andrea Ragno, Andrew Dobson, Anna Mikkola, Ashley Lewis, Cameron Alexander, Chris Fussner, Himanshu Halve, Jacob Meher, Jasmine Grace Wenzel, Mariah Reodica, Marie Klinger, Marjolijn Kok, Sindi-Leigh McBride, Richard Hames PDF
Everything is connected, and nothing illustrates this undervalued fact like the equally undervalued narrative of the archipelago. In the humanities and sciences, it is the solitary island that has long dominated Western discourse, privileging outdated binaries such as land-sea and mainland-island. This, in turn, inspires myopic assumptions about Earth and her systems. The climate crisis is one such system: orchestrated by one hemisphere with far-reaching effects in the other. A paradigm shift has to be set in motion, starting with renegotiating our semantics. Artists and scholars are the first to offer suggestions: that to be “islanded” is to be isolated, and that to think in terms of “a world of islands” (vs. “islands of the world”) is to think in terms of fluidity and interconnectedness.
Thrashing Palm I (Typhoon Goni, 2020, Philippines)
Græ, Moses Sumney’s riot of moods of a record1, opens with a spoken word track that connects “isolation” to “island”:
And so I come to isolation
Etymologically, isolation comes from “insula”, which means island
I-so-la-tion, isolation, which literally means to be islanded
And somebody mentioned this to me the other day
Actually my Cape Verdean hairdresser
Because I asked her
“How do you say this word in Portuguese?”
And she said, “isolada,” like an island
Like you're-you're, you're islanded
And I thought, that's exactly what I've been my whole life
I've been islanded
Thrashing Palm III (Typhoon Maria, 2017, Puerto Rico)
Released in February 2020, just weeks before a virus forced an estimated 3.9 billion people (in other words, half of the world’s population) into different forms of isolation2, Græ is nothing short of prescient. But even with eerie timings aside, it is difficult to overlook the connection he, together with collaborator and writer Taiye Selasi, has made: to be isolated is to be islanded. Such a notion is as lyrical as it is real today.
Before 2020, social issues as old as race, class, gender and decolonisation had been recurring agendas in academia, the media and on the streets but had never really breached mainstream consciousness. It used to be that one day’s glaring problem is the next day’s blind spot. This changed last year, for the better, albeit under very unfortunate circumstances. In a manner of speaking, it took a pandemic to surface the modern world’s fragmented realities and, more importantly, keep them afloat in collective memory. Among these realities, climate justice is one of the more urgent and dire. It is also the most intersectional: all environmental crises can be linked to humanitarian offences, often to do with violent land grabs in the name of economic activity, committed against the marginalised and the powerless. There can be no climate justice without social justice.
Take, for example, the Philippine archipelago. In the span of two weeks towards the end of 2020, different parts of the country suffered a battering from three violent weather systems: Typhoons Rolly (Goni), Siony (Atsani) and Ulysses (Vamco)3. In fact, Rolly was reported to be the world’s strongest typhoon that year, and as if that weren’t devastating enough, Siony and Ulysses arrived on its heels4. In the thick of the goings-online, the new normal ushered in by the SARS-CoV-2 medical emergency, the world watched as palm trees thrashed and homes disappeared under floodwater. With a newly heightened awareness of experiences different than our own, some of us were quick to tweet about the injustice of it all:
Not fair...The 3 most powerful storm landfalls in recorded history have all occurred in the #Philippines, a country with one of the lowest per capita emissions (20x less than EU and 30x less than US). All 3 cyclones have occurred in the last 8yrs fuelled by warming oceans.
5:59 PM · Nov 1, 2020 · Twitter for Android
Of course, these calamities ought to be attributed to a confluence of factors, but something bigger is clearly amiss. Many developing countries bear the brunt of the climate crisis even as most greenhouse gas emissions come from the US, the EU, China and other large economies5. That the relentless development in the Global North wreaks havoc beyond their shores, most notably in the five countries with the highest climate vulnerability profiles, all in the tropic and subtropic zones, points to the simplest of truths. Everything is connected.
Thrashing Palm VI (Typhoon Matthew, 2016, Haiti)
With the exception of Myanmar that shares a border with China, the rest of the countries at the top of the climate risk index (Puerto Rico, Haiti, the Philippines and Pakistan)6 are spread apart from each other and, intriguingly, from the major drivers of global warming. The developed world’s lack of urgency in acknowledging their far-reaching impact as well as the existence of climate change denialists affirm, on a planetary scale, what Sumney and Selasi were trying to say: we’ve been islanded. To state the obvious but oft-ignored, we need a new way of understanding the world and our place in it, beginning with thinking with the archipelago7.
Nothing quite illustrates our fragmented realities and even more fragmented political will than the image conjured by the phrase “islands of the world”. In the humanities and social sciences, a focus on the island as a solitary unit has long dominated Western discourse, privileging boundaries and dichotomies such as land-sea and mainland-island8. This model would extend beyond its disciplinary origin and into international affairs, where areas of responsibility, especially during extreme weather events, are determined by territory—in other words, arbitrarily. Despite the limitations of this jurisdiction-based disaster preparedness, especially in climate change mitigation, we seem bent on denying that it is but the duty of nature to undermine borders.
The problem with the islands-of-the-world paradigm is that it leaves out the reality of inter-island space and currents, of the life and movement of these seemingly static and isolated landforms surrounded by water. Here is where the premise of the archipelago offers a change of pace. Archipelagic thinking defangs the island-centric knowledge regime by taking the spotlight away from unproductive binaries and the oppressive conditions they engender, and returning it to tropes of fluidity and interconnectedness. It sets forth a sea-change in popular imagination, from the individualistic islands-of-the-world to the communal world-of-islands7.
Thrashing Palm IV (Unidentified dust storm, unknown year, Pakistan)
The disunity that persists to this day, sustaining the climate crisis, is exactly the kind of problem that can only be solved from a perspective opposite to that which created it. In what ought to be the near future, when the hemispheres finally act in concert, climate debt and reparations can become welcome matters of transgovernmental cooperation rather than dispute. Through the vision of the archipelago—not merely a collection of constituents but a Gaian assembly of interdependent islands—we may better understand that when the Earth is at risk, all its inhabitants are too.
1 Greene, Jayson. “Reviews: Moses Sumney græ.” Pitchfork. May 15, 2020. https://
2 Sandford, Alasdair. “Coronavirus: Half of humanity now on lockdown as 90 countries call for
confinement.” Euronews. March 4, 2020. https://www.euronews.com/2020/04/02/
3 United Nations. “PHILIPPINES Typhoon Goni (Rolly) and Vamco (Ulysses) 3W (Who, What,
Where) Snapshot as of 16 November 2020.” United Nations Philippines. November 18,
4 Manila Standard Editorial. “Devastation.” Manila Standard. November 14, 2020. https://
5 Media Commoner. “Devastating Typhoons at This Time of Year is a Symptom of Climate
6 Abubakar, Syed Muhammad. “Pakistan 5th most vulnerable country to climate change,
reveals Germanwatch report.” January 16, 2020. https://www.dawn.com/news/1520402.
7 Pugh, Jonathan. “Island Movements: Thinking with the Archipelago.” Island Studies Journal 8,
1 (2013). 9-24. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/
8 Stratford, Elaine. “The Idea of the Archipelago: Contemplating Island Relations.” Island
Studies Journal 8, 1 (2013). 3-8. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/