Once on the periphery of international debate, today small islands are seen by many as key to unlocking new ways of thinking about climate change and developing new practices of adaptation in the epoch of the Anthropocene. These approaches differ starkly from modernist, linear, causal frameworks that construct islands as vulnerable objects that require ‘saving’ or ‘protecting’. Instead, islands become instruments of productive knowledge, laboratories for investigation and learning, fundamental to an alternative, correlational, epistemology. In analysing these approaches, we take the prolific trope of islands as the ‘canaries in the coalmine’ in order to draw out the ontological implications of instrumentalising islands as ‘correlational machines’ in the Anthropocene. We raise fundamental problems with this literal instrumentalisation of islands and islanders, drawing out how these logics reduce island life to merely sensing and attuning to the co-relational entanglements of the Anthropocene, rather than offering higher normative aspirations for political change.