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island conversations
podcast series

"Island Notes" composition in Cretan Flat Mandolin by Christophoro Gorantokaki @"Melody Box"

Welcome to SICRI’s “island conversations” podcast series.

The aim of these podcasts is to highlight the work of island studies scholars and practitioners who make a significant contribution to islands’ research, arts, and culture landscape.

The podcasts are accompanied by a curated transcript that is edited to read as an independent piece.

Jonathan Pugh:

Hello, my name is Jonathan Pugh and I am Reader in Island Studies at Newcastle University in the United Kingdom. Today, I have the pleasure of talking to Ilan Kelman about his long career in island studies. As I’m sure many listeners know, Ilan is Professor of Disasters and Health at the Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction at University College London. With nearly 16,000 citations, Ilan is one of the major figures in island studies. Particularly with regard to so many island studies’ debates and how islands are and can be better engaged in debates about sustainability, resilience, participatory research, disasters and health. What we're going to do in this interview is first talk about Ilan’s longer career arc as this relates to island studies and then turn to discuss some of the key themes and tropes which his work engages. 

 

Ilan, I think I’ve known you longer than any other academic I know. We first met in 1999, when you were interning at the UNDP in Bridgetown, Barbados, and I was studying how organizations like the UNDP worked when I was doing my PhD. Would you please talk us through the different phases of your research, since then, and in particular, how these have engaged Islands and island studies.

 

Ilan Kelman: Thanks so much and wonderful to be here, thank you Jon for hosting, and to the podcast organizers. I really have been incredibly privileged. It started back in my masters and I was very fortunate to have a department and a supervisor, who said, you know what Ilan, do what you want. Obviously, it has to accord to what the expectations are, and it has to be academically sound, but here's a chance to do what you want. So, then, I had to figure out, what do I actually want, and I really narrowed it down to three sort of overarching interests. Number one, I wanted to contribute to society. Science is wonderful and research is so exciting and it’s such a privilege, but for me it has to be science for society. I wanted to ensure I was contributing constructively. Second, is the reality I do get bored easily, so it had to challenge me and had to fulfill me. I don't think there's any harm in saying yes, we want to do better for the world, but we also have to do better for ourselves. If we are not engaged, if we're not enjoying it and being fulfilled, then we're simply not going to be contributing constructively. And the third aspect was that there's a whole world out there, and there are many people who can give so much, but also who needs so much. 

 

I really wanted to ensure that what I was doing was internationally relevant and global, but never neglecting the local context. It was really bringing it down to what's happening where I live -  can I ensure I am contributing to where I live? But taking and giving lessons to and from the globe. So my Masters led me down two paths: number one was disaster research, and I was very pleased to find that a lot of people were saying disasters should not happen, so how can we do better? But interests which always intrigued me were islands, and again I was very fortunate to discover a whole island research community. And I thought, well, here's where I can hopefully make a useful contribution; it will definitely challenge me and it’s international and local by joining the two. 

 

I was very fortunate to be able to do my Masters in island disasters, that led to the work in Barbados, which you'd mentioned, and I started out at a regional non-governmental organization, the  Caribbean Conservation Association. Then moved over to, as you said, UNDP, the United Nations volunteers joint office, where I worked with so many amazing people and learned so much from around the Caribbean and thinking about wider island connections. My contract was running out, so I thought, I need a job and I now have a little bit of experience, so I better really go for something which is exciting and relevant. I saw advertised online, a post for PhD, I applied for it and ended up doing a three-year PhD which was linked to coastal flooding in England, with two case studies. One of which was an island, Canvey Island downstream from London and the other, which was sort of islanded or island type. It was in a city of Hull, but a new development called Victoria Dock Village, and I was comparing these two locations to determine how the infrastructure would respond to a coastal flood. Once I was in the PhD, I realized how powerful, and to some extent, how unpowerful academia is. And I felt that within my three criteria: making a constructive contribution, being challenged, international to local - I hoped that I could do so much to draw out the power of science, without making it destructive. That led to postdocs and eventually my current position in London, where I’m 50% at the Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction, 50% at the Institute for Global Health

 

So still being given amazing opportunities to connect fields, to bring in different ideas, different perspectives, always focused on the islands and I’ve sort of brought in the polar regions also, but they are very much islands to large extent. And therefore, continuing this track of core islands connecting with core disasters, but the wider concepts of global health, planetary health, disaster risk reduction, sustainability development – really trying to say what are we doing wrong, and how can we do better on an evidence basis using science for society.

