On a Warming Planet, No Island Is an Island

N H D M's research into the impacts of climate change on small island nations highlights the complex networks linking communities across the globe.

A preview reel for Stories from Small Island Disappearing States, a moving image work exhibited at the 2021 Venice Biennale as a part of N H D M's Now You Belong Here presentation. Played in a continuous loop throughout the duration of the Biennale, the video incorporates research materials, interviews with island residents and diaspora communities, and animated drawings, all formatted in a flowing sequence intended to emphasize interconnectedness within the new climate regime.

Threatened by sea level rise and extreme weather, small island nations have become powerful symbols of the climate crisis. But according to Nahyun Hwang and David Eugin Moon, who have been investigating these countries for several years, the situation is more nuanced than it initially seems. Although islanders are frequently perceived as passive victims, the climate solutions they’ve put in place often outrival those found in larger, wealthier nations. At the same time, the intricate web of global historical, political, and financial connections that has shaped these communities over generations is too often left out of discussions about their present-day vulnerability.

Hwang and Moon, the principals of New York architecture firm N H D M, initially proposed the project, Now You Belong Here: Small Island Disappearing States, for the 2020 Venice Biennale, which was postponed due to the pandemic; the project was instead shown in the 2021 biennale. A forthcoming book published by Actar will feature N H D M’s research alongside contributions from island residents and members of diaspora communities, including artists, activists, and scholars.

The League’s Sarah Wesseler spoke to Hwang and Moon about the project.


Sarah Wesseler: How did this research come about?

Nahyun Hwang: Well, we’ve been interested in islands in general for a while. We’ve explored the island as a kind of manifestation of many different entanglements, both in teaching and through projects.

I grew up on this strange island in the middle of Seoul’s Han River that the Japanese colonial government turned into a military airport in the 1910s. During my childhood it became a political and developmental testing ground for Korea’s “Miracle on the Han River” [the period of rapid economic growth between the 1950s and the late 1990s that transformed South Korea into a high-income country]. So I’ve always felt quite strongly connected to the idea of islands as embodiments.

Yeouido, the island in Seoul where Hwang was raised, was the site of the Japanese colonial government's first military airport in Korea; built in 1916, the airport served as a strategic base for Japan's imperial expansion. Today, Yeouido is the political and financial center of the South Korean capital.

Images, left to right: Aerial view of the island, 1970; architect Kim Swoo-geun's master plan for Yeouido development (model photographs), 1969; the island in 2023. Image credits, left to right: Unknown author via CC 2.0; Unknown author via namuwiki; Google Maps

David Eugin Moon: And coming from a descendent-of-immigrants background, I’ve always been interested in how, for different reasons, different groups are moving to different locations. So there’s a lot of personal overlap as we’re looking into questions of territorial mobility and ideas of home and belonging manifested in these islands.

Hwang: We’re very interested in the spaces of migrant subjects, and also in spaces of environmental and climate inequity. The island nations we’re studying for this project embody both of these concerns.

When we were invited to the Venice Biennale in 2020, a lot of climate change issues were coming to the fore. We started thinking about the fact that some of the low-lying island nations are the places where climate impacts are most evident. Despite the fact that they contribute so little to the causes of climate change, they are much more affected by the sea level rise and other effects, given the proportion of land close to the sea, as well as the economic and political asymmetry that has been produced by the long history of colonization, slavery, and other geopolitical subjugations. There were many articles and reports about how some of these islands are “disappearing,” so we thought maybe it would be worthwhile to investigate and document them before their potential “disappearance.”

Sea level rise, storm surges, and an increase in extreme weather events have led to the erosion of coastal forests in the Solomon Islands. Image courtesy of Simon Albert, a marine ecologist and climate change scholar and one of N H D M's interlocutors for the project.

But as we started talking to people on those islands and in the diaspora about what was actually happening there, the notion of disappearance itself was challenged. We found that what they are experiencing is not simply disappearance, but also these multilayered entanglements between the identity of nation-states, the evolution of development, climate change, and global politics.

When we began looking into the topic, we noticed that the UN has a designation for Small Island Developing States, or SIDS, which we found really interesting. From a bureaucratic and developmental point of view, they were packaging these islands as states that are moving forward, but it seemed like there was a discrepancy between this idea of development and the reality of environmental challenges.

Moon: There’s an important thing to note in the title of the project: The word “disappearing” is crossed out. As we found out more about these islands, we realized that it’s not helpful, in a lot of ways, to frame the people of these islands as victims. Instead, it’s important to highlight that they’re taking on these different challenges, and how in many ways they’re trying harder than larger countries to address climate issues. Faced with the realities of climate change in their daily lives, many island nations, in fact, are setting more stringent emission limits than so-called advanced economies, or are testing various mitigation methods grounded in Indigenous and local knowledge. There’s a lot to learn from the different islands and different communities we studied.

In the aftermath of World War II, the United States used Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands as a nuclear testing site, dropping more than 20 bombs over a 12-year period. People on nearby islands, some of whom had been relocated from Bikini Atoll, were exposed to radiation sickness, leading to elevated levels of cancers and birth defects.

