Sinking Islands and the Loss of Origin in the Anthropocene

By Warefta Murshed

In this blog, I attempt to weave together some of the conceptual themes I’m exploring in my dissertation by examining the challenges that the island nation of Kiribati faces at the forefront of climate change. Climate change is perhaps the most visceral manifestation of the Anthropocene, confronting Kiribati with the very reality of extinction for its people, more-than-human entities and traditional ways of living. I argue that, in order to cope with the inevitable loss that the Anthropocene will bring, we must engage in acts of ecological mourning in order to move forward.

In his short essay ‘Desert Islands’, philosopher Gilles Deleuze (2004: no page) writes that islands are the ‘consciousness of earth and ocean’ and that ‘humans cannot live, nor live in security, unless they assume the active struggle between earth and water is over, or at least contained.’ Here, a Deleuzian logic mediates that islands are existentially a space of contention between earth and water, where survival is depended on the victory of land over sea. Thus, as the archipelagos that make up the nation of Kiribati begin to sink beneath the sea, this logic rings true, threatening its inhabitants with the very reality of possible extinction.

Made up of 33 islands, Kiribati has been called a ‘Nation of Water’ (Chappell 2016: 8) and is one of the first countries in the Pacific that is slowly disappearing because of sea-level rise due to anthropogenic climate change. The catch-all term to describe these forms of environmental crises and degradation is being referred to as the ‘Anthropocene’, a new geological epoch in which humans are the biggest driving force behind the planetary crisis we are facing today. The Anthropocene has placed the ecological crisis on a planetary scale, posing new challenges to temporalities, geographical imaginaries and survival on Earth. Yet the planetary thinking in the Anthropocene tends to obscure the inherent geographical inequalities that define where environmental catastrophes are occurring and who eventually pays for its consequences.

Since 1999, two of the inhabited islands in the archipelagos, Tebula and Abannuea, have disappeared underwater (Kwa 2008). Dispossession due to disappearing land is not simply a hypothetical future for this island nation, but rather, a very tangible one. Dispossession of course, is no stranger to Kiribati. Though now mainly inhabited by Samoan descendants, the islands have been occupied from as early as the 16th century by Spanish seamen, followed by British settlements in the 18th century and a brief Japanese seizure during World War II. Even after independence from British colonisation in 1979, political autonomy did not mean freedom from the structures and obstacles inherited from the colonial period. Decolonisation still relied on formulating constitutions that complied with a prefabricated version of the nation state which endorsed the ‘European-derived model as universal’ (Chappell 2016: 15-16). The leaders of newly formed Kiribati had to ‘syncretise those alien frameworks with indigenous values and customs.’ (ibid: 15). The implicit coloniality in adhering to global bureaucracy became that indigenous ways of living and knowing were slowly dispossessed by a hegemonic world system that valued economic development over environmental sustainability, leaving Kiribati to now pay the price for the ‘ecological limits to capitalism’ (Chakrabarty 2009: 200).

Dispossession, therefore, has had ‘many unhappy returns’ (Abourahme 2018:109) for these islands, and the Anthropocene poses its latest eviction notice. Like many countries in the South Pacific, Kiribati has begun to take policy and legislative measures to mitigate the ongoing effects of sea level rise. Citizens from Kiribati have already claimed climate refugee status and migrated to New Zealand and in anticipation of a larger exodus, the government has also bought land from Fiji in hopes to give its people ‘migration with dignity’ (Chappell 2016:15) when the time comes.

Moreover, as Kiribati’s impending disappearance captures the fascination of the global community, other, more ambitious, technocentric solutions to the issue also emerges. A Japanese engineering firm, ‘Shimizu’ has designed a hypothetical underwater ‘floating island’ that has the potential to house half the inhabitants of Kiribati (Rytz 2018). Shimizu argues that developing the deep sea like space would be a solution to the disasters that plague the Anthropocene because it would minimise the risk from weather phenomena such as typhoons and create a new space for human existence (ibid). Yet at a cost of $450 billion per floating island, Shimziu’s project is an example of the ways in which the Anthropocene is being used to ‘revive fantasies about humans’ ability to control nature’ (Hecht 2018: 111). It is also a reminder that survival in this new epoch comes with a hefty price tag. As former president of Kiribati Anote Tong puts it ‘…we don’t think in those terms [in Kiribati]. We keep thinking that we can continue to destroy this planet because we believe we can fix it with our technology, in our arrogance to believe we have control over everything’ (Rytz 2018).

