- Hope at Sea: Possible Ecologies in Oceanic Literature by Teresa Shewry
In Hope at Sea: Possible Ecologies in Oceanic Literature, Teresa Shewry traces hope as it appears in both settler and indigenous literature written in the Pacific. Hope, in ecocritical terms, is often considered overly optimistic or naive, lacking grounding in local, present realities. This optimism leads people, critics included, to believe that nothing needs to be done now because hope exists perpetually in the future. Responsibility is deferred to future generations. Other ecocriticism portrays hope as unrealistic given the immensity of the problem. In this framework, there is nothing that can be done, as responsibility is ceded to past generations. Shewry rejects these understandings, however, and looks to the Pacific for representations of hope that are grounded in [End Page 583] present relationships between nations, peoples, nonhuman animals, and other entities, such as water. For her, “hope is an uncertain attempt to understand experiences that are unstable, always being reworked by the living” (11). Hope is not just an idealized, utopian future; it is a present construct that relies on attunement to and cooperation with the ocean and the people and nonhuman beings who live in it.
Shewry starts by establishing a temporal foundation for retheorizing hope. She traces the language of hope in Samuel Butler’s Erewhon (1872), set in nineteenth-century Aotearoa/New Zealand. Like many European settlers of the Pacific, Butler’s narrator sees hope in the “untouched” expanses of the Pacific, “where transformation, new worlds, and improvement came to mean the devaluation and even the destruction of existing peoples, nonhumans, and ecosystems” (179). Imperial expansion established hope in opposition to the present, deferring it to a utopian future. With these imperial frameworks in mind, Shewry turns to more contemporary writers who link hope with endurance and survival. Indigenous environmental politics produce hope in relation to present responsibilities, moving away from an imperial hope that naively relies on destruction and a predictable future. Instead, hope is intertwined with unpredictable possibilities that allow for difference while also requiring present action. The precarious politics of appreciating existing real-ties in order to imagine future possibilities becomes a grounding principle for understanding hope in the Pacific.
The remainder of the study is organized by the different kinds of relationships that humans form with the environment and with each other. Working against hope as a strictly human experience, the Pacific encourages and even requires that people form connections with water. Water is fluid and can have immense impacts on the environment. It is also necessary for human life. As such, people must learn to navigate fast-changing environments and can form hydrosocial relations, working with water to instigate environmental change. Some of these connections prove beneficial, while others prove to be less encouraging. For Shewry, however, both kinds of relationships are hopeful, as they require engagement with present conditions, no matter how disheartening. As a force that cannot be entirely controlled, water invites engagement on its own terms, which can lead to more productive relationships with difference.
In a similar way, the ocean puts people in a precarious position as they become entangled with varied and often incomprehensible forms of life. Shewry posits that variation is its own form of hope. Alternate narratives of the sea that may come from other cultures or from nonhuman animals or forces like water provide multiple avenues along which to imagine hope and engage with a socially fractured present. Shewry returns to critiques of European idealization of the past and the future to reimagine hope in relation to difference, such as transnational relationships that are formed by migrating birds and other animals who traverse the ocean. These relationships provide a space in which people can live well with the ocean in the present and toward a more promising future. [End Page 584]
At the center of Shewry’s study is Richard Flannigan’s Gould’s Book of...