A Political Ecology of Plastiglomerate in Kaʻū, Hawai’i

A Political Ecology of Plastiglomerate in Kaʻū, Hawai’i


I. Introduction

Plastiglomerate—an indurated agglomeration of sand, shells, rocks, and plastic—has been proposed as an informal stratigraphic marker of the contested Anthropocene epoch, inscribing evidence of human activity directly into the Earth.1 Marking the fusion and entanglements of nature and culture, plastiglomerate is inherently and inextricably linked to the confounding forces that shape it. The object is indeed no inconsequential, banal, or apolitical substance. Nor is it natural, inevitable, or objective. While the landscape of Kamilo Beach in the Kaʻū district of the island of Hawai’i—where plastiglomerate was originally observed—may initially appear as a common anthropocenic landfill, its distinct materiality is historically contingent on global social and political forces, entangled in a deep web of colonialism, capitalism, and globalization, as well as militarism and the petrochemical industry, all of which converge to situate these materials on the landscape of Hawai’i.

Reframing the ubiquitous synthetic materiality of plastic and recognizing the colonized and occupied Hawaiian homelands on which these objects are formed, this paper establishes a political ecology of plastiglomerate through critical geographic inquiry. Indigenous, poststructual, decolonial, feminist, and queer frameworks indexically unite here in this inquiry to politicize the now normative (for many) conditions that establish the perceived objectivity of plastiglomerate and the spatial and temporal environments in which it inheres.


II. Methodology

Following the tradition of critical geography, this interdisciplinary paper is fundamentally an amalgam of theory, autoethnography, and history. Political ecology, a broad research framework, is utilized here as a core conceptual structure to envision the interdigitating forces that construct plastiglomerate. As a mode of geographic inquiry, political ecology attempts to render visible and politicize the conditions that establish spatial environments—social, economic, political—and highlight the ways in which differential power relations drive ecological issues and changes. As such, the primary components of this research are field analysis of Kamilo Beach and sample collection of plastiglomerate formations. Inseparable from reading the landscape and materiality are considerations of settler colonialism in Hawai’i, social histories of plastic, and the politics of climate change and the contested Anthropocene epoch.

Samples of plastiglomerate were collected on Kamilo Beach in June 2019, off the southeast coast of the island of Hawai’i, accessed by four-wheel drive with permit access, assistance, and expertise from Megan Lamson of the Hawai’i Wildlife Fund. Lands examined in this research, about twelve kilometers from the nearest paved road, are part of an area held in legal trust for Native Hawaiians by the State of Hawai’i under the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act of 1921, managed by the Department of Hawaiian Homelands and Department of Land and Natural Resources. I offer respect to the land and its native inhabitants, past, present, and future. While surveying and reading the landscape of Kamilo Beach, I also assisted in several community beach cleanup efforts and net patrols to remove derelict marine debris, engage with local community members, and collect samples through a spirit of reciprocity and exchange. These efforts brought together locals and tourists, Hawaiians and settlers to remove large marine debris objects from the southern coastline and contribute to ongoing marine debris surveys. Preceding each cleanup all volunteers were required to say an Oli Komo entrance chant, ironically written by a settler, repeated three times before each cleanup and field research outing:


Eia mākou i mua kou alo              Here we are before you

Na hoa ‘āina ‘imi i ka pono          Friends seeking to do good

E a’o mai mākou i ka hana           Guide us in our work

E ola i ka ‘āina o Kamilo              So that Kamilo will live.

E ola mākou, a mau loa                May we all live on!2


III. Literature Review

A robust political ecology requires extensive scholarship and literature review. This evaluation is split into three sections: Existing research on plastiglomerate and marine debris on Kamilo Beach; social history of plastics; settler colonialism in Hawai’i. Discussion following will synthesize these three strands.