Chalky Mount.jpg

View from Chalky Mount, Barbados.

(Copyright Ilan Kelman 1999)

Thanks Ilan. I’ve obviously known you for a long time, […] the two things that really stand out […] for me about your longer career is this ability to work at the intersections between academia and practice, or perhaps not even to see this line that so many seem to want to reinforce all the time. I think it's often said that we should try and do both, but I think you're exemplary of someone who does do both and it's something that I find immensely impressive in your career and in your work. And the second thing, which I think the success of your work is probably a consequence of, is what you just said about being interested in it yourself. In many ways it's a really obvious thing to say, we shouldn't do stuff that we're not interested in, but perhaps not everyone does that, perhaps a lot of people just can get sucked into an approach or a problem or an issue when actually they don't sit back and reflect: ‘does this really interest me?’ I think your career is a reflection of if something does interest you, that's the key to working successfully. Those are the kinds of things that I take from knowing you a very long time. I don't know if you wanted to kind of come back on those or whether you'd like to now turn more specifically to the state of island studies.

You're very kind and it's certainly what we try to do and it's very supportive of you to give that sort of endorsement and to say it's working, which is an encouragement to do more, and all I can do is say I’ve been inspired, helped and supported by so many who do it, and continue to do it much better than me. Anything that we can do to help guide people to do exactly as you're saying, don't be afraid to enjoy what you're doing, don't be afraid to pursue what you want, always keep it in perspective, always take constructive critique and ensure that no matter what career stage that you are at, you must inspire, support, work with others, while ensuring that you're being guided and being inspired by others. We all have so much to learn, we can all always improve, but we also have so much to give and no matter whether your early career, still doing a degree, coming from the UN, coming from a local non-governmental organization, you have so much to offer, so please don't hesitate, I hope this is how we can go forward together, exchanging and teaching and learning from each other.

Yes, so I think that's very true and I think that nicely takes us to the field of island studies, do we even want to call it field of ‘island studies’ … Islands work, where various networks have developed over the last few years. I mean one thing that I found, I don't know how you feel about this, is island studies tend to be a very open field of research, and I think having moved around various academic disciplines myself, I think it is particularly encouraging to younger scholars, but maybe you'd like to just kind of comment on where you think island studies, as a field of research, is at the moment, or even if you like to frame it in those terms.

 

No, I think Jon you're absolutely right that we try and be open and welcoming, we hope that we succeed, if not, then just let us know. The strength is bringing together different disciplines, people who are non-disciplinary, people who are all disciplinary. And what is so amazing, what is so wonderful about many of these island related conferences, is ensuring that we do not hold a conference, unless the organizers are involving the local people directly; the islanders. And I’ve sat on academic panels at academic island conferences in the same way, entirely equitable with people from the local community who may have limited academic background. This is the exchange, this is saying that theory is important, concepts are important, but we have to know what people are doing in their day to day lives and their decade to decade lives. Even the fact that you challenge the whole notion of island studies - it's not just about studying, it's not putting islands out there as saying oh you're a nice little object, let's study you and write it up. It's actually island work or, more to the point, working with islanders. Islands are not just the physical entity it's also the people, the culture, the process of being part of the globe and fundamentally can we even separate an islander from an island? 

 

Where the broader field of island studies or islands-related work or islander interaction is going, is so introspective, really questioning itself and saying, are we doing it the right way. As you said, is it really a field, do we want to call it a field, is it a discipline, do we want to call a discipline and the answer can be yes or no. The answer can be today, yes, tomorrow, no. They said it depends on the context. Certainly for me another really powerful and really appropriate approach, which is so embodied within islands-related work is that it comes down to the people. Even if we're talking about island geomorphology or island biogeography or island evolution over eons, so much is really about the islanders. Learning from islanders, being directed by islanders, not separating islanders from non-islanders but looking at the overlaps, interactions and the connections. 

