Island as a ‘catch-all’ concept

"The élan that draws humans toward islands extends the double movement that produces islands in themselves. Dreaming of islands - whether with joy or in fear, it doesn't matter - is dreaming of pulling away, of being already seperate, far from any continent, of being lost and alone - or it is dreaming of starting from scratch, recreating, beginning anew. Some islands drifted away from the continent, but the island is also that toward which one drifts; other islands originated in the ocean, but the island is also the origin, radical and absolute."
Gilles Deleuze


Islands burn into the minds of children from an early age. They emerge in the first literature where they are prominent in Homer’s Odyssey, and Plato’s island of Atlantis is perhaps the most famous mythical island of all time. The seclusion and autonomy that an island suggests has nourished the literary imagination for millennia, but the island setting as a site for the spiritual, emotional, or psychological transformation of human character has remained a constant in Western literature. The Greeks were the first to develop the island-book as such, but Roman writers showed much less interest in insular themes. On the fringes of Europe, Island stories were generously developed in the ‘imrama’, which were medieval Irish accounts of mythical Atlantic island voyages of chiefs and saints.

From Homer to Charles Kingsley the island narrative, often illustrated with maps, involves a character in many, if not all, of the following: removal to a remote island; awakening to, and taking stock of, strange surroundings; initial setbacks followed by increasing adaptation; spiritual, emotional, or psychological growth due specifically to island experiences; a climactic event which challenges growing feelings of wholeness; and escape and return to the home society in a much-altered state

As an allegory, the island genre comes to practical fruition in Aldous Huxley’s book entitled Island. This work of fiction describes an island named Pala, which is used as an educational vehicle to communicate Huxley’s ideas about how people in a good society would interact with each other and their environment. The message of the people of Pala is that they have always chosen to adapt their economy and technology to human beings---not their human beings to somebody else's economy and technology. They import what they can't make; and only what they can afford. Their spokesman Dr Robert says, “ And what we can afford is limited not merely by our supply of pounds and marks and dollars, but also primarily---primarily," he insisted---"by our wish to be happy, our ambition to become fully human."

Huxley’s message from Pala has been taken up for real by a group of Aegean islands that have joined the Aegean Islands' Sustainability Network (DAFNI) in order to qualify for a Sustainability Badge from the National Technical University of Athens (NTUA). The cultural network is part of a program in which islands must carry out environmentally friendly cultural activities. These are then evaluated by a group of researchers from the NTUA. "The islands only have a future if they follow a sustainable path," said Mayor of Ios, Giorgos Poussaios, one of the founders of the idea for the network.

This reminds us that always looming in the background of an island people is the fate of the Easter islanders, whose culture collapsed as a result of using up their island’s natural resources. Deforestation caused a negative cycle that snowballed until the island’s social structure deteriorated and its people resorted to cannibalism and warfare to stay alive. Today, Easter Island is a low diversity grassland with huge stone heads as the only remains of an extinct culture and the once diverse ecology that supported it.

Islands as general models of sustainability have been taken up by conservation managers in their professional battleground of OLMS (one large, many small). Is it better to have one large nature reserve or many small ones? Conservation of wildlife is one form of land use that competes with agriculture, forestry, urban development and outdoor recreation for an extremely limited supply of land. Therefore, a nature reserve, whether surrounded by water, or an isolated patch of mainland habitat in an inhospitable sea of environment that has been modified by humans, is an island. Studies of oceanic islands and habitat islands show that larger areas hold more species. The relationship between these two variables is such that a 100% increase in area produces roughly a 25% increase in species.

The philosophy of Islands

“The flag only becomes a flag when it is unique; the nation only becomes a nation when it is surrounded; the hero only becomes a hero when he has before him and behind him men who are not heroes; the paving-stone only becomes a paving stone when it has before it and behind it things that are not paving stones. There are two other obvious instances, of course, of the same instinct; the perennial poetry of islands, and the perennial poetry of ships. A ship like the Argo or the Fram is valued by the mind because it is an island, because, that is, it carries with it, floating loose on the desolate elements, the resources, and rules and trades, and treasuries of a nation, because it has ranks, and shops and streets, and the whole clinging like a few limpets to a lost spar. An island like Ithaca or England is valued by the mind because it is a ship, because it can find itself alone and self-dependent in a waste of water, because its orchards and forests can be numbered like bales of merchandise, because its corn can be counted like gold, because the starriest and dreariest snows upon its most forsaken peaks are silver flags flown from familiar masts, because its dimmest and most inhuman mines of coal or lead below the roots of things are definite chattels stored awkwardly in the lowest locker of the hold.

The Spice of Life and Other Essays,
by Gilbert Keith Chesterton

This quotation highlights the general importance of thinking about ‘islands’. In the shifting interplay of contributing factors of human vulnerability, what happens in islands will be much the same as what could happen at local level anywhere. The difference is that islands are immediately 'local level' and appropriately identified strategies are implementable there, being manageable and small scale. Islands, whether they are offshore or simply isolated valued patches within an overcrowded mainland, especially require processes of development designed on their behalf, and with their participation, rather than to share only in prevailing national programmes. This is the essence of the Local Agenda 21s. As one of the few really practical programmes that emerged from Rio 92, Agenda 21s are about ‘good governance’ for environment and development. At their best, they provide a means by which environmental issues become more integrated within the planning and management of an urban area. They usually involve the development of a particular document – the Local Agenda 21 – but the significance of the document should be that it was developed through a broad, inclusive consultation process that seeks to draw in all key interests (‘stakeholders’) and to develop agreement between different (conflicting or competing) interests of ‘islanders’ championing an action plan for their own small patch.