Characteristics of Plastiglomerate and Kamilo Beach

Plastiglomerate makes the familiar unfamiliar. It reifies the unfathomable, consolidating and attesting to difficult-to-substantiate material and social-political issues. Plastiglomerate is a remainder, a reminder, an indicator of the slow violence of massive pollution.3

Plastiglomerate, as seen in Figures I-III, refers to an “indurated, multi-composite material made hard by agglutination of rock and molten plastic. This material is subdivided into an in situ type, in which plastic is adhered to rock outcrops, and a clastic type, in which combinations of basalt, coral, shells, and local woody debris are cemented with grains of sand in a plastic matrix.”4 The rock is formally classified by the Geological Society of America and can be created anthropogenically or under natural processes when molten plastic indurates with natural debris.5

Photograph of plastics fused with lava, sand, and other materials in a rock-like formation
Figures I and II: Plastiglomerate samples from Kamilo Beach. Photograph by Benjamin Weinger, June 2019.
Photograph the same piece of platiglomerate from a different angle
Figures I and II: Plastiglomerate samples from Kamilo Beach. Photograph by Benjamin Weinger, June 2019.


close-up of plastiglomerate showing flecks of many materials in many colors
Figure III: Plastiglomerate sample up close. Photograph by Benjamin Weinger, June 2019.

Kamilo Beach, the site where plastiglomerate was initially observed and studied, has long remained a landscape of dense marine debris accumulation.6 Its very name, Kamilo, invokes the maelstrom of currents that situate debris on its shores.7 Hawaiian narratives recall the influx of logs from North America, often utilized to create dugout canoes.8 Over the past century, however, Kamilo has become profusely saturated with microplastic debris from the North Pacific Gyre, colloquially the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and its origins prior to entering the ocean.9 Debris pervades and pollutes the nearly seven hundred meters of white sand and basalt beach, posing immense threat to native ecosystems and wildlife, complex systems that ultimately reverberate back to humans.

Photograph of a beach showing water and sand in the distance, driftwood mixed with debris in the foreground
Figures IV and V: Marine debris along the southeast coast of Kaʻū, island of Hawai’i (18°55'39.1"N 155°38'59.6"W). Photograph by Benjamin Weinger, June 2019.
Photograph of a beach showing water and lava rock in the distance, driftwood mixed with debris in the foreground
Figures IV and V: Marine debris along the southeast coast of Kaʻū, island of Hawai’i (18°55'39.1"N 155°38'59.6"W). Photograph by Benjamin Weinger, June 2019.

In a survey of plastics on Kamilo Beach, Hawai’i, and Kahuku Beach, O’ahu, Young and Elliot10 collected around fifty-thousand large microplastic and small mesoplastic particles. Figures IV-V illustrate a typical sight along the southeast coast: the massive accumulation of such fragments. Young and Elliot11 characterize these samples into four size classes (0..5-1 mm, 1-2 mm, 2-4 mm, and 4-8 mm) and nine color categories. The majority of samples collected were polyethylene—the most commonly produced plastic, often used in packaging—based on a representative subsample and Raman Spectrometer analysis.12 While Young and Elliot’s study lacks robust inference, their data will prove valuable as surveys continue to quantify change over time to understand patterns of movement in the ocean.

Additional research in Kamilo offers a different perspective. Moy et al.13 conducted extensive aerial surveys over each Hawaiian Island to collect and process high resolution photographs into orthorectified GIS aerial maps. Density of marine debris is characterized in one-mile segments. Their study identifies, measures, and quantifies over twenty-thousand macro-debris fragments (greater than 0.05m2) throughout the archipelago, including derelict boats, industrial fishing instruments, and other large debris. Of the total count, plastics composed eighty-three percent.14 GIS visualization offers a crucial perspective for local conservation groups to target areas of high marine debris density for cleanup and restoration. The study also offers a structured protocol for mapping and monitoring debris across a given location.

While existing research on Kamilo and plastiglomerate thoroughly examines physical and ecological characteristics of this phenomenon, scholarship lacks an interdisciplinary and imaginative dimension, a synthesis of history, theory, and science, to more broadly contextualize the phenomenon and seek critical implications for change.