 

And again, in the same way that the island conferences have to bring in non-academics, nonscientists, particularly from the Islands where we travel. It’s saying everyone has so much to contribute. Different knowledges; different forms of knowledge, different approach to knowledge, even querying what is an island? Even querying, why do we ask that question, and always saying, are we looking at islands, looking at islanders, looking at the combination, why do we do it? How do we frame it in a respectful manner, how do we bring everyone in so that they're contributing while learning? Ultimately, we can then combine people, combine their skills, combine their knowledges or our peoples, our skills, our knowledges, to generate a wider wisdom which will/should contribute to islands and islanders with all the challenges and opportunities present. 

 

But also go well beyond that, to give back so much to the world, which they already have, but also to ensure that we're not leaving any location, any person, any knowledge behind. In order to integrate islands and islanders with the world, not being this separate isolated marginalized group, but actually trying to contribute constructively and overcome the challenges which all of us face today.

Silhouette Island, Seychelles.jpg

Silhouette Island, Seychelles.
(Copyright Ilan Kelman 2013)

Excellent points Ilan. […] I think I like the way in which you frame this tension between a kind of broader work on islands and a kind of field of island study scholars, shall we say. I mean there are a group of us that do identify with island studies as a field, but at the same time, there is a huge amount of work, particularly today, on islands, and there always has been, you know, in my opinion … Darwin was a great island scholar, Margaret Mead, you know, it goes back, but they wouldn't call themselves ‘island studies’ scholars. They do work on islands and with islands. But I think you're right because, in a sense, this tension is really useful, particularly today where the island becomes so important for so many wider debates that there are a group of people who are identified with ‘island studies’ and they can bring that tension to these debates, and islanders as well, as you were saying.

 

Maybe it's not so much tension, but just synergy and connection. There's nothing wrong with disagreement, as long as it's constructive. There's nothing wrong with divergence, as long as we're moving forward together and, hopefully, we do have the same fundamental goals, but we do need to thrash that out and continue questioning ourselves and continue being questioned.

 

Absolutely. I think that's right and, as I said, I think it just couldn't be more important. You know, as islands and islanders just seem to become so much more prevalent in so many debates about the kinds of things, we can talk about. You know, sustainability, resilience, disasters and so forth. In fact, maybe we could turn to those now then, I mean I don't know what you want to do here, would you like to take these key terms in turn or maybe approach them together? I think the things we can talk about that are very relevant to your work are concepts like sustainability, resilience, participatory research, disasters and health. Maybe we could start off with the kind of more sustainability, resilience kind of debates and where your work fits into that and in particularly regard to debates on islands.

 

And this is exactly where I learned so much because as you're intuiting, they're all connected, it really is hard to separate them. We have a number of challenges, from the academic perspective it's definitions, it’s translation and interpretation across languages and cultures. What islanders and island studies have taught me is really to try to make it relevant to what people are doing. And again, this is where's your food coming from today? But it's also where are we going to site infrastructure for the next hundred years, how are we going to deal with the next millennium of environmental and social changes. Islands have brought so much to me in making it practical and pragmatic, so if we're talking about some of these words like sustainability, like resilience, what does it really mean on the ground, do we want everything to be static and robust for the next millennium, or even the next day. Are we talking about ensuring that people have what I have, being challenged, being fulfilled having the potential to pursue my interests and contributing constructively? Or are they simply eking out an existence day to day, hoping the fish will be in the sea tomorrow, hoping that they're not going to have thugs come and take some of their money today. 

 

We need to connect topics, we need to connect issues and a lot of the buzzwords which have come out like resilience, like social-ecological systems, like planetary boundaries. When we start delving into them, we find two key lessons. Number one, as you're saying, the people from decades and centuries ago actually said very similar aspects and give a lot of information. Number two, the complicated phrases don't add anything. So if we take social-ecological, social is people, ecological is natural environment. You bring together a system that's a collection of parts, so it’s simply saying that it's a collection of parts, of people and the natural environment. Which to me is reality. So rather than using a complicated phrase, I prefer to use a simple phrase, and any work which I’ve done on a whole variety of islands from the high Arctic to the equator show that people live within the reality, which sounds like a truism, which makes me scratch my head and say, well then, how come so many academics have forgotten it? Even to the extent that they then just say, well, we have to look at what climate change is doing to social-ecological systems. And yes, we are changing the climate rapidly and substantively it's not the only rapid substantive change, we are doing. It's not the only major concern affecting people on islands and in other places. Whether it's human trafficking, whether it's drugs, whether it's weapons, whether it's microplastics or wider plastic waste and pollution, people have to deal with this day to day. And we're being affected by it day to day, as well as millennium to millennial. 

