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Coping on the Coast: moral economies and liminality at the heart of things that matter

Updated Monday, 4 September 2017
Does geography influence peoples’ sense of security and well-being?

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Welcome to a two-part audio-slideshow that explores how coastal communities in very different parts of the world are coping with the impacts of environmental change. In part 1, we join a research expedition in North Sulawesi, Indonesia, to explore how geography matters to people's 'common-sense' understandings of safety and well-being.

Dr Johanna Wadsley is a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the Geography Department of the Open University.

This article is based on research conducted in 2012, the year she graduated from The Open University with her Doctorate in Geography. Dr Wadsley, along with Dr Duika Burges Watson (Newcastle University, formerly Durham) were joint-recipients of the RGS-IBG Neville Shulman Challenge Award for 'Hugging the Coast: an exploration by sea-kayak of liminal living in the Sangihe Archipelago, North Sulawesi, Indonesia'.
The photographs in this audio-slideshow were taken members of the Hugging the Coast team, Lena Conlan @ Crossing Latitudes, and Vonna Keller.
Dr Wadsley has previously worked on the undergraduate courses Environment: journeys through a changing world (U116, Block 3: Nile Limits), Environment: sharing a dynamic planet (DST206) and Earth in crisis: environmental policy in an international context (DU311).
Part 2 of Coping on the Coast will draw upon aspects of Dr Wadsley's research on 'Sounding Coastal Change', an AHRC-funded project currently running on the Norfolk coast, UK (PI Revill, ‘Listening to Climate Change: experiments in sonic democracy’)

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Coping on the coast: moral economies and liminality at the heart of things that matter

Welcome to the first half of a two-part audio-slideshow that explores how coastal communities in very different parts of the world are coping with the impacts of environmental change.

In Part 1, I draw upon field research along an archipelago north of Sulawesi Utara, Indonesia, and introduce the concept of moral economy. The second part links the Sulawesi archipelago to Norfolk, a county on the UK’s East Anglian coast, and explores the different meanings of liminality. Liminality is a term used to describe the places in between places, like intertidal zones, which are neither land nor sea.

Coping on the Coast Part 1: moral economy

In this first part, I am going talk about how geography matters when it comes to peoples’ sense of security and well-being. I am interested in how the geographical contingency of security and well-being shapes people’s common-sense understandings of how things ‘are’, ‘ought to be’ or ‘ought not’ to be. These forms of common sense in turn shape people’s experience of, and responses to, environmental change. By this I mean how it is that people go about coping on the coast, particularly in terms of their livelihoods. Overall – and this is my argument – I believe that the relationship between geography, security and well-being, and people’s common sense understandings of how things ‘ought to be’, generates diverse moral economies of coping on the coast.


When doing research in coastal areas, investigating peoples’ relationships with the environment, one of the most intriguing things I’ve noticed is how, even when faced with increasingly severe impacts of extreme weather events and rising sea levels, most people will do whatever they can to stay. It is an example of how, for most human beings, their sense of security and well-being is inextricably intertwined with the place to which they most strongly feel that they belong. This could be the place where they were born and raised, or a place they moved to for an important reason, like escaping persecution or war, or to be with someone they love.

Thus, for those whose lives and livelihoods are bound up with the fate of coastal areas, to do anything else but stay is often unthinkable. And so they cope, in highly localized ways, with the consequences of global environmental change.

Living with environmental change

In 2012, during a research expedition along the archipelago to the north of Indonesia’s Sulawesi Utara, we spent time with about twenty coastal island communities, and each were responding differently to their common experiences of environmental change.

Formerly known as the Spice Islands and situated in the middle of the ecologically significant Coral Triangle, these communities were concerned about how both sea and land-based livelihoods had become more difficult and dangerous. They reported that onshore crop yields of bananas, coconuts, nutmeg and cloves were being affected by higher temperatures and unpredictable changes in the monsoon rain patterns. Storms and tidal surges were becoming more severe, even as rainfall declined. Fishers now had to travel further out to sea yet were still catching less fish. Warming waters were just one threat to previously thriving seaweed farming endeavours, and gleaning food from intertidal coral reefs and mangroves was less productive than they’d previously known.

We were repeatedly told that life was easier and better ‘before’. Curiously, though, people we spoke to did not reflect significantly on the time scales involved. This is due in part to how the Indonesian language determines the way that time can and cannot be talked about colloquially, because the language has no tenses to denote past or present. This linguistic characteristic in turn shapes the way people reflect on their experience of environmental change. As researchers, it was difficult to figure out whether ‘before’ means last week, last year or ten years ago, and whether people felt any urgency about the temporality of these changes. We also noticed that people talked about climate change most often in relation to land-based livelihoods, and less so for changes impacting sea-based activities. Unfortunately, we were not there long enough to be sure whether to call this a research finding or an unverified hunch.

Geography, common sense and moral economy

Despite their remote location many of these communities were globally connected through family members who were, or had been, migrant workers in large Indonesian and south-east Asian cities, or crewing on international merchant ships. It was significant, therefore, that most migrant workers would return home permanently and not think about settling elsewhere, even though island life held so many challenges and uncertainties, and for most, returning meant a lower standard of living.

Through their talk about the changes and increasing difficulty of coastal life, but also through their deep loyalty to their home island, it seemed to me that the villagers invoked a distinctive moral economy. One in which individual and community security and well-being was defined through being ‘on the island’, ‘in the village’ and ‘with its people’, now and in the future; to be otherwise was anathema.

