Island Wisdom

Aogashima Island. (Photo by Charly W. Karl via Flickr)



For us mainlanders, islands are vehicles for nervous jokes (how would we survive if stranded on one?) or wild fantasy (Gauguin, fleeing to his sexy tropical paradise). The developed world patronizes anyone who chooses to live cut off from urban convenience and absorbed in a culture all their own. We picture the carefree islander, scantily clad, entranced by shamanistic rituals; absorbed in communal work; aware, head raised to sniff an incoming storm, eyes narrowing at unusual animal behavior.

It turns out that way of life could save us.

In Anthropocene Islands: Entangled Worlds, Jonathan Pugh and David Chandler say it is time to stop romanticizing islands, pitying their lack of progress, or seeing them only as bitter reminders of colonialism. Modernity divided us from nature, but island life never did. Relational, it gently pries human hands from the steering wheel, knowing it is pointless to try to control the tides or the heavens. Islands matter—not because they are “simple” places, laboratories for mainlanders’ sunburned research, but because they never fell victim to the worst of modernity.

As a result, these places we thought weak, isolated, cut off, backwater, and undeveloped have developed something very different: an understanding of interdependence. And that could reshape how we understand the world, how we live in the world, and how we make policy.

“Shall we make ‘island’ a verb?” asks Teresia Teaiwa, another scholar intrigued by cultural geography, psychology, metaphor. To “island” would be to figure out how we are entangled with the rest of the planet—and how to think in new ways about those relationships.

My best vacations have been on islands. Not the balmy ones where they greet you with a lei or an oversweet, fruity cocktail, but places like Newfoundland, which is defiantly different from the rest of Canada. Islands are ideal destinations because they are manageable; you can come to know their lifeworld, because it has distinct boundaries and a cohesive culture all its own. Life on any island has a rhythm, set by the tide and the seasons and reinforced by closely patterned customs. You cannot forget how precarious your existence is—a rough storm, a drowning at sea, an eroded beach will remind you. Humbled and hypervigilant, islanders help one another fight, repair, or grieve. And maybe that mutual aid is what brings their famous resilience.

In a video for, Pugh says that resilience “is a well-known trope. The presence of well-being is central to island literatures.” Maybe not in The Tempest. But for those who choose to live on an island, the sense of community is strong, and relationship and adaptation work their magic. Bureaucracy has no chance to calcify, and when you are an ocean away, lulled by the tides that surround you, outside norms begin to feel irrelevant.

There are stock jokes about Newfoundlanders in Canada, because it is easy to make fun of people who would rather stay on “The Rock” than come ashore. But the disdain is mutual; the culture of Newfoundland is unlike any other place in Canada and wishes to remain so. With the Atlantic as its moat, Newfoundland can stay unique.

When Darwin sailed from island to island, he found such wondrous variations that he realized evolution was not linear. The cats on one island were different from the cats on another island, because each had adapted to its home. Today, Jonathan Losos, a distinguished biologist who leads Washington University’s  Living Earth Collaborative, reminds us that islands are cauldrons of evolutionary innovation—and contrary to popular belief, adaptations that develop there are plenty tough enough to survive on the mainland, restoring diversity.

But islands are more than greenhouses. Reviewing Anthropocene Islands, Adam Searle, an environmental and cultural geographer at the University of Cambridge, describes islands as “sites to examine the intricate relationship between life, matter, and meaning in a changing world.” How does all that lead to public policy? Chandler and Pugh are hoping for an “ontopolitics” that does not separate the governing from what is to be governed. No more political officials who resemble slum landlords, keeping a safe distance while they collect their compensation. Instead of self-interested manipulation, ontopolitics studies what, or who, is to be governed and learns how it is meant to be governed; what they require to thrive.

Ontopolitics sounds vague and theoretical, probably because my brain has been conditioned to believe such sensitive governance is impossible. But islands tell other stories, too. As the world burns, oceans acifidy, and land floods and washes away, people hunt desperately for more ethical, localized, fluid, coherent approaches. A small (but not really) example: We are rethinking how we landscape, treating gardens as islands and respecting nature’s messy interdependence instead of mowing short, weeding compulsively, training and spraying and manicuring imported exotic plants. On a larger scale: We are reckoning with the rights of indigenous peoples who were exploited in the previous age. The trash of consumerism that washes up on island shores. The divisions and hatreds that keep widening the cracks in our foundation.

“Once faith in modern reasoning collapses,” the authors write, “we are faced with the stark realization that ‘[t]here is no world, there are only islands.’” (A quote from Jacques Derrida.) But instead of looking at ourselves as severed from community and locked into silos, there is a happier way to think of islands.

Conceptually, they are ecosystems. We study an island the same way we study the microbiome of the human gut, the expanse of the Pacific Ocean, the intricacies of the Amazon rainforest. Each creature, each rise or curve or hollow, each fluctuation in temperature affects the rest of the ecosystem.

Culturally, islands are places where mainlanders find they have to collaborate, discipline their impulses, and sharpen their survival skills—whether that means Robinson Crusoe measuring and counting or Gilligan scheming for rescue. We might fear being castaway, abandoned, cut off from all that is familiar—but we are drawn to the wild freedom of it, the escape from norms and judgment. The chance to start fresh.

And now the whole world needs to start fresh. Where better to learn how?


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.