Pacific Futures – For the Good of All Mankind

Pacific Futures: For the Good of All (Mankind)
Maureen Penjueli
July 2021

The powerful delegations of empires landed on our shores requesting that, for the good of all mankind, noble sacrifices must be made. For the good of all mankind, they said, bad things must happen here on our shores. In our past futures, they requested to blow up our islands in the name of “world peace.” In our present futures they request mining the seafloor in the name of a “green revolution,” for the good of all mankind. It is only natural to wonder what their next request will be, and how we the children of the ocean must draw blue lines for the good of all.

 

A famous Marshall Islands’ navigator once said he learnt to sail the Pacific by being thrown into the sea by his elders and told to feel for land in water. He was taught to understand the ocean’s language, a kind of listening and reading by immersing oneself fully, to be ocean. Equally important to these skills were the ability to listen and read the mirror image of that other great sphere, the sky and everything in between. Initially, the young ones laughed it off, but over time they learned the language of ocean through immersion, learned to feel land by putting their hands in the ocean even before their eyes could see the shape of an atoll no less than a meter above sea level in the darkest of night, or to sight birds signaling land in the horizon in the heat of day. Of the great sky they were taught to be careful, warned of following dead stars bright in the night sky that could mislead them to a fading future far from where they need to be.

 

Pacific futures should be viewed from the prism of narratives: of the dominant one “For the Good of all Mankind” in the name of “peace” and “revolution” and an emerging oceanic worldview which seeks to draw blue lines, reconnecting ancient truths about oceans, our roles as guardians, and what about it means to be good ancestors for the good of all.

 

At the heart of this tension is the question of who controls the ocean and its languages, who grasps its sheer physical scale, this great blue “empty” void framed by the continental land masses, all of which could easily fit into this single, larger geographical feature, which spans over 70 percent of the world. The sheer scale of the ocean spawned some of the world’s greatest navigational peoples before empires turned their gazes to far-flung exotic places, reimagining an ocean-scape in their own images, political projects and enduring realities for those who called it home. An ocean language allows Pacific peoples to see past into our futures, to learn to unlearn what it means to be ocean again. To not fear it but embrace it, to immerse fully back into the of ocean in our futures.

 

“How do we begin to explain what it means to be oceans again?”

 

The work of poet Karlo Mila helps explain our complex relationship with the ocean, and why it has become the most powerful metaphor to free ourselves from the kinds of imaginaries and narratives that have sought to blind us and hold us ransom to smallness of land masses.

 

Mila wrote;

 

We are reminded

in the most brutal way

that we are all connected.

We are reminded

in the most brutal way,

that our relationship

with the ocean

is never

on our

own terms.

We are reminded

in the most brutal way

why dominion over nature

was never a part

of our epistemology.

We are reminded

in the most brutal way

why we know ourselves to be

simply a part

of a sacred continuum

of sacred relationships

where even

the ocean is alive,

where even

the night birds feel,

where even

the rocks have spirit

where even the blood red waves

know why they are red.

We are reminded

in the most brutal way

the balance of life between

is sacred,

endlessly interconnected

across distance, space, time, species, life, death.

We are reminded

in the most brutal way

why long before

Christ arrived

on these shores

we have always been

a people of spirit

a people of faith.

 

Like the story of the famous Marshallese navigator, this poem, inspired by the late Epeli Hau‘ofa, one of the Pacific’s leading thinkers, captures the essence of an emerging oceanic worldview, a powerful response to kinds of entanglement of dominant imaginaries and narratives which date as far back as 1513. When Spanish explorer Vasco Núñez de Balboa first saw the Pacific Ocean, he called it the “Sea of the South,” implying an equal to the sea of the north, vast and expansive ocean-scape waiting to be conquered. Six years later, the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan sailed through the ocean and named it Pacifico, the “peaceful sea.” This naming of the “peaceful sea of the south” was followed by a race of European nations—Spain, Portugal, Germany, the Netherlands, France, Britain—as well as Japan, the United States, and China; to conquer its vastness, to exercise dominion over the ocean and all in it.

 

European conquests carved up the sea of the south into jurisdictions, making up modern states and territories that constrained the world’s greatest navigational ocean people.