A Micro-History of Plastics

So, more than a substance, plastic is the very idea of its infinite transformation; as its everyday name indicates, it is ubiquity made visible. And it is this, in fact, which makes it a miraculous substance: a miracle is always a sudden transformation of nature. Plastic remains impregnated throughout with this wonder: it is less a thing than the trace of a movement.—Roland Barthes

The first thermosetting synthetic plastic, a polymer of formaldehyde and phenol (derived from petroleum or coal) molded in a lab, was patented in 1909 by chemist Leo Baekeland in Yonkers, New York.15 Bakelite, as it was named, was originally intended for electrical insulation as a non-conductive and heat-resistant material. Following World War II, as technologies utilized for military transitioned into the commodity marketplace, production of plastics began to grow exponentially16 With a burgeoning, yet extraordinarily unequal, economic boost in the United States following the war, plastic production contributed to a rapid acceleration of consumer goods available en masse. While the convenience of this material may have served as a crucial component of social mobility for certain peoples, the proliferating proclivity to dispose would soon engender pernicious ecological and social consequences.

There may be no better object or materiality that represents the proposed Anthropocene epoch than plastic. Indeed, plastic has become so pervasive and profound; it has now been observed in the deepest of ocean waters with an estimated five trillion plastic particles afloat at sea and in the guts of nearly every biotic organism.17 Plastic’s very name connotes its malleability; as an anthropogenic substance, a synthesis of organic and synthetic material, plastic is shaped and molded, or transmuted, by humans into objects that transcend the natural order of materiality. Plastic also serves as a prime metaphor of western civilization’s fallacious narrative of progress. The regime of modernity has long positioned western civilization as inherently linear, its globalizing force of technological “advancement” perpetually freeing humanity from the strictures of nature. Humans, in effect, are transcending the origins of our earthly selves. The narrative of progress portrays this “civilizing force” as a movement towards an ever liberated and emancipatory state. Yet, perhaps today’s inexorable climatic change, ecological ruination, and pervasive plastic pollution instantiate the erroneous notion of progress. Benjamin reminds us in the wake of fascism that the arc of history does not always bend towards a progressive futurity, or towards justice. “Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he [the angel of history] sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet . . . That which we call progress, is this storm.”18 Perhaps today’s accumulation of plastic in spaces like Kamilo, as well as the maelstrom of pollution in the ocean, illustrate Benjamin’s proverbial storm of history, an interminable cycle of despair.


Situating Plastiglomerate: Settler Colonialism in Hawai’i

The history of Hawai’i is not for me, a tourist or settler, to write or narrate. In actively employing the voices of native Hawaiians as narrators of their own history, I attempt to challenge dominant methods of historiography, typically voiced by settler and colonizer. In following a poststructural tradition of situated knowledge19, I recognize, in the words of Hartman, that the “archive is inseparable from the play of power.”20 While historians are often restricted to the “facts,” the deeply prejudiced origins and contestability of these “manufactured certainties” produced by settlers requires that I instead critically examine the conditions that construct these contested narratives through a vigorous lens of deconstruction.21 The following narratives are drawn from Haunani-Kay Trask (1999), Hawaiian scholar, poet, and member of Ka Lāhui Hawai’i, a Native initiative for self-determination. Trask’s scholarship cogently articulates the complexity of Hawaiian society, its Indigenous political history, annexation and colonization by the United States, and its complicated dialectic with settlers of color.22 An outspoken leader in the nationalist Hawaiian sovereignty movement, Trask offers a critical Indigenous perspective through historical revisionism of colonial history on the ongoing occupation and colonization of the Hawaiian islands.

