SEA Semester: Sustainability in Polynesian Island Cultures and Ecosystems

The impacts of environmental change are being felt all over the globe, affecting people and ecosystems in even the most remote locations. Questions are being raised about how humans societies will operate in the future given limited resources, growing populations, exponential increases in waste generation, and climatic disruption. Humans have always been an important factor in environmental change, bringing plants, animals and diseases from one part of the planet to another, but our awareness in the twenty-first century of the rapidity and irreversibility of those changes, and of the profound effects they will have on human cultures and economies, demands we address them.

The SEA Semester course “Sustainability in Polynesian Island Cultures and Ecosystems” (SPICE) was designed to encourage a conversation on these topics. We chose Polynesia for our study because we thought it would somehow be easier to understand relationships between production and consumption, resource use and management, and humans and their environment, within the proscribed boundaries of isolated islands than in the complex consumer society in which we live in the US. Nothing was simple, of course. These islands are intimately tied to the outside world by trade and economic relationships, by ancient and modern migration, and by European colonization.

The SPICE program has run since 2011 and begins with a month of classes on our campus in Woods Hole, MA. We proceed from there to the South Pacific to board the Sailing School Vessel Robert C. Seamans for two months. Our voyages have taken us to diverse island types, from atolls to high volcanic islands, and allowed us to observe and compare how humans respond to the same needs in very different environments. A resurgence of interest in indigenous cultural practices tied to long-distance voyaging and traditional Polynesian canoes, has given us an entrée into the complex subject of “cultural sustainability.” The cultural landscape all over Polynesia is being revitalized after generations of population loss and cultural suppression. Our mode of travel on a sailing vessel ties us to voyaging societies in Tahiti and Hawaii. Our ship also provides us with a measurable model of consumption. At sea, we are a closed society, dependent on the food and fuel we stock, but sustainable with good planning for a seven-week cruise across the central Pacific.

This atlas is an introduction to what we found, and these entries represent the research, travels, discussions, adventures, struggles, encounters and thoughtful considerations of our students.