 

Europe’s greatest victory, perhaps, was to capture and hollow out our imaginaries, narratives, and stories of oceans and to make us land-bound creatures fearful of the ocean.

 

The ocean’s scale allowed empires to hide some of the world’s most atrocious acts, to plunder its wealth under false narratives of empty spaces against peoples and territories that continue to endure and shape our futures. The United States, along with France and Britain, built the most destructive weapons man ever made. They believed that the very future of the free world hinged on the power of these weapons of mass destruction. In the name of “world peace,” the Pacific Ocean became the world’s testing site, an invocation of God’s will, and Pacific people became living sacrifices to assure peace for the good of all mankind.

 

Such false narratives of “peace” enabled over 300 nuclear and thermonuclear weapons to be tested atmospherically and deep in the ocean, in the Marshall Islands to the north, Tahiti to the south, east to Kiribati, and west, in Australia, between the 1940s and ’90s, encircling the entire Pacific Ocean in its destruction. The power of these nuclear tests left physical scars on the ocean, blowing up entire reef systems, creating deep-blue, near-perfect craters, and deep fractures appear on the seafloor, so large they are visible from high up in the sky. Entire islands vaporized and erased, people permanently displaced. Castle Bravo, the largest of the Pacific nuclear tests, created “two suns” in the sky while snowflakes rained down in the middle of the ocean and onto people living downwind from the test sites. A concrete tomb, the Runit Dome, unsuccessfully hiding some of the world’s most hazardous material, is now leaking back into an oncoming ocean, the result of rising sea levels.

 

That these nuclear tests were allowed for decades, are acts of transgressions of moral and ethical codes sanctioned by the United Nations on behalf of the most powerful nations in the world. That the Marshall Islands was held as strategic “Trust Territory” by United States is a betrayal of trust itself, a monumental failure of human endeavor. A world that rationalized and legalized the use of nuclear weapons in Hiroshima and Nagasaki with impunity. Only then, apparently, the world finally saw the horrors of nuclear weapons and said never again.

 

The scars of violence and trauma have penetrated the human body so deeply and intimately, embedded into the marrow of bones and genes, recoding and reproducing itself over and over again through the generations. Communities who insist on living—even daring to thrive—on these islands remain living testimonies and witnesses. Their resistance to hegemonic worldviews that seek to control is driven by perhaps the one thing that empires cannot dominate: an unconditional love of place.

 

Yet today the United States and its allies continue to imagine our ocean as its own theater of war, an ever-expanding site, a playground of military games and other tests weaponizing biodiversity to boost military defense purposes. Called RIMPAC, the Rim of the Pacific Exercise, these military games are some of the largest in the world, with over twenty countries involved. They demonstrate a show of naval and amphibious land-based might, with tracking systems used in the skies above. Training for war, and being prepared and ready in the event of an enemy attack—or so the claim goes—keeps the Pacific Ocean forever at the tip of war and war mongering. While these war games play out in our ocean, games like Battleship seep into the bedrooms and minds, of young men in particular, feeding them a diet of steady violence, blurring lines of reality and make-believe future worlds.

 

Demands for justice—for recognition, restitution, and reparation for crimes against humanity and nature—have been largely denied by UN members and the legal and political systems of the world’s most powerful countries, the USA, France, and the UK. In some cases, those people who have fought to demonstrate how the narratives of peace are actually crimes against humanity and nature are being prosecuted and persecuted by a legal system, denounced as enemies of the state. Today, decades later, there is some hope in the form of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons for redress.

 

Even before justice is negotiated and served to atone for crimes against people and nature, yet another sacrifice of the Pacific is made, this time under the false narrative of climate crisis and new green technological revolution that will save humanity from it. Pacific people are already at the forefront of a climate crisis not of their making, and it is an affront that the world is asking for a sacrifice from people who have already experienced existential threat, through lived experiences of erasure, displacement, and rising seas, presenting all of these as the price to pay for this green revolution.

 

Framed as a far-flung, unexplored, and under-exploited region, new frontiers for minerals emerge on the bottom of the ocean floor such as cobalt, copper, magnesium, rare-earth minerals, and magnesium nodules that are deemed necessary to transition the world from its addiction to oil, coal, and gas to spur a green technological revolution. These minerals are necessary for technologies like electric cars, solar panels, mega windmills, consumer technologies such as computers, mobile phones —the lifelines for economic powers that insist on maintaining the status-quo of a free world.