In 2015, newspapers around the world reported that approximately 1,000 area residents had applied to relocate to the US as climate change was making life on the islands increasingly difficult.

N H D M's moving image piece Stories from Small Island Disappearing States, produced as part of the Now You Belong Here project, includes a sequence that maps out testing locations and faux-naïf identifiers and discusses the tests' political and environmental context and impact. The fallout that is normally hidden from sight is represented by a color-scaled digital elevation provided by Dr. Art Trembanis of the University of Delaware.

Image credit: N H D M, drawing on US government and military photographs in the public domain

Wesseler: You said that this idea of moving beyond a victim discourse and showing the agency of the island communities came out of conversations with people on the islands. Can you say more about how that played out?

Hwang: A lot of islanders we talked to mentioned that they’re familiar with this narrative that they are all “disappearing,” but don’t find it helpful. Or they find it helpful only to the degree that it heightens awareness about climate change, but they think it doesn’t necessarily help them locally. It doesn’t give them better options, or even help others understand how the situation can be improved.

There’s a coalition of climate activists from the Pacific Islands whose motto is “We’re not drowning, we’re fighting,” for example. They very much want to emphasize the fact that climate awareness is not about giving up, losing, or disappearing—it’s about having agency.

Moon: Each of the islands has examples of these agentive actions. In Barbuda, when the environmental crisis was used as an excuse to privatize a lot of traditionally communally owned lands, a group of activists challenged the land grab. When Hurricane Irma in 2017 destroyed nearly all of the island’s buildings and infrastructure, forcing its residents to evacuate to Antigua, a foreign real estate developer funded by a very well-known American celebrity attempted to use the rebuilding narrative to build an airport and high-end resorts without residents’ consent, decimating forest and farmland in the process. A group of activist challenged this in the courts, bringing awareness to “disaster capitalism” that is ongoing on the island.

And in Vanuatu, where a lot of the islands that make up the nation are subject to hurricanes and cyclones, a group of women self-organized a messaging system so they could message each other and be able to react when dangerous storms are approaching. “Women Wetem Weta” (WWW), which translates to “Women’s Weather Watch,” is a real-time weather messaging system that relies on an informal network of local women and bulk SMS to distribute critical information that impacts the health and livelihoods of Vanuatuan communities. With increasingly more frequent and devastating tropical cyclones due to climate change, WWW tries to address the lag in communication between available weather data and transmission to those communities affected. This network not only allows for women to share information instantly about impending weather disasters, but also provides a platform for women to contribute knowledge around other topics, such as crop planting, water shortages, and drought information.

So there are a lot of inspiring stories of how different communities are confronting all manner of challenges.

Hwang: And one of our main ways of researching these stories is by conversing with people on site or speaking to people in the diaspora community. For example, in the Barbuda case, we talked to people in the country who are fighting against the airport construction, but also lawyers in London that are from the diaspora community who are helping them. And we spoke to a lot of people in New Zealand who came from the Pacific Islands and have their own movements related to what should or shouldn’t be happening on their home islands.

The research has also involved speaking to scholars: scientists, marine biologists. We talked to people who are working on questions grounded in specific cultures as well—for example, Creole and its legacies of migration and hybridity throughout history, generated from forced or voluntary mobilities. So we learned a lot from people who have been engaging related issues for a long time.

More than half of the 200 inhabited islands in the Maldives are occupied by foreign investment resort properties with no local Maldivian population. Developing the resorts often involves "reclamation" of the sea for extended exclusive resort units, which harms crucial marine life such as corals. It also often includes moving mature palm trees and other plants from inhabited local islands to construct artificial landscapes for the luxury resorts.

In this drawing, N H D M depicts selected foreign-backed resort islands in the Maldives, including St. Regis, Vommuli (1); Club Med, Kani (2); Fairmont, Sirru Fen Fushi (3); Four Seasons, Baa Atoll (4); Taj Exotica, South Male (5); Waldorf Astoria, Ithaafushi (6); and Six Senses, Laamu Atoll (7).

Image credit: N H D M

One unexpected thing that happened during this project was that the biennale was postponed for a year because of COVID. When we first started out, we thought the project would need to have quite a narrow scope as there were only a few months to complete it, but we were given a much longer period to connect with people from these islands and in the diaspora.

And I think, like everybody in 2020, we were in this space where we were staying at home, thinking about what the world means, what progress means, and how we should live together, etc., so it was a quite moving experience that we were able to connect with so many people through this project. It had to be through Zoom, of course, but it was a meaningful experience for us, and we think also for many interviewees, and it had a significant impact on the project’s direction.

Moon: All the islands have interesting overlapping histories with each other, and also with all of us—with the rest of the world. There are commonalities in terms of a larger history of colonialism, racism, and issues around migration, that we attempt to bring forward. So that’s been an important part of the project: How do we articulate how the islands are actually all connected, and connected to us and our actions, and how important it is to understand those relationships? We also feel a certain degree of affinity because of our own backgrounds.