 

Let's not get distracted by these big terms and big words, let's not get distracted by trying to sound much more clever when we're not adding any substance. And let's not take a concept like planetary boundaries and assume that it gives us all we need, when it's threshold based, even though people and environment don't typically work on thresholds, it does not take into account past science, including extensive work from islands and from islanders. And it also tends to leave a lot of human influence out of the equations, rather than saying, people are tilling their front garden, and they're being inhibited from tilling their front garden, not just by environmental changes, but by social forces. 

 

Looking at sustainability and resilience, people often take them as synonymous, when they can be contrary. Because some conceptualizations of resilience say let's keep everything the same, and the more robust it is, the less it changes, or the more it comes back to the way it was before, the more resilient it is. If we are taking today as being resilient, we're going to destroy ourselves because it's not sustainable. We absolutely do not want resilience in our use of fossil fuels. We obviously do not want resilience in people being enslaved. We obviously do not want resilience in a huge inequities and inequalities which are prevalent across all countries, so we do not want to be sustaining in the same way. Thus, sustainability actually means the opposite of many approaches to resilience, particularly when it means cutting people out of what's being discussed and that's where the participatory aspects come in. If we're talking about modern anglophone science, so much participatory research was founded and defined in the 1970s and 1980s, particularly from work on islands. 

 

So why do we forget this, why do we underrate it, why do we pretend that everything coming, for example, from climate change or from social-ecological systems, social-ecological resilience coupled human and natural systems, why do we assume that everything coming from that, which is so recent, is so new when it completely misrepresents not just the history of modern anglophone science, but simply the history of knowledge and what islanders and others have contributed. What I try to do is, hopefully constructively, but perhaps I’m not entirely diplomatic all the time, as you might have heard. 

 

And this is where I could potentially improve. What I’m trying to do is recognize the people, recognize their history, recognize that cultures, again knowledges to wisdom. To say just speaking in English, with a lot of syllables, does not necessarily confer intellectualism or appropriateness. We need to learn what is coming from the people experiencing these difficulties and the changes. We need to learn from the people, creating their own opportunities, but who are quite rightly hungry for more and we can offer a lot and then do better for ourselves and our own places in our own ways of living. I mean, do you want to come back on anything like that while I go to disasters and health, what does all this mean to you Jon?

 

I think, yes, I can I completely agree and I was just thinking about what we share here. I think one thing, perhaps we share that we could tease out a bit is the way in which a lot of these debates were happening, a long time ago, you know, in the sense that a lot of the debates in critical theory or resilience or whatever, were actually developed through and with island and islanders a very long time ago. But also, the other thing […] we share is the way in which the figure of the island and the islanders and island cultures get kind of sucked up into these broader buzzwords and debates and how they get enrolled and put to use. Not necessarily for the purpose of the people on the ground, but with kind of developing these broader frameworks that then become operationalized. I don't know if you want to just talk about that. This tension between just the ordinary day to day life of people like, in Barbados, that we both know very well, versus the way in which islands and islanders and island cultures are being enrolled in bigger debates.

 

No and I think this is very apt to call it a tention. You know it's all very well, as you kindly did to promote my citation count and sure, maybe I have these metrics but, so what? Aside from the academic backlash against these artificial and completely constructed numbers, it does not help a single islander, how many thousands of citations I do or do not have. I’m not aware of anyone who is struggling to feed themselves and their family day to day, who fears crime and assault simply walking to work or walking to school every day, I’m not aware of anyone who really cares about H indices or I indices or whatnot. 