 

The race for the last frontier that is the ocean floor is similar to the Gold Rush of old. Over 1.5 million square kilometers of ocean floor have been carved up and are held by transnational corporations and governments. In an area considered the common heritage of mankind, thirty contracts have been issued for exploration, with Pacific island governments such as Nauru, Tonga, and Kiribati and their sponsors—like formerly bankrupted Nautilus, Inc., which morphed into Deep-Green—leading the way to make exploitation imminent.

 

Some of our very own Pacific island leaders, including the Cook Islands, persuaded by the deep-greed of the world’s false narratives of riches, the kind that pave the way to heaven in gold, who see these minerals as manna from gods, have issued licenses for their ocean to be proving grounds again for technologies that have never been tried, nor tested anywhere in such depths. Machines weighing up to 300 tons will descend down depths of up to 6,000 meters below the surface, where they will mine and scrape the sediment, harvesting matter up to motherships where the minerals will be processed. Once processed, sediments will be sent back to the seafloor via pipes. The miners are quick to tell us that there is no life of any value down there, the abyss; they do agree that it will destroy the local habitat but argue on a planetary scale it’s a worthy sacrifice for the good of all mankind.

 

Just not in their backyards.

 

Scientists warn of doomsday climate scenarios, like the release of an even more potent greenhouse gas, methane from seeps on the seafloor, while plumes of sediments the size of dust storms can smother large areas of seafloor. Irreversible damage to biodiversity is a given in an area we know very little about, systems which took millions of years to form will be lost without any recovery beyond the human timeline. A place less understood than the surfaces of the Moon and Mars, considered to be the cradle of life itself.

 

We children of ocean are called to play no part in the destruction of life itself, to draw a blue line for the good of all.

 

Hau‘ofa lyrically reminds us on why it’s not too late, why we must once again assert ourselves as ocean peoples, to wake up to an ancient truth.

 

“We are the sea, we are the ocean, we must wake up to this ancient truth and together use it to overturn all hegemonic views that aim ultimately to confine us again, physically and psychologically, in the tiny spaces which we have resisted accepting as our sole appointed place, and from which we have recently liberated ourselves. We must not allow anyone to belittle us again, and take away our freedom.”

As Mila poignantly points out, this dominion over nature has never been part of our epistemology, we are simply a part of a sacred continuum and of relationships. For we are taught that the nautilus is an ancient sign; if sighted it means impending trouble, and we hung them on doorways and carved them into our canoes and shields to protect us in our voyages. The Marshallese navigator warns us of following bright dead stars into fading futures. While the late Dr. Teresia Teaiwa, in a submission to the Government of Vanuatu, reminds us that the ocean is our source of poetry and “Mining the seabed will extract the life force, the mauri, from our oceanic continent. Mining the seabed will extract and commodify the last remaining source of our poetry.”

 

Hau‘ofa urges us all to take our role as guardians for the good of all seriously. “No people on earth are more suited to be guardians of the world’s largest ocean than those for whom it has been home for generations.” To assume guardianship of this great ocean again, we need new senses. If the ocean is the blue heart of our planet, we need eyes that can hear the heartbeat of the ocean and ears that see and fathom the depths of its wisdom to guide us for the good of all.

 

1/ Karlo Mila, “Epeli Hau’ofa: The Magical Metaphor Man,” conference paper presented at the symposium An Oceanic Imagination: A Tribute to the Life and Mind of ‘Epeli Hau’ofa (University of Otago, New Zealand, October 21, 2009), https://www.otago.ac.nz/humanities/otago060724.pdf.

2/  Epeli Hau‘ofa, “Our Sea of Islands,” in We Are the Ocean: Selected Works (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2008 [1993]), 39.

3/  Submission by Tekura Moeka’a and Teresia Teaiwa, Vanuatu 2014 National Consultation on DSM Policy.

 

Oceans Rising - A companion to Territorial Agency - Oceans in TransformationFirst published in:
Oceans Rising, A Companion to Territorial Agency: Oceans in Transformation,
ed. Daniela
Zyman (Vienna and Berlin: TBA21–Academy and Sternberg: Press, 2021)

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