From Oceania Hypothesis to Oceania Collective – Part 2: The Future Catastrophe is Now

Photo by Samuel Ferrara on Unsplash

In the first part of our discussion towards new forms of political organisation in the Pacific, we considered some lessons from the past, in particular from the NFIP movement. In this post, we look to the future and ask what should be the relationship between our view of the future and our actions in the present moment?

All the evidence available to us suggest we are headed towards a future of planetary catastrophe. For example, based on the 6th Assessment Report of Working Group I of the IPCC, even if governments of the world could agree to act based on the most radical scenario of a rapid and comprehensive reduction of greenhouse gas emissions the world would still be on a catastrophic path1. Additionally, journalist Chris Hedges claims, ‘at no time, including the Cuban missile crisis, have we stood closer to the precipice of nuclear war’. The Pacific remains on the front lines of such catastrophes and we concluded part one of this series of posts with reference to the emancipatory potential inherent in a perspective of the region as a ‘sacrifice zone’. Nonetheless, does such a depiction of the region as doomed into non-existence by militarisation, imperialism and climate change not work against the transformative change we need? Are we not giving into imperialist powers by endorsing such a perspective?

Propagating hope and freedom?

Here we can recall the ‘aha!’ moment that Epeli Hau’ofa explains in his essay Our Sea of Islands; the moment when it dawned upon him that ‘In propagating the view of hopelessness, I was actively participating in our own belittlement. I then decided to do something about it’ 2 Along similar lines a recent article by Charlotte Weatherill3 argues how narratives of vulnerability and dependency remain colonial constructions and impositions on the region. Such narratives according to Weatherill, ‘vulnerabilize’ the region by naturalising the conditions of vulnerability in the Pacific. However, according to Weatherill it is not just regional powers and global institutions that perpetuate the naturalisation of Pacific vulnerability. Rather, she points to activism in the region that use extinction narratives of sinking islands in the face of climate change to make arguments for climate justice. Following Farbotko, Wetherill claims that the problem of such ‘wishful sinking activism’, is that in order for it to succeed it requires the actual loss of islands because “only after they disappear are the islands useful as an absolute truth of the urgency of climate change, and thus a prompt to save the rest of the planet” 4.

Contrary to this, Weatherill highlights other forms of activism in the Pacific that provide ‘powerful counter narratives that offer a conceptual path to reimagining vulnerability’5 by refusing to accept the status of the Pacific as passive victims. For Weatherill, ‘these islander counter-narratives are powerful in their rejection of the dominant storyline…making links between climate change and decades of colonialism, environmental destruction, and social injustice’6. She highlights Marshallese poet Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner who ‘argues for a politics that refuses the extinction narrative of islanders as doomed: “I don’t think we’re doomed. And I also can’t accept that. If you accept that you’re doomed, then what is left to fight for… where are you going to find hope?”’ 7.

What is the problem with such a position? In writing about fatalism, Jean-Pierre Dupuy claims:

the main challenge posed by major catastrophes, whether they are moral, natural, industrial, or technological in character, is that their potential victims find it almost impossible to believe that disaster is imminent, even though they have available to them all the information needed to conclude that the worst is very likely, if not actually certain, to happen’ 8.

For Dupuy, this split between knowledge and belief is the main obstacle that must be overcome if we are to change the course of history. This split has the structure of the fetishist disavowal, which functions in the manner of ‘I know very well, but nonetheless I believe/act otherwise’. So following Dupuy, ‘we know very well what science is telling us about climate change and the future of the region, but nonetheless we believe (i.e., act) otherwise’. Or perhaps in a more political manner, ‘we know very well that the existing global and regional structures have us on a path towards extinction, but nonetheless we act as if we do not know this’.