Writing on the structurally erased history following the arrival of Captain James Cook in 1778, the regarded “discoverer” of Hawai’i, Trask explains, “My people had been dispossessed of our religion, our moral order, our form of chiefly government, many of our cultural practices, and our lands and waters.”23 Virulent disease extirpated hundreds of thousands of Hawaiian peoples while invasive species plunged their roots into the soil and deracinated endemic species.24 For the estimated seven-hundred thousand to one-million Hawaiians who died, or around 95 percent of the pre-colonial Hawaiian population, the pervasive spread of disease from European and American colonization was indeed a catastrophic end time.25 Lack of epidemiological defense and immunity to syphilis, tuberculosis, smallpox, measles, typhoid, and many more diseases ultimately led to what many consider a genocide of native peoples. Those Hawaiians who survived were then largely preached by missionaries to convert to Christianity, and a large population of native Hawaiians now live in the diaspora due to exponential costs of living in the archipelago, many now situated along the western coast of the continental United States. 26 In the wake of these histories, Trask poetically mourns, “The fertile field of conversion was littered with the remnants of holocaust, a holocaust created by white foreigners and celebrated by their later counterparts as the will of a Christian god.”27

Accompanying the incursions of disease and annexation were western conceptions of property, individualism, and capitalism. Communal forms of land tenure were seized by settlers of the mid-nineteenth century to establish private property for themselves and delimit land of the native population. Missionaries and western governments persuaded Hawaiian chiefs and kings to divide the land; sugar plantations then filled arable space to establish new agricultural economies run by haole, white settlers.28 Immigrants from Asia followed en masse to labor in these plantations, further complicating the binarism of the settler regime.29 Following overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy and government in 1893, the United States Congress officially annexed the Hawaiian islands in 1898 through the Joint Resolution to Provide for Annexing the Hawaiian Islands to the United States, or the Newlands Resolution. This doctrine, in the American tradition of manifest destiny, established the United States and its rule of law as the supreme new world order in Hawai’i. The first line of the Resolution reads: “Whereas the Government of the Republic of Hawaii having, in due form, signified its consent, in the manner provided by its constitution, to cede absolutely and without reserve to the United States of America all rights of sovereignty of whatsoever kind in and over the Hawaiian Islands and their dependencies . . .”30 Trask, however, reminds us that the Government of the Republic of Hawaii, already controlled by settlers, did not represent the interests of the Hawaiian people.31 In addition, the US Constitution fails to protect Native peoples, lifeways, and values. Hawaiians, Native Americans, Inuit, Samoans, and other Indigenous groups living in ancestral and unceded territories occupied by the United States have been outscribed from the Constitution, as are their protections for Indigenous relationships to land, to language, to food production, to economies, to self-government, etc. Trask articulates the ongoing trauma of US occupation:

We suffered a unilateral redefinition of our homeland and our people, a displacement and dispossession in our own country. In familial terms, our mother (and thus our heritage and our inheritance) was taken from us. We were orphaned in our own land. Such brutal changes in a people’s identity—their legal status, their government, their sense of belonging to a nation—are considered among the most serious human rights violations by the international community today.32

Rather than conclude this passage as she began with personal sentiment, Trask ardently declares the ongoing human rights violations of US occupation. Despite the 1993 US Congressional Apology Resolution acknowledging the unlawful overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawai’i, the United States remains in violation of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Occupation of the Hawaiian homeland among a people who never relinquished their inherent sovereignty, militarization and nuclearization of the archipelago, as well as admission to the Union in 1959 have been unwelcome and unpopular by a majority of Hawaiians. Trask turns to Article 26 of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to illustrate:

  1. Indigenous peoples have the right to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired.
  2. Indigenous peoples have the right to own, use, develop, and control the lands, territories and resources that they possess by reason of traditional ownership or other traditional occupation or use, as well as those which they have otherwise acquired.33

In the current structure of the State of Hawai’i and its various agencies and departments, Hawaiians are deprived of their sovereign nationality and denied the right to change it, and many are deprived of their ancestral homelands.

Turning to theoretical analysis, I use Wolfe’s framework for settler colonialism to explore and expose settler logics so inherently visible in the context of Hawaiian occupation: a logic of elimination.34 Wolfe presents settler colonialism as an insidious procedural structure rather than a catastrophic temporal event. Since the arrival of Cook in Hawai’i in 1778, elimination of native lifeways steadily continues as Hawaiians remain economically, politically, and socially disadvantaged (see Office of Hawaiian Affairs 2006 for comparative statistics). The various spatial and temporal permutations and transmutations of settler society over the past few centuries can be perceived and qualified through the insidious process of occupation, elimination, and reduction of native people to abject space. Wolfe’s framework further challenges dominant and erroneous civilizing frontier myths where settlers “civilize” unceded Indigenous territories, as well as the erroneous, fallacious narratives of discovery.