By describing it as a moral economy I mean their sense of how things are, ought, or ought not to be, forms of common sense that were embedded in how they approached their lives and livelihoods.

The physical environs of the village – reef, sea, plantations, the water source – were also bound up in the constitution of security and well-being. It was thus that their sense of ‘security’ went beyond simple freedom from imagined or real danger (Graham and Gregory, 2009:672), to encompass a geographically specific example of what geographer Jan Hutta describes as: “an immediately positive sense of sheltered-ness, nested-ness, and well-being” (Hutta, 2009:252).

This broader meaning is implicit in the subtext to a phrase we heard often, “Yang penting kita aman dan senang”, which approximates to “What matters is that we’re all safe and happy” (Village Bapak (elected village leader), Pulau Karikatang, 22/08/12). Indeed, the islanders thought we were strange because our expedition team sometimes camped on uninhabited islands or chose to camp on beaches more secluded than the downtown village foreshore.

Multiple moral economies: multiple responses to environmental change

This common sense aspect of each village’s moral economy necessarily shaped the way they were responding to the problems arising from environmental change. As I have said, to leave permanently was unthinkable. However, it was striking how differently each village and island approached the increasing precariousness of their livelihoods, and this is why I talk about moral economies in the plural, as opposed to a single moral economy characterizing all the islands in the archipelago.

For example, we met more than one village that was working collectively to build small-scale tourist accommodation in exquisitely beautiful locations. Another was engaged in constructing a large ice-carrying boat to transport fish catches to more distant towns. We met school teachers starting up homestay businesses, and organizing bespoke scuba diving trips for adventurous foreign visitors. In a larger town, we met a senior fisheries officer who had developed a social enterprise for smoking tuna fish for export to Jakarta, to improve women’s employment and diversify the town’s fishing industry. We also met elected village leaders who had grander visions of creating a ‘Bali’ in the north, though they were also repelled by certain realities of Bali’s tourism development, not least by what they considered to be inappropriate behaviour of young Western fun-seekers in Bali’s pubs and clubs.

In contrast to these individual and community-led strategies, we also met communities that were, or had been engaged in government-sponsored initiatives and investment. This included more than one failed attempt to establish commercial seaweed farms, even though these had thrived in other locations. On another island, almost the entire community was engaged in breaking rocks for gravel and sand, to produce cement for concrete coastal defences on their own shoreline. Other villages were waiting for government intervention, because, in their view, and in their moral economy, not acting independently of government was the correct thing to do. Communities like this appeared to have very little local economic activity other than the tiny ‘warung’ enterprises found in every village, where cigarettes, cake and hair shampoo could be bought in single serves, and petrol for motor scooters was distributed in Coca Cola bottles.

Of course, physical characteristics of their island also shaped the way in which the villages sought to sustain their livelihoods: did the protection offered by a substantial reef also preclude the docking of larger vessels, such as ice-carrying ships and tourist boats? Were they at risk of volcanic eruption or tidal waves? How reliable was the water source when the monsoon rains failed to materialize?

To reiterate, what differentiated communities’ moral economies was their response to the general as well as specific challenges they faced. However, it was despite the difficulties arising from the impacts of environmental change that each community held that it was common sense to remain on the island, in the village, with its people.

Risks and constraints, more than moral economy

I think that it is important to bear in mind that moral economies and physical geographies are not the only factors shaping the success or failure of the archipelago’s villagers to sustain themselves on their islands. After all, Indonesia is a nation of thousands of islands, it has complex ethnic and religious make-up cohered by universal education and a strong sense of national identity, and these factors interplay with the social hierarchies of its political and government structures. However, there are common risks and constraining factors beyond the moral economies I have been talking about. Some were perceived by the villagers, others were identified by the research team.

Of the projects instigated by key individuals, the implication was that the projects’ success or failure will rest on the leaders’ motivation, the level of respect accorded them by the community, and their capacity to influence village, island and regional-level decision-makers. These local individuals lamented their lack of connections to mainland or overseas individuals and organizations with better resources and expertise. This was despite the relatively good access to digital communications technologies; computers were generally only found in schools and they were not usually connected to the internet, but it seemed like everyone had a mobile phone and used Facebook. Nonetheless, these inspiring and entrepreneurial individuals lacked the social capital they felt they needed to really make a go of things, which also points to how access to communications technology is not the same as access to all that the world can offer.

Through our conversations along the archipelago, we found that these kinds of risks and constraints were compounded by how human and physical geographies intersect. For example: community perceptions of socio-cultural differences between their village and the next; ethnic marginalization of particular social groups within villages; disempowerment due to physical distance from decision-makers; perceptions that proximity to, and familiarity with, regional politicians, was connected to the distribution of services and investment to specific islands and villages – or not.

Despite these risks and constraints, both social and physical, the common characteristic of all of these moral economies is that people want to stay ‘on the island’, ‘in the village’ and ‘with its people’, now and in the future. “Yang penting kita aman dan senang”. The question arising is, of course, how long can these moral economies help communities hold themselves together, given the latent inevitability of the local impacts of global climate change?

In part 2 I will introduce you to North Norfolk and the concept of liminality. I think it’s an idea that can provide insights beyond simply describing intertidal zones that are neither land nor sea. In fact, I think coastal dwellers experience and live liminality in a number of different ways, and these add nuance and ambivalences to their moral economies of coping on the coast. As you’ll hear, thinking about liminality also raises more hard-to-answer questions about climate change justice and responsibility.

Thanks for listening to Part 1 of Coping on the Coast.


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