Hwang: That’s one of the reasons why we titled the project Now You Belong Here. It comes from an interview we conducted with someone from Kiribati, a very small Pacific Island nation. One of the islands there is called Marakei. It’s a ring-shaped island, and they have this ritual where whenever someone who has never been to the island before visits, they’re asked to go around the whole island in a very specific way, offering to different shrines. After they complete the ritual, the elder offers the words, “Now you belong here.” That’s their way to have strangers be part of their community.

We thought this ritual is very moving, and also says something about how, yes, there are differences between where we are here in New York City and where they are in the islands—but in a way, we are all in this together.

Marakei Atoll. Credit: NASA

Moon: Also, just acknowledging that a lot of these islands are affected asymmetrically: They’re mostly not the ones that have caused the problems that they’re dealing with. The majority of the world’s emissions are produced by the larger industrialized countries—and so, in some ways, we’re already engaged with these places whether we realize it or not.

There’s a lot of complexity in the islands, and also in how we want to describe this complexity. In that sense, the project is not about advocating for a particular type of [intervention] or claiming intimate knowledge that only the islanders have, but rather about attempting to make some of the salient entanglements more legible with the tools we have.

Hwang: For example, Nauru, while also challenged by various effects of climate change, is a nation where almost 80 percent of the land has been mined [for phosphate] since the 1900s by various colonial powers, such as the British and German governments and their trusts in Australia and New Zealand.

Because most of the island has been severely altered, the people of Nauru are left with almost no other sources of income. As a result, they’re lending their land to the Australian government, which has built an offshore immigration detention facility where a lot of abuse and human rights violations are occurring.

Two types of colonial and neocolonial extractions in Nauru are shown in a drawing by N H D M, left. The bottom half of the image depicts phosphate mining by colonial powers, which decimated most of the island nation starting in the 1900s; the top half shows locations of the asylum-seeker detention facilities Australia established as part of its offshore anti-immigration project, known as "Pacific Solution," which was established in 2001.

Nauru has been subjected to colonization since at least the late nineteenth century, when it was annexed by Germany. By 1906, a full-scale mining operation of phosphate began in a deal between the Germans and Britain’s Pacific Phosphate Company, drastically transforming the nation’s terrain. When the country gained independence in 1968, it had no natural resources or land left to cultivate. As a result, in 2001 leaders agreed to begin hosting detained asylum seekers for the Australian government, holding up to 1,200 people—an arrangement that led to various human rights violations.

The photo at right shows an Australian refugee settlement camp surrounded by the pinnacle landscape produced by phosphate mining.

Image credits, left to right: N H D M; MIKE LEYRAL/AFP/Getty Images

The harm caused by colonialistic extraction and the continuing neocolonial exploitation here is extremely spatial on many scales, and our project is trying to frame and articulate some of the critical intersections of the most significant factors at play, engaging specific instances.

Wesseler: Your work highlights the agency of islanders as they grapple with climate change, but there are also outside organizations working on related topics in and around the islands, of course—nonprofits, NGOs, et cetera. I’m curious how locals think about these efforts. Is it possible to generalize at all about how islanders view outside interventions in their communities, or is it all just case by case?

Hwang: There are numerous nonprofit and governmental organizations and governmental organizations working in this space, and people from the islands see many of them as positive forces. But others they see as, “OK, they are coming and doing a project for, like, three months, and then they leave.” What people call the nonprofit industrial complex—that kind of thing can sometimes happen.

Moon: One of our collaborators talked about the phenomenon of the corporate rescuer who flies into a location and—although often well-meaning, for the most part—is perceived quite negatively or with suspicion by locals in terms of how actually helpful they are. There are concerns regarding the different forms of extraction.

Hwang: There are issues when climate change initiatives are discussed only bureaucratically, and the metrics used to measure their success are sometimes mismatched. There is a tendency to emphasize the immediate, report-friendly outcome as opposed to understanding the history and long-term consequences: what locals have been experiencing living there for a long time. How those metrics relate to the actual understanding of these places as well as to future projections is important. The people of that community are the protagonists of the story.

Wesseler: How do you think of this project in the context of your architectural practice? How has your architectural training and experience influenced it?

Among N H D M’s design projects are Libreria Barco de Papel Comunitaria (top left), a community bookstore and cultural center in Queens; the Wolgok Youth Platform, a youth housing prototype in Seoul developed with Habitat for Humanity (top right); and Manuel de Dios Unanue Triangle Park, a renovation of a public space in Queens designed in collaboration with local activists and community organizations. Image credits: N H D M

Hwang: We understand architecture as something larger than a building, even though we enjoy building things too. We see architecture, or the built environment, as a manifestation or instrument of the world we’re living in. So in this sense, what’s happening in these islands—or any other environmental, social, and cultural issues—is not separable from architecture.

When we see certain conditions or situations in the built environment, we have a tendency—and, we believe, the ability and responsibility—to make their entanglements or complexity visible and understandable to the wider public, and also highlight the connections between the actions that we are taking, and the spaces we are shaping, and the resultant conditions of the world.


Interview edited and condensed.


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