Contemporary Hawaiian occupation can also be understood through a framework of slow violence presented by Nixon.35, who further emphasizes the environmental dynamics of colonial, capitalist, and neoliberal legacies and policies in relation to the world’s marginalized groups. The insidious consequences of social and ecological ruination are ongoing in Hawai’i where lands continue to be expropriated, tourism increases year after year, militarization expands, global climatic change alters the environment, and global waste unceasingly situates itself on shore. Colonization and settler incursions indeed are never ending in Hawai’i. But while ruination and dispossession may be inexorable, Indigenous resistance persists. While Hawaiians have become marginalized, demographically at least, in their own ancestral lands, political sovereignty movements remain active, scholars remain committed to revising colonial histories, and an ever-outspoken nationalist movement is determined to one day soon regain sovereignty.


IV. Discussion

Our country has been and is being laminated, cheapened, and exploited. They’re selling it in plastic leis, coconut ashtrays, and cans of “genuine, original Aloha.” They’ve raped us, sold us, killed us, and still expect us to behave. . . . Hawai’i is a colony of the imperialist United States.
—Kehau Lee


All the world can be plasticized, and even life itself . . .
—Roland Barthes


Plastiglomerate fragments I sampled from Kamilo Beach were likely formed through human activity—evidence of campers was laden throughout the sampling locations, who likely set piles of debris on fire. While non-anthropogenic heat sources such as extreme temperatures, lava flows, or forest fires can potentially melt plastics to create these amalgams, “Kamilo Beach provides an example of an anthropogenic action (burning) reacting to an anthropogenic problem (plastics pollution), resulting in a distinct marker horizon of the informal Anthropocene epoch.”36 In other words, plastiglomerate is a fitting material to represent this human-centered geological epoch.

Plastiglomerate can be further reinterpreted from a discrete object into a dialectical relationship. Ollman describes Marxian dialectics as “a way of thinking that brings into focus the full range of changes and interactions that occur in the world.”37 In other words, dialectics expands an ostensibly isolated phenomenon into the processes and contexts in which it is formed. Dialectics also “restructures our thinking about reality by replacing the common sense notion of  ‘thing’ (as something that has a history and has external connections with other things) with notions of ‘process’ (which contains its history and possible futures) and ‘relation’ (which contains as part of what it is its ties with other relations).”38 What may appear inconsequentially as a melted pile of detritus is indeed “the momentary fusion and embodiment of complex elements,” although plastiglomerate will likely persist far past its “momentary fusion” deep into geological time.39 The erratic materiality of this object—composed of thousands of fragments of colorful microplastic, sand, shells, volcanic rock, and wood—incites the multiple processes that converge to form it. Plastiglomerate is “only part of a larger set of processes that constitute other phenomena around it, and from which it is inseparable.”40 Theoretical deconstruction may prove valuable in this thought experiment. These plastics have been created by corporations over the past century, made from petroleum, or hydrocarbon molecules—themselves remains of decayed organic matter formed only under certain conditions in extended processes of diagenesis and catagenesis that take millions of years to form. On an ecological scale, the sand are particles of eroded coral, which itself takes centuries to form, and the volcanic basalt emerges from eruptions of Mauna Loa. Socially, politically, and economically, plastics have emerged in the marketplace following a global period of militarization under conditions of technological transformation, unequal economic expansion and development, exploitation of natural resources, free market trade, and a rapacious profit-driven capitalist structure. The plastiglomerate therefore represents not only the convergence of “nature and culture,” but the aforementioned series of forces, all of which contribute to today’s ecological and climatic crises, foregrounded in an accumulation of greenhouse gases.

