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

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5 Conclusion

The issue of climate change draws attention to the power of human activity to transform the planet in its entirety, and it is brought into sharp focus by the predicament of low-lying islands like Tuvalu. As we have seen in this course, the issue of rising sea level and other potential impacts of changing global climate also point to the transformations in the physical world that occur even without human influence. Oceanic islands provide a particularly cogent reminder that the living things with which we share our world, the patterns of the weather, and even the earth beneath our feet, shift and change of their own accord. Faced with a world in which there is instability and movement all around, and deep beneath our feet, we might easily lose our bearings completely. Here, the concepts of territory and flow and a sense of their dynamic interplay are useful, for they help us to ‘get a fix’ on a world which is always in the making.

Life, weather and geological processes are all dynamic forces that play a part in the forming of islands, and continue to contribute to their ongoing transformation. Similar dynamics are also at work on larger land masses, but because oceanic islands are encircled by sea and often far from other lands, they are especially useful for drawing out the different forces and elements that work together, or sometimes against each other, in the making of the world.

Therefore, when we come to think about the ways in which human activities are transforming islands and the world around them, we must also take into consideration the non-human processes and activities that are inevitably entangled with the things that we do. This course has introduced the concept of territory as a way of thinking through the processes by which different elements weave themselves together to form a coherent and integrated whole. Looking at islands as examples of territories, we have seen some of the many ways that human and non-human elements combine forces in the making of places with a recognisable identity – such as Tuvalu – that people identify with and refer to as home.

The course also introduced the concept of flow, which offers a way of thinking about how both human and non-human elements circulate through the world, moving within and between territories, in a manner that keeps these territories constantly in touch with the world around them. Territories and flows work together in diverse and dynamic ways to make the world, yet we have seen that they can also interact in unsettling ways to unmake the world. Climate is one such interplay of territory and flow: a vitally important one for human and non-human life. And variations or changes in climate can be both an opportunity and a challenge for human beings and other living things.

The issue of human-induced climate change highlights the flows that connect people's lives on one part of the planet with the lives of others elsewhere, often half the world away. How we respond to the threat of rising sea level and other manifestations of changing climate is not only a matter of acknowledging that there is a serious problem and working out how best to alleviate it; it is a matter of recognising that we are always already entangled in the world – the physical world as much as the social world – and that whatever response we make comes from being caught up in the thick of things.

An appreciation of the dynamic interaction of territories and flows can help to make us aware of the depth of this entanglement. It reminds us that things might have come together differently; the world could have been otherwise and, because it is a dynamic planet, the world will be otherwise. Considering territories and flows has also shown that there are things that we can influence or redirect, and things that are beyond our influence. There are times when the important or decisive transformations wrought on an island territory are not of human making, as in the case of geological events such as volcanoes or colonisation by biological life. At other moments, it is human activities that have made the crucial difference, such as the discovery and settling of an island or the forming of an independent nation state.

As you will recall from Section 2, writers such as Young (2003) and Allen (2006) speak of a form of responsibility that takes account of the way that people's actions in one part of the world can influence the lives of distant others. Because these actions and their impacts are often small, subtle and difficult to track, this sort of shared responsibility can be more complicated than directly attributing guilt or blame (Allen, 2006). This unit demonstrates that there is an added complication of trying to disentangle the many, small cumulative actions of human beings from the changes wrought by other, non-human forces and processes. This tends to make the apportioning of responsibility even more challenging, as is evidenced in the debates about climate change we encountered in Section 4.3. At the same time, the potentially momentous impact of global environmental change on places like Tuvalu is a compelling reason to not shy away from such challenges.

As we began to see in this course, there are options about the way we organise our interactions with the world. International agreements, like the Kyoto Protocol, suggest that major shifts are possible and, in the subsequent chapters of this book, you will encounter other possibilities for reordering the way that certain flows and territories work.