Underpinning this disavowal, this acting otherwise, is an abstract gesture of resisting determination in the name of our particular cultural autonomy. Not only in the manner of resisting a pre-determined future, but more precisely resisting what is deemed to be the repressive forces of colonial-capitalism in the present that prevent the full expression of our particular Pacific way of life. Therefore, by refusing (in our belief/actions) to accept the future catastrophe, we end up occupying a position external to global and regional structures of capitalist imperialism in order to defend our particular Pacific cultural autonomy against its apparent homogenising, repressive force. However, occupying such a position misses the crucial point: the transformation of the structures of capitalism is immanent to capitalism itself. The inherent antagonism of capitalism and the crises that arise from it, including the climate catastrophe, are the source of its own downfall. The term ‘sacrifice zones’ names this antagonism. Therefore, the refusal of a doomed future for the Pacific results in us overlooking how the future catastrophe is already with us, inherent in the existing structural coordinates of our situation (i.e., global capitalism).

The courage of hopelessness

Contrary to Weatherill and Jetnil-Kijiner then, what if what is required to secure the future of Oceania is accepting we are doomed? That is, what if we accept the sinking island narrative not simply as our fate but as always-already having taken place? For Dupuy, this ‘enlightened doomsaying’ is the only way to overcome the split between knowledge and belief. Its is only from this future standpoint that we can ‘retroactively insert into its past (the past of the future) counterfactual possibilities (“If we had done this and that, the catastrophe we are in now would not have occurred!”) upon which we then act today’9 Only in this way are we forced to act and get to work on changing the conditions of the past (from this catastrophic future position). Against Farbotko’s claim then, we do not need the actual loss of islands to prompt us to save Oceania and the planet, but rather only to act as if extinction is our fate.

The key point to emphasize however is that consideration of counterfactual possibilities does not simply mean “the complete understanding of the multitude of possibilities that led to the catastrophe, but to a rethinking of the very framework which structured these possibilities in the first place”10. Or, as Zizek puts it, ‘the truly free choice is a choice in which I do not merely choose between two or more options WITHIN a pre-given set of coordinates, but I choose to change this set of coordinates itself.’ That is, the challenge we face is not one of simply reclaiming a range of possibilities (plurality of identities and ways of living) against the repressive force of global capitalism. Rather the problem is with our implicit acceptance (through our active belief) of the existing structural coordinates of our situation, which already determine the very field of possible actions. In other words, the challenge is to accept that we are faced only with a forced choice: to rid ourselves of the structures of capitalist imperialism. This is how we must change the past (from the position of our fated future) in order to open up towards a different future.

In summary, by rejecting the fate of the Pacific as ‘a sacrifice zone’, we continue to accept, against our will, the existing liberal rules based order premised on US global hegemony as the horizon of our freedom. From this position, the drastic actions necessary for securing our future, reversing climate change and ending imperialism, are deemed impossible. Therefore, against Hau’ofa and Jetnil-Kijiner’s courage to stop propagating hopelessness, what the region needs more than ever is the courage of hopelessness. That is, the courage to accept that within the existing coordinates of the global and regional order we are doomed to the status of a sacrifice zone and therefore set about changing this order. This should be the basis for any new political organisation that is serious about Pacific freedom.

  1. Christian Zeller, Revolutionary Strategies on a Heated Earth,
  2. Epeli Hau’ofa (1993), Our Sea of Islands, In Epeli Hau’ofa, ‘We are the Ocean: Selected Works’, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, p. 30.
  3. Charlotte Weatherill (in press), Sinking paradise? Climate change vulnerability and Pacific Island sinking narratives, ‘Geoforum’.
  4. Carol Farbotko (2010), Wishful sinking: Disappearing islands, climate refugees and cosmopolitan experimentation, ‘Asia Pacific Viewpoint’, 51 (1), pp. 47-60.
  5. Charlotte Weatherill (in press).
  6. Ibid
  7. Ibid
  8. Jean-Pierre Dupuy (2014), ‘Economy and the Future: A Crisis of Faith’, East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, p. 128
  9. Slavoj Zizek (2017), ‘In Defense of Lost Causes’, London: Verso, p. 459.
  10. Jack Black (2022), ‘A hole that does not speak: COVID, catastrophe and the impossible’: