Centering Islands in a Rising Ocean: A Conversation with Christina Gerhardt

an image of the man-made island in the Maldives, Hulhumalé

We recently sat down with Dr. Christina Gerhardt to discuss her publication, Sea Change: An Atlas of Islands in a Rising Ocean, from the University of California Press. In our conversation, Dr. Gerhardt expands on the research and collaborations that made this book possible. Sea Change is a cartographic atlas, a collection of art and poetry, a history of connection, and a window into island nations facing an uncertain future. In foregrounding the voices of island dwellers and featuring essays based on interviews with people from myriad backgrounds and collaborations—maps, scientific illustrations, art—from colleagues from various disciplines, Sea Change exemplifies the power of the environmental humanities to contextualize the current climate crisis and address alternative futures. Dr. Gerhardt’s Sea Change offers a collection of readable and engaging essays that center on the impact of rising sea levels and highlight the lived experiences of those working to address them.

Stream or download our conversation here.

Interview Highlights

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

An image of the book cover for Sea Change by Christina Gerhardt
Sea Change (University of California Press)

Samm Newton:  Sea Change has a compelling approach to weaving together art, science, poetry, and maps. It is also structured by several short essays that you can pick up and read at any time and out of order, which is really enjoyable. Why did you decide to use this approach?

Christina Gerhardt: Thanks for opening with a question about Sea Change’s approach. Sea Change features forty-nine islands from around the world and each chapter includes a short text usually a couple of pages long; each chapter typically includes a map and a poem or a text by an islander following it. Sea Change encourages jumping around. It’s also informed by the geography of islands. Epeli Hau’ofa talked about the geography of islands and how islanders in the Pacific deem themselves to be very connected. That’s different from how people on continents view islands, which is very remote. 

An image of author, Dr. Christina Gerhardt.
Professor and author Christina Gerhardt. Photo by Beowulf Sheehan ©, 2013.

I call Sea Change a symphony. It’s polyphonic. It brings together various voices and disciplines; one goal is to center the islanders’ voices. Another goal coming from the environmental humanities is to bring together the sciences and the humanities. This interdisciplinary approach is common in Indigenous studies and cosmologies, where disciplines don’t tend to rend asunder but rather inversely thought together. The polyphonic concept is indebted to the work of Black feminist materialist thinkers, particularly of Katherine McKittrick and Christina Sharpe. McKittrick has said a polyphonic history is not conforming to a single voice. Think of the story as a chorus as Christina Sharpe has put it. For more, check out their works Dear Science and In the Wake, respectively.

I don’t think many of us will relax on the couch on the weekend with a scientific report. Some might. But not all. So, I decided the best approach would be to basically smuggle the topic into a coffee-table book, weaving together the art, the essays, the poems, and the science. So, it’s basically what I call the spoonful-of-sugar approach to address a really grim topic in the climate crisis.

SN: I was drawn to the timelines for each island, and the historian in me would like to hear more about that part of your research experience. Do you have any highlights from your time in the archive? 

CG: There are so many fun stories to tell about archival research. The atlas genre is one of the most colonial genres, so to me it was important to decolonize it. 

We need to think about solutions as part of the tools in the toolbox when we teach the environmental humanities.

I’m going to avoid a long digression on colonialism and decolonization here. But I think one should think about which sources and knowledge banks one uses—meaning Indigenous colonized people’s materials being located in libraries in the West and in the North. So, when I was looking at the histories of islands, a lot of them did start there. And that’s a choice. But that’s not when the history of islands and islanders starts. The history of a lot of these islands actually goes back thousands of years in the Pacific. For example, Austronesians, people from the southeast Asia region, voyaged and were the first to settle some of the islands in the western Pacific north and south of the equator. That’s not what some history books will lead you to believe. These are all stories that are included in Sea Change.

Decolonizing timelines was important. If you look at the timelines for every single island, you will see that I am working to stretch the history back to the earliest signs I could find in doing historical research for inhabitants, often Indigenous, for example, in the Caribbean and the Pacific. Constructing the timelines was a crucial part of the work in terms of archival research. 

an excerpt from the book Sea Change showing changes to Isle de Jean Charles by rising sea levels
Cartographic design by Molly Roy.

I conducted archival research at the Newberry Library in Chicago. It houses a vast array of maps in the Edward E. Ayer collection, also of Indigenous studies, much of it focused on the Midwest region. Some of the most amazing moments when I was at the Newberry Library last summer (June 2022) were when they pulled out a facsimile reproduction of the Greenlandic wooden map. It’s a three-dimensional map. They pulled it out of a box. As a researcher, one goes into this room, people come with gloves on and bring out these archival materials, which in and of itself is a ceremony that’s just really wonderful to experience. Then, to be able to see these maps in 3D, maps that I had only stared at on the glowing screen or in books and to get a sense of their shape, size, and feel was remarkable. 

SN: Often, when one talks about ocean change and sea level rise, one talks about risk and peril. You speak about engineering-type solutions in the book. Still, I’m curious about the solutions you found compelling outside engineering. 

CG: Yeah. With regard to the engineering that I talk about in the book, I discuss two different kinds of solutions. I share what falls into the category of hard engineering, which includes things like sea walls. Hulhumalé is an entirely new island that the Maldives has built, so that’s an example of building an island. Singapore is doing infill, as is Bahrain. So that’s expanding the size of its island through this example of hard engineering. 

I also talk about soft engineering, sometimes referred to as nature-based solutions, and they include things like restoring and protecting coral reefs and mangrove forests in the tropical zone and oyster reefs and wetlands in the temperate zone. In terms of thinking outside the box a little bit, or beyond these engineering solutions, there are a number of different kinds of solutions that islanders have put forward. 

I appreciate your question about solutions. There is a whole part of journalism that is solutions-oriented. Yes! Magazine in Seattle is one of the examples of solutions-oriented journalism. We need to think about solutions as part of the tools in the toolbox when we teach the environmental humanities. 

The issue of climate refugees is another one that comes up here that could potentially be a solution. Climate refugees are not included in the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees because the climate crisis wasn’t recognized as an issue at the time. That’s a term that some people have been suggesting. 

Submerged shoreline on the coast of Nggatokae Island of the Western Province in the Solomon Islands. Photo by Alex DeCiccio, 2016.

Another example that could potentially be a solution is the example of managed retreats on islands. That means moving people from the coastline inland. So, in the Solomon Islands, which are volcanic, an entire community was moved inland with a lot of community involvement and with a lot of people, scientists, and sociologists tracking this effort. The community was asked about the impacts they had experienced first-hand because of sea level rise. Then, they were asked if they wanted to move. If they wanted to move, where would they want to move to, and what mattered to them in that move? Access to the ocean, if you’re fisherfolk, is really important and one reason why people live by the waterfront. They were moved inland, then surveys were conducted afterward to see how people felt about this kind of move. So that’s one solution. 

In coastal regions, I carried out the high waterline walk while I was in Princeton. We walked the future shoreline forecast by sea level rise in the small town of Sayreville in New Jersey. What’s remarkable about Sayreville is it was hit by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and New Jersey offered its residents a buyout through its Blue Acres program. Sayreville is a working-class, predominantly white, predominantly Polish heritage town. Most of the people who lived along the coastline accepted the buyouts. That high percentage of acceptance is unusual, and most of them stayed in the town. That’s also unusual. 

I call Sea Change a symphony. It’s polyphonic.

Towns are really concerned about managed retreats because property taxes are a major source of their revenue. First off, who’s paying for the buyouts? Is it federal, state or local? That’s money going out. Then, if people accept the buyouts, if they’re not staying in the city, the city has lost property tax revenue streams. This issue is something to consider in terms of some of these kinds of impacts. I know in Florida, news has recently been in the headlines that insurance is no longer being offered to some homeowners. But homeowners need insurance in order to be able to buy or build within certain regions. 

These are some of the examples that I would mention. One strategy, too, is at the international level–this call for climate reparations. But that’s a whole other topic.

Featured image: Man-Made Beach – Hulhumalé – Maldives. Photo by Adam Jones, 2014.

Podcast music: “Gloves” by Julian Lynch. Used with permission.

Samm Newton is a Ph.D. candidate in the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s History of Science, Medicine, and Technology program. Before moving to Wisconsin, Newton earned an M.A. from Oregon State University through the Environmental Arts and Humanities initiative where they were a National Science Foundation fellow. Newton also holds graduate minors in Ocean Governance and Jurisdiction, Latin American History, and Risk and Uncertainty Quantification and Communication in Marine Systems. Their current work takes a historical approach to understanding how expertise and policy shape the open ocean and focuses on how these processes contributed to conceptions of environmental value and marine territory, sovereignty, and governance. In 2022 Newton worked on offshore jurisdiction for the U.S. Senate as a John A. Knauss Marine Policy Fellow through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Contact.

Christina Gerhardt is Associate Professor and initiator of the Environmental Humanities at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa; former Barron Professor in Environment and the Humanities at the High Meadows Environment Institute at Princeton University (2021-2022); and a permanent Senior Fellow at the University of California at Berkeley, where she taught previously. She is also an environmental journalist. Her writing has been published (under “Tina Gerhardt”) in The Guardian, Grist, The Nation, Orion, The Progressive, and Sierra Magazine, among other outlets. She is the author of Sea Change: An Atlas of Islands in a Rising Ocean, published by the University of California Press and named one of the “Best Popular Science Books of 2023” by the New Scientist and “a work of art” by the LA Times. Contact.