Marine debris washing ashore to Kamilo Beach also serves as an extension of colonial incursions. Like the settlers that arrived by sea, and still yet continue to arrive, the incoming debris infiltrates and colonizes the shore, attaching to and polluting the host. Plastiglomerate is inherently part of the totalizing regime of a plastic world order. The Hawaiian ontology of mālama ʻāina, or a reciprocal way of being and knowing and caring for the land, stands in complete contradistinction with colonially imposed forms of interaction with nature: oftentimes manifesting in exploitation, depletion, and ruination.41 Following extirpation of hundreds of thousands of Hawaiians, an official Hawaiian language ban in the statist education system from 1896–1986, and impositions of new religious, political, economic, and social orders, Indigenous ways of being and knowing with the land were largely supplanted with western ontologies. The very economic conditions in which Hawaiians are now compelled, as American citizens, to operate is fundamentally unsustainable and generates pernicious ecological consequences. In pre-colonial Hawai’i, “as in most indigenous societies, there was no money, no idea or practice of surplus appropriation, value storing, or payment deferral because there was no idea of financial profit from exchange. In other words, there was no basis for economic exploitation . . .”42 However, under a capitalist regime, mercenary notions of individuality and private property have radically supplanted sustainable, communally oriented, subsistence lifeways that flourished here for millennia. I must clarify, however, that notions of pure Indigeneity, in terms of blood or living as Hawaiians did pre-Euromerican contact, are also fallacious. Indigenous peoples can and do change and evolve, and adoption of new technologies and ways of being makes them no less “Indigenous.” Rather, we must recognize that the systems that have been structurally imposed from times of annexation to present conditions of occupation have long engendered the precarious conditions that many Hawaiians faced and continue to face, from pollution and degradation to dispossession and privation.

Still, resistance has of course remained unwavering as histories, language, and traditions continue to be practiced and passed down. As I collected samples of the plastiglomerate over several days on Kamilo Beach, I assisted with various community cleanups that illustrated the power and practice of resistance. Contending with the ever-unceasing supply of plastic and marine debris that washes ashore, community members on these beach cleanups demonstrate how they will never surrender or capitulate, even under the most ostensibly sisyphean of conditions. This recognition, then, can materialize relationships between peoples, lands, and waters, emphasizing the intimate geographies and relationships that bound the community together. In slight departure from more overt forms of nationalist resistance against tourism and occupation, beach cleanups are a subtle form of resistance against the capitalist and colonial regime. Of course, another plastic water bottle will float ashore the next minute just as another plane from the mainland United States will land in the next hour. And surely another telescope will be proposed the next year. Yet, removing debris, petitioning the government, and protesting a telescope are all part of an interconnected faction of resistance against the regimes of colonialism and capitalism.


V. The Anthropocene? Or, Decolonizing the “Anthropocene”

What does it mean to have a reciprocal discourse on catastrophic end times and apocalyptic environmental change in a place where, over the last five hundred years, Indigenous peoples faced (and face) the end of worlds with the violent incursion of colonial ideologies and actions? What does it mean to hold, in simultaneous tension, stories of the Anthropocene in the past, present, and future?—Zoe Todd

The term “Anthropocene,” as it refers to the geological epoch, was popularized by Crutzen and Stoermer, referring to the “major and still growing impacts of human activities on earth and atmosphere.”43 Stephen et al. further characterize the Anthropocene as an epoch where “human activities have become so pervasive and profound that they rival the great forces of Nature and are pushing the Earth into planetary terra incognita.”44 Broadly, the Anthropocene is a “new climatic regime.”45 where some humans have transgressed the strictures of nature, unbinding their earthly selves from the confines of their native habitats and even the Earth itself.

