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Climate change: island life in a volatile world
Climate change: island life in a volatile world

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2.4 Worlds in motion: the importance of flows

‘The sea had welled up suddenly through thousands of tiny holes in this atoll's bedrock of coral.’ Do you recall this passage in Lynas's (2003) account of his first days on Tuvalu in Reading 1A? For me, this gives an impression of the islands being quite literally porous, a solid ground that reveals itself, now and again, to be not so solid after all. Lynas offers this particularly striking example of the island's openness to the world around it as evidence of a growing vulnerability that results from global climate change. How else are islands open to the goings-on in the wider world? And just how novel are the openings or susceptibilities that climate change might bring to island territories?

Activity 4

Now take another quick look through Readings 1A–D attached again below for your convenience. From what you have read in these excerpts, and in the course so far, what are the different ways that the islands of Tuvalu are open to or connected with the world beyond their shores? You may have to use your imagination a little and read between the lines. As you come up with ideas, it is worth pausing for a moment and considering what difference global climate change makes to these relations or connections. Are these new connections – or are they connections that have been in place for a long time?

Click to view Reading 1A (2 pages, 0.08 MB). [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]

Click to view Reading 1B (3 pages, 0.08 MB).

Click to view Reading 1C (2 pages, 0.05 MB).

Click to view Reading 1D (2 pages, 0.05 MB).

In the readings, there seems to be a number of new connections or flows that are closely related to the climate change issue – especially the beginning of a new movement or migration of people, starting with the resettlement of some Tuvaluans in New Zealand. There is also the participation of representatives of Tuvalu in international institutions such as the UN, the International Court of Justice and the Earth Summit. In each case, climate change has been an important impetus to the Tuvaluans establishing or extending their connections with global communities.

There are other forms of interconnection that you may have picked up on, such as air travel which is related to climate change through its contribution to carbon dioxide emissions, and internet connections which bear less of a direct relation to climate change issues though they may play a part in communicating these issues. You may also have thought about the economic goods or products that enter Tuvalu or are exported to other countries – whether by air or sea. This serves as a reminder that the sea is not simply an element or force that threatens the islands, but also a medium of connectivity. In a simple, intuitive way, it is the sea that separates the islands of Tuvalu from other islands or land masses, forming an obvious border or edge in a territorial sense. Nevertheless, the sea is also a way of travelling to and from the islands, and in this sense it has long played a vital role in island life, as we will see in Section 3.

Furthermore, of course, climate itself is a matter of connections. Climate change, as we have seen, implicates Tuvalu in flows of air and water that may be in the process of transformation because of anthropogenic inputs. At the same time, it is important to keep in mind that weather or climatic systems must already have been operating ‘globally’ in order for these transformations to take place, a point we will be returning to in Section 4.

Islands and other territories may have discernible boundaries, then, but a great many things pass into, out of, over or through these boundaries. Such flows implicate the lives of those in each territory with those living in other territories in many different ways. The flow of economic goods from one country or territory to another, for example, draws the people of these countries together. As John Allen (2006) argues, the everyday lives of those who live in affluent countries are entangled with the working lives of people in relatively poorer countries through such practices as shopping for clothes and other goods that have been manufactured in sweatshop conditions.

In a similar sense, current understandings of human-induced climate change point to entanglements between people in distant territories. Changing flows brought about by altering the composition of the earth's atmosphere connect distant places in a very physical way. Climate science makes the case that every single unit of non-renewable energy that is consumed, anywhere in the world, makes a small, cumulative addition to the planet's overall energy budget – therefore impacting on the global climatic system as a whole.

Hypothetically, the energy consumed by the people of any one particular territory has an effect on every person in every territory across the planet's surface, though in practice, the actual amount of this impact may be infinitesimal. This, as you may imagine, is a very complicated kind of entanglement indeed. It can be difficult enough to trace all the different transactions that bring a consumer of a manufactured item in one part of the world into contact with the person who produces the item in a faraway country. Yet the lines of connection or flow that link all of us together across the planet through our respective energy use are almost unthinkably complex.

For all that the precise lines of connection between our lives and the lives of distant others may be difficult to disentangle, global issues like climate change may be helping to transform the way we experience our world – contributing to new feelings of shared problems and common interests that span oceans and hemispheres. An understanding of how changing flows can threaten distant territories, gnawing at their boundaries and unravelling their fabric, can give a powerful emotional charge to such a sense of connection or entanglement. However, we have to be careful that the attention given to new and far-reaching flows – especially those flows that may endanger territories – does not leave us with the impression that these territories were once free of outside influence or disturbance.

Some of the flows we have looked at are certainly disturbing, but some of them are also sustaining and generative. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine any territory maintaining itself without such flows. Similarly, your own body, although it is discernibly individual and distinct from other people's bodies, remains utterly reliant on things passing into it, flowing through it and passing out of it. In this sense, it is more useful to conceive of flows as having an ongoing and dynamic relationship with territories. Just as there are many different forms and compositions that territories take, so too are there many different kinds of flow. While some of these flows may help territories to form and consolidate themselves, others may exert stress and pressure upon them.


  • There is growing evidence that island territories are vulnerable to changes in climate triggered by the actions of people living in other parts of the world.

  • One way of conceiving of a territory is as an area of land surrounded by a border. This border serves both to divide the territory from the world around it, and to connect it with this wider world.

  • Another way of viewing territory is as a kind of pattern or weave composed of the relationships between different elements.

  • Different kinds of flow move within and between territories, keeping them in contact and in ongoing interchange with the surrounding world.

  • Territories and flows interact dynamically; flows can help to generate territories but can also destabilise them.