 

So again, it comes back to the fundament: How can our science support people, how can we be supported by people for our science, and this is where it's so important to talk to taxi drivers. So important to talk to the fishers or talk to the farmers. It is intriguing that when we do that, including you know through some of our research projects funded by research grants from Research Councils, when we talk to people, they say, well outsiders tell us that climate change is an issue, therefore, it is an issue. Or the number of environmental groups who say well yes okay look we have climate change in our mandate, but we're actually concerned about the turtles not being able to lay their eggs on the beach or actually concerned about the stray plastics, or the batteries, which are harming the reefs and the mangroves. We’re concerned about the number of tourists, not particularly the flying but the sunscreen, the suntan lotion which then comes off in the water and harms the ecosystems. 

 

So top-down discourses, and I mentioned three of them, like the SES social-ecological systems / CHANS coupled human and natural systems as one, planetary boundaries is another, climate change is the third. What I’m hearing so often and especially from islanders working on environmental issues on the ground, is that they are only using these phrases because they're told to. That is exceptionally harmful. As soon as our academic language is distracting from the day to day and failing to connect with the century to century and millennium to millennium, we are the problem, we are the ones making the mistakes. 

 

This is where island studies is exceptional and connecting. Island studies are so supportive and has really brought me forward in doing exactly what you're suggesting Jon. We have to listen to the people; this is not saying that local knowledge is a panacea, because some of the wider issues like human trafficking, like the arms trade, like the amount of government money that goes into fossil fuel subsidies, may not filter down to that local level. Which is why it's always a balance. It's always an exchange. The core, and this is what I’ve gained so much from islanders and from island studies, is listening, that everyone has knowledge to contribute and be so aware that in working in English and academic language, we often impose ideas and concepts which actually diverge, distract and become problematic for people just trying to do their day to day lives and day to day jobs with the local and global issues with the daily and century issues.

A House on Upolu, Samoa Which Was Damaged by Cyclone Heta in January 2004.
(Copyright Ilan Kelman 2004)

Yes, I mean that's spot on, and this leads us very nicely, I think, to your recent work on disasters in particular. And you know it's been highly successful, and ‘Disasters by Choice’ has really kind of been picked up very quickly; your recent work on disasters which, of course, obviously draws upon a longer career arc. But maybe you could talk a bit more about that, your recent work on disasters, which I find fascinating and so many people I work with do as well.

 

Yes, this concept of disaster by choice is really saying that the phrase ‘natural disaster’ does not make sense. Disasters do not come from nature. They come from forcing people to live in certain places, in certain ways, where they cannot deal with nature's just typical usual events and processes, you know, like a hurricane, like an earthquake, like a fire which is simply what happens. People are making choices to push people into realms where they are scared to evacuate because of assaults or loss of job. They cannot afford or do not have access to insurance and they may be living in dwellings, which they know cannot stand up to the hurricane or earthquake, but they have no choice to move. 

 

This is not my work, this is not my idea, the point of disasters not being natural, the concept of saying do not use the phrase 'natural disaster', the idea of pushing away from environmental determinism, like the incorrect science of 'climate change causes disasters'. This comes out of that early work, particularly from work on islands, again 1970s 1980s. What I hope I’m doing is bringing out, making it useful for across disciplines and also melding disciplines bring them together, but the core point comes from early disaster researchers, who did a lot of the work on islands with islanders. Saying we can deal with these issues if we have the choices, hence disaster by choice. We can deal with the weather; we can deal with the environment changing if we have the resources. And we see that in some recent hurricanes in the Caribbean. 

 

A big deal was made of the 2017 hurricane season, It was linked to climate change, at least the disasters were. And there's no doubt that human-caused climate change exacerbated the intensity of some of those hurricanes. There's equally no doubt that the hurricane disasters cannot be linked to climate change. Number one, in previous decades, the worst-hit islands had very similar hurricanes, and to some extent disasters, but number two, not always disasters, despite similar hurricanes. All the issues which island studies pushed to the forefront, cultural appropriation, colonialism, post colonialism, corruption, poor governance, inequity, injustice, inequality – those cause disasters, no matter what the environment does. This was well ingrained in academia and in development practice from islands and islanders in the 1970s, 1980s and to some extent before. This is what I’m trying to bring forward by saying disasters are by choice, hence, ‘disaster by choice’. We do not want to use the phrase ‘natural disaster’. 