12. Warefta image 1Image 1: Shimizu’s artificial islands (Rytz 2018)

What none of these solutions account for is the incommensurable loss that will be experienced by the inhabitants of the island nation. In following a Deleuzian logic, to find a desert island is to find a place ‘ready to begin the world anew’, a place of origin (Deleuze 2004: no page). The reversal, therefore, would indicate a loss of origin. Making loss, in the case of Kiribati, ontological. Not only will islanders lose their ancestral homes, they will lose their sense of belonging and indigenous ties to the land, sea and sky. Beyond this, the more-than-human loss that befalls ‘animal, vegetal and mineral bodies’ (Willox 2012: 139) will also be felt deeply by Kiribatians due to the inextricable human and non-human entanglements that exist in their cosmologies.

12. Warefta image 2Image  2: Indigenous Traditions (photo David Gray/Reuters, available at [accessed 23 August 2019])

Perhaps the only real solution to navigating Kiribati’s disappearing present is to remain open to the loss. Besides the logistical implications of dispossession, to create recognition and humility when encountering loss on this scale, there must be personal, national and global acts of mourning. Willox (2012) argues that the only way to navigate the multi-scalar consequences of loss in the Anthropocene is by grieving the change. In mourning, she writes, ‘we can share our losses and encounter them as opportunities’ (ibid: 157) to understand our own vulnerability, fragility and interconnection to this planet. Mourning allows us to remain exposed to our losses and ‘affectively’ binds us together with both human and more-than-human entities so that in remembrance, we can move forward. Moreover, mourning in the Anthropocene is particularly important because it highlights the responsibility, we share for one another and ‘reconstitutes human and nonhuman others as grievable subjects’ (ibid: 153).

Of course, extending grief to global discourse means opening up the question of ‘what counts as a liveable life and a grievable death’ (Butler: 2004: xvi). The homosexual body, the indigenous body, the black body, the poor body, the woman’s body and especially the non-human body has historically been denied the right to grief and existence in various ethical and political domains. Yet, for the sake of optimism, haps public acts of remembrance and mourning to cope with loss in the Anthropocene will create new opportunities to share the ecological grief in our current planetary crisis and emphasize that ‘intimate and transcorporeal connections [are] shared across species boundaries and spatial and temporal scales’ (Willox 2012: 154).

Even as global anxieties about loss in the Anthropocene heighten, Kiribati’s future remains unclear. Perhaps there is hope for survival. But as present-day Kiribati disappears into the sea, the ontological loss that will be experienced by its human and nonhuman inhabitants is a stark reminder of ‘who pays the price for humanity’s planetary footprints’ (Gabrielle Hecht 2018: 135).



Abourahme, N. 2018. ‘Of monsters and boomerangs: Colonial returns in the late liberal city’, City, 22:1, 106-115, DOI: 10.1080/13604813.2018.1434296

Butler, J. (2004) Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. New York: Verso.

Chakrabarty, D. (2009) ‘The climate of history: four theses.’ Critical Inquiry (Winter), pp 197 – 222.

Chappell, D. (2016) ‘Water Nations: Colonial Bordering, Exploitation, and Indigenous Nation-Building in Kiribati and Tuvalu.’ Pacific Asia Inquiry 7, pp 8–25.

Deleuze, G. (2004) ‘Desert Islands’ in Desert Islands and Other Texts: 1953-1974. Semiotext(e)

Hecht, G. (2018), ‘Interscalar Vehicles for an African Anthropocene: On Waste, Temporality, and Violence’, Cultural Anthropology 33, 109–141. doi:10.14506/ca33.1.05

The Commonwealth (2019), Kiribati: History | The Commonwealth. Available at: [Accessed 12 July 2019].

Rytz, M. (2018), Sinking Islands, Floating Nation: Can Artificial Islands Save This Country? |  New York Times Op-Docs. Available at: [Accessed 12 July 2019]

Kwa, E.L. (2008). ‘Climate Change and Indigenous People in the South Pacific’ in: International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Academy of Environmental Law Conference on “Climate Law in Developing Countries Post-2012: North and South Perspectives.” pp. 1–15

Willox, A.C. (2012) ‘Climate Change as the Work of Mourning’, Ethics and the Environment 17, pp. 137-164, doi:10.2979/ethicsenviro.17.2.137

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