Universality of the term “Anthropocene,” denoting culpability of the entire human species, invokes critique.46 Malm and Hornborg object to the notion that climate change is inherently “anthropogenic” in nature—all humans do not instinctively alter the climate on a planetary scale.47 Rather, industrialized and late capitalist nations of the global “North,” comprising just one-fifth of the global population, are responsible for nearly two-thirds of carbon emissions and thus a majority of this planetary warming.48 Perhaps sociogenic, as they suggest, can be a more appropriate term.49 Further delineation within the global “North” category must be established as well. Moore proposes the term “Capitalocene” to instead impute the global capitalist economic regime, pervasive in Europe and nations like the United States.50 Chakrabarty similarly prefers a more provocative term in place of one he sees constructing “humanity as an undifferentiated whole.”51 Haraway suggests “Plantationocene” to impute settler forms of intensive, extractive, and exploitative agricultural and labor practices—forms surely exploited in colonial Hawai’i.52

Given these critiques, use of the term Anthropocene must come with a caveat. This paper employs the term for the sake of clarity and consistency, though recognizing the limitations and flaws inherent with its universalizing tendency. Use here acknowledges that certain groups of people are historically more responsible for rapacious and extractive practices, tied to chattel slavery, settler-colonialism, capitalism, and, perhaps more recently, neoliberalism.53

Defining the period of the Anthropocene has also remained a contentious topic of debate over the past two decades. Traditionally, geologists delineate geologic epochs through a Global Stratotype Section and Point (GSSP), also known as a “golden spike” or stratigraphic marker, wherein changes materialized in rock, sediment, or glacier ice substantiate claims for a distinct epoch.54 As such, plastiglomerate has been proposed as one potential GSSP, nonetheless informally so given its limited geographic scope.55 When delimiting the Anthropocene epoch, multiple more substantial stratigraphic markers have been proposed, each suggesting disparate start dates, which in turn implicate different peoples and times. Some assign the beginning of this epoch to the earliest recorded anthropogenic perturbations from agriculture and the introduction of fire.56 Others focus on the more recent period of rapid acceleration in anthropogenic activity—carbon emissions, globalization, nuclear war, consumption, extraction—referred to as the Great Acceleration beginning around the 1950s.57 Still others situate this epoch in the period of global settler-colonial regimes, marked especially by the annexation of the Americas in the seventeenth century, followed by Pacific islands over the next two centuries.58

In accordance with Lewis and Maslin59, this paper assigns the large-scale transcontinental colonization beginning in the seventeenth century as the start of this proposed epoch. However, we must recognize that the Anthropocene is not a simple story with beginning, middle, and end. Catastrophic and apocalyptic end times are not the denouement of this epoch. As Todd articulates, Indigenous peoples have long faced the end of times through colonial incursions, virulent disease, and war.60 Nearly ninety-five percent of Hawaiians in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were killed in what many rightly consider genocide.61 Dating the Anthropocene to colonization can be yet further substantiated through examining demographic fluctuations of native populations throughout the world from the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries. The deaths of nearly fifty million Indigenous peoples during this period are believed to have engendered a noticeable dip in atmospheric carbon dioxide observed in multiple Antarctic ice core samples.62 Lewis and Maslin label this decline in atmospheric carbon dioxide the “Orbis Spike,”63 inciting the Latin for world, symbolizing the burgeoning world-system and global web of interactions that accompanied the extensive colonization of the fabricated “New World.”64

The onset of the Anthropocene is certainly temporally diffused, irreducible to one single planetary event, but I ultimately contend with the Orbis Spike hypothesis to center global environmental change on the collision of constructed “old” and “new” world—on the incursions of crops, species, and people, as well as differentiated ways of being and knowing that radically altered the terrestrial surface of Earth, transmogrifying entire continents in mere centuries. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries sustained a profound and unprecedented spatiotemporal reorganization of Earth systems in Hawai’i from hydrologic and carbon cycles to agricultural systems setting up conditions for today’s despotic and extractive carbon economy, exorbitant greenhouse gas accumulation, and the dispossession and near extirpation of native peoples and lifeways.