 

And let's stop blaming the earthquake, or the windstorm or the tornado or the tsunami or the volcanic eruption or the storm for the disaster. When we have so much knowledge over decades and centuries, so much knowledge from people who have lived this on their farms and on their boats, so much knowledge which we could use, that people are failing to. And, unfortunately, a lot of a scientific misinformation is coming from scientists.  Even the fundamental question: are hurricanes increasing because of human-caused climate change, and the science, the scientific consensus currently is no. But so many scholars come out and say, of course storms are increasing in number, of course hurricanes are increasing in number and that's simply not supported by the science. Human-caused climate change is making hurricanes more intense, it is causing them to slow down in their tracks, which means more rainfall falls in the same place leading towards flooding but on the simple statement of number of hurricanes and other tropical cyclones, it is terrifying how much this misinformation is coming from scientists. 

 

All I can say is, again let's go back to the islanders, let's go back to the people on the ground, they don't care if three hurricanes or five hurricanes come through. If they can deal with it, they can deal with it, and if they can't, they're going to be wiped out by one hurricane never mind three or five. So let's stop getting distracted, let's learn from the scientific knowledge we have, and let us ensure that we're bringing the wider concepts like health, like sustainability, however we define it, like peace, to avoid conflict but peace is not just the absence of conflict, there's more to it, like the wider issues of how are people living their lives, what livelihoods do they have, and how can we support them to live it appropriately in their own way through exchange, which then comes back to the way I ought to be living and what I need being in a fairly nice flat in a world mega city with a wonderful job at a top university. It affects us all, and we all have so much to contribute.

Dealing with vulnerability on Anegada, BVI (British Virgin Islands).jpg

Dealing with vulnerability on Anegada, BVI (British Virgin Islands).
(Copyright Ilan Kelman 2012.)

I think just before we start to draw this conversation to a close ... I think I’d like to end on … [how] we both feel [island studies] is a generous field of work to engage. Particularly maybe for younger scholars, we talked about this earlier so, you know, we can end, I think, by talking a bit about … some advice you have for those wanting to get into these areas of work. But before we do that, something you just said, which is … there is presently a lack of faith in human agency [in many debates]. [This] is what you seem to be saying in the disasters by choice. It's removing control from the human subject … that's actually able to make a difference, and to say, well, actually, you know we're overwhelmed by the more than human, we're overwhelmed by these things, even if that may not actually be true, even if we can actually do things. The go-to place at the moment seems to be about the power of the hurricane, of climate change or whatever, and the lack of agency of people to do stuff … [so] … I was just wondering, why you think that might be at the moment because that's a shift, certainly in the Western mindset, and I was just wondering what you thought about that.

 

Particularly disasters, but also health and peace research, among others, really started at the point of saying that we have two levels to consider. Number one, people have power and people have choices, so we need to support them in using their power constructively and making appropriate choices. The other simultaneous level is the difference, so not everyone has all power, not everyone has all choices, these are the challenges of poverty, inequity, injustice and inequality. So we need to build that up better, but just calling someone, oh you're poor and vulnerable, actually removes the option for them to understand what power they do have and the opportunities they do have. This is not saying they should completely take care of themselves and we should just step away, of course not, because when we get the wider resource misallocation, when we get people abusing their power, when we get people accumulating power simply to help themselves, of course it removes choices, of course it removes those resources and opportunities. 

 

So these fields started from that dual premise, of everyone can and should be doing something, but people are differentiated and they can and should be doing different approaches, so how can we ensure that everyone can do what they want, without harming others. Climate change and some of the other technical phrases, including ‘Anthropocene’ actually removes those levels by saying: Oh well, climate change is going to kill you, so why worry. Oh, we're all doomed because of the Anthropocene so there's nothing you can do. Oh, it's all because the climate is changing and it's all because we're changing the climate, so therefore you're poor, you're vulnerable, you're impoverished, there's really no options you have. And it's very dangerous, it labels people, it removes what they have from them and it distracts from the baselines of the words I used earlier: resource misallocation, inequity, injustice and inequality. It is a challenge to move back, it is a challenge to say human-caused climate change is a big issue, we are experiencing the impacts now, we have to deal with it. But don't let it subsume everything. When there are so many wider issues and even if we solved climate change, we'd still have the fundaments. 