VI. Conclusion: Envisioning Futurity

We must strive, in the face of the here and now’s totalizing rendering of reality, to think and feel a then and there…we must dream and enact new and better pleasures, other ways of being in the world, and ultimately new worlds.—Jose Muñoz


Revolution is based on land. Land is the basis of all independence. Land is the basis of freedom, justice, and equality.—Malcolm X


Indigenous scholars and activists offer an important intervention when envisioning futurity: “anthropogenic climate change is an intensification of environmental change imposed on Indigenous peoples by colonialism.”65 While the dominant narrative of climate change often tells of an impending catastrophic end time for humanity, environmental change and genocide is not novel for Indigenous peoples who, as Todd illustrated, have long faced catastrophic end times through colonial impositions. Contemporary political, social, economic, and cultural forces that dictate environmental conditions are precisely rooted in ideologies of private property, accumulation by dispossession, colonialism, slavery, and capitalism. These must be considered when discussing climate change. Today’s concentration of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere and devastating ecological ruination are inextricably linked to the initial drivers of colonization: to settler encroachment, expropriation of land and resources, and exchange and extirpation of bodies and species. The despotic, carbon-intensive world economic order is not simply a novel byproduct of industrial capitalism. It is an accumulation of violence. Colonial commodity agriculture, for example, which requires massive deforestation and ultimately carbon-fuel to propel its growth, is a major driver of intensive land-use modifications in Hawai’i, contributing to runoff pollution, dispossession of land, and toxic pesticides. “As the people [Hawaiians] are transformed, or more likely, exterminated, their environment is progressively degraded, parts of it destroyed forever,” Trask writes. “Physical despoliation is reflected in cultural degradation. A dead land is preceded by a dying people.”66

Envisioning futurity in the tradition of decolonial and antiracist thinkers like Franz Fanon, Trask fiercely believes that self-determination is inextricably dependent on land rights.67 Following the Master Plan of Ka Lāhui Hawai’i, Trask points to mental decolonization, or “thinking in one’s own cultural referents,” as a key to political decolonization.68 These efforts rely on contesting settler ideologies and histories through adoption of Native understandings, including histories revised by the colonial regime.69 Trask enunciates four potential structures of Hawaiian sovereignty: an independent nation under the governance of Hawaiians; “limited sovereignty” subject to US federal regulation; land-based units within existing communities; and finally, a “nation-within-a-nation” based on Native American governance structures.70

In pursuit of counter realties and alternative ways of being and knowing, this brief political ecology attempted to render visible neglected narratives, histories, and legacies. Plastiglomerate, a symbolic dialectical object, indeed is no inconsequential phenomenon. It unites and instantiates the complex forces that shape Hawaiian society today. In countering complacency of the status quo, I offer my alliance—as an uninvited settler who occupied unceded territories while travelling in Hawai’i—with the sovereignty movement, a decolonial practice so inherently entangled in the fight against the climate crisis. Concluding with the poetics of Trask, I uphold that Hawaiians “are stewards of the earth, [their] mother, and [they] offer an ancient, umbilical wisdom about how to protect and ensure her life.”71



References and Notes (PDF)


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  2. Kepa Maly (2016)
  3. Robertson 2016, 10
  4. Corcoran, Moore, and Jazvac 2014, 4.
  5. Corcoran, Moore, and Jazvac 2014, 4.
  6. Corcoran, Moore, and Jazvac 2014, 4.
  7. Clark 1985, 69.
  8. Anderson-Fung and Maly 2002, 16.
  9. Moore 2008, 135.
  10. 2016, 477.
  11. 2016, 478.
  12. 478.
  13. 2018, 52.
  14. 52.
  15. Meikle 1995, 10.
  16. 125.
  17. Choy et al. 2019, 1; Eriksen et al. 2014, 1; Jamieson 2019, 2.
  18. 1940, 257-258.
  19. Haraway 1988, 585.
  20. 2008, 10-11.
  21. Hartman 2008, 10.
  22. Trask 2008, 3; Saranillio 2018, 36.
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  24. Swanson 2014, 6-7.
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  27. 1999, 6.
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  29. 26.
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  35. 2011, 2
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  38. Ollman 1993, 11.
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  41. Trask 1999, 4.
  42. Trask 1999, 4.
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  44. 2007, 614.
  45. Latour 2017, 3.
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  47. 2014, 66.
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  49. 66.
  50. 2015.
  51. 2018, 12.
  52. 2015.
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  68. 43.
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  70. 1999, 37.
  71. 1999, 59.
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