 

This is what I hope we can create a space to discuss, this is what I hear so much from so many different islanders. From top civil servants through to those who are subsistence livers and again it's about this balance of saying, maybe human-caused climate change does not appear to be impacting every individual today, but those impacts are there, even if they're not perceived and they're definitely going to increase without action. Without detracting from the day-to-day challenges they face, which could be sexism, which could be racism, which could be people taking their resources, which could be people removing choices and opportunities from them, so it's about seeking a balance. It's about seeking combinations, it’s about seeking links and saying really push back against items which don't mean anything. Push back against the academicese, which is a language unto itself and removes knowledge. Push back against those who try and promote a single issue or a single discipline or single method and instead inspire and be inspired to work together, to join the best with the best, to overcome all our limitations. Don't be afraid of diversions, don't be afraid of difference but use it constructively, not for destructive conflict.

 

That's absolutely right, and I think you're illustrating there why work on islands is so important for these debates. Yes because, you know islands are key figures for climate change, for the Anthropocene and for all these things. And they get enrolled in these debates and therefore getting involved with the kind of pushes and pulls and tensions and arguments, which is fine, you know constructive arguments around islands in these debates is really useful.

 

And again, these are not my ideas, these are not my words, it's not me saying Oh, you have to listen to Kelman because he has so many citations, I’m actually really just repeating what islanders have told me. And what I’ve learned from island studies, so I actually do not have a lot which I’ve produced which is original. I’m making it derivative and learning from others, and really trying to promote them in order to move forward on their terms.

Lough Oughter, Killykeen Forest, County Cavan, Ireland.jpg

Lough Oughter, Killykeen Forest, County Cavan, Ireland.
(Copyright Ilan Kelman 1997)

Yes, so that's clear, you know from the whole of your career path it's been like that, without a doubt. … This leads us nicely … into the final thing I think we should be doing, and that's for [interested] listeners …  what is island studies, what is work on islands, how can I get involved more? I think we all make a particular effort to develop networks that involve not just local [islanders], you're absolutely right, …  but I think something else we try and do, well, we try our best, is create spaces were younger or early career academics can find spaces in which they can have these open and frank discussions …. ‘Nothing's too stupid’ is a phrase we use in some of our networks, but maybe, could you talk a bit about advice for early career academics wanting to get involved with islands research?

 

When I was early career, I found it so welcoming, it's exactly what you said. I made mistakes, and of course I continue to make mistakes, hopefully improving, but that's for others to judge and I found as an early career researcher that both disaster research and island studies were so welcoming in exactly that manner. If we are not achieving that today, we need to know and it's the early career researchers who should tell us, who should call us out and who should say, you know, this didn't work, this will improve. My advice is: be constructive, but don't hold back on critiques. And critique is not just criticism, it also compliments it saying look, this is what's working, this is what isn't from my perspective, it is my perspective, and people may differ. But how can we move forward to support that?

 

Ultimately, I go back to what I said at the beginning, where I began with my Masters, where I was told, pursue my own interests, but make it constructive. It’s the same advice I would give to any early career researcher: pursue your own interests but make it constructive and ensure that you do tell us what we're doing wrong and what we're doing right, I hope we’re doing some things right. But ultimately ensure that you're fulfilled, that you're enjoying it, that you feel you're contributing and that you're doing what you want, not just on your terms, but on the terms of everyone around us who supports us, works with us, contributes, teaches us, learns from us, and ultimately inspires us.

 

I think that’s a really nice way to finish the conversation there Ilan. Always a pleasure to chat to you and the genuineness that comes across. For people that don't know Ilan, one of the most genuine academics I know, one of the most open academics I know, so thank you so much for this conversation Ilan.

 

Thanks to you Jon and thank you for inspiring me and all those around us.

Fiji Sunset..jpg

Fiji Sunset.
(Copyright Ilan Kelman 2004)