Agency, Adaptive Capacity and Hope across Seven Research Sites

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This post was originally published on The White Horse Press blog and is based on an article in the latest issue of Global Environment (GE 11.2) on adaptive capacity and strategies in the face of environmental change.

We continue to witness the growing and at times devastating impact of climate and environmental change around the world. Last month, 800,000 people were displaced in Kerala, a province along the southwestern coast of India, due to serious flooding caused by an exceptionally wet monsoon season.

I was particularly affected by this story because in 2016 I had the opportunity to visit the area as part of the research group working on the project ARTisticc (Adaptation Research, a Trans-disciplinary, Transnational Community and Policy-Centred Approach, We were hosted by a team at the Cochin University of Science and Technology. What is not mentioned in the various news stories about the flooding is that Kerala had become a destination of choice for people displaced from other parts of India due to worsening environmental conditions and so was already struggling with the reception of a large migrant population.

Flooding in Chengannur, Kerala, India, August 2018. Source: Aijaz Rahi, Associated Press

Our project was interested in developing new comprehensive and locally-based strategies of adaptation to environmental change that were sensitive to culture. The team was composed of natural scientists, social scientists, one rogue historian (me) and a variety of community partners studying seven regions around the world – The Bay of Brest (Brittany, France), Mbour (Senegal), Kerala (India), the Cocagne River watershed (New Brunswick, Canada), Tiksi (Sahka Republic, Russian Federation), Uummannaq (Greenland), and Wainwright (Alaska, United States). Although my research work centred on Cocagne, a community in southeastern New Brunswick, I was privileged to have the opportunity to lead the writing of an article looking at the importance of history in all seven project research sites. This article was recently published by the journal Global Environment.[1]

It would be impossible to do justice to the complex situations of our seven research sites in a short blog or even in a single research article. Instead we adopted for a detailed discussion of historical change and agency, “generally understood to mean the capacity of individuals to act independently to make their own free choices.”[2]This concept is used by many historians to examine how power, decision-making, and culture work at the local level. Social scientists tend to focus on adaptive capacity based on collective institutions. Our paper outlines this theoretical divide while suggesting ways that it can be bridged by an interdisciplinary approach combining environmental and social considerations.

Of course, context matters. For example, our three Arctic sites face similar environmental challenges such as retreating permafrost, melting glaciers and pack ice, and ecological damage caused by oil, gas, mining, and commercial fishing. However, how the inhabitants respond to these challenges varies considerably. Tiksi is an administrative and military centre created by the former Soviet regime. The residents had a particular historical consciousness that manifested in reluctance to get involved and expectations that the government must lead any collective attempt to adapt to changing conditions.

Location of Tiksi, Sakha Republic, Russian Federation. Source: “Russian Forces get Cold War training in Artic Siberia,” The Siberian Times, 20 February 2017.

In Uummannaq, local efforts to preserve traditional culture including hunting and fishing practices have had some success, but many young people have departed for larger and more accessible centres in the south in search of work and education. Change is happening quickly, and many residents feel powerless to act as the town becomes more isolated. The recent transfer of many government services to Illulissat and the resulting loss of jobs in Uummannaq have intensified the trend.

A view of the town of Uummannaq, Greenland, 2015. Source:

The Inupiaq population of Wainwright also experienced significant population drain in the past. This trend improved after the Second World War in part due to jobs created by the establishment of the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line stations to detect Soviet threats to North America. In 1972, community leaders successfully lobbied for the creation of the North Slope Borough, the first non-tribal, Native-controlled regional government in the United States. Capital and infrastructure projects led to more jobs, while large oil and gas projects are still only a distant reality, so the net result has been a more hopeful outlook and less disruption to traditional culture.

While population drain emerged as the most serious problem in small Arctic communities, the reception and integration of large numbers of migrants has caused significant disruption in other areas. Like Kerala, the coastal region of Mbour, in Senegal, has received thousands of new inhabitants as people flee worsening drought conditions and ongoing conflict in the country’s interior. The local artisanal fishery has served as the primary way of life for generations but cannot sustain the increased demand. Remarkable efforts to organize fishing cooperatives and local governance structures have helped but the residents understand other long-term solutions must be found. I was struck by the degree to which people were grateful that we were conducting research that they believed would directly help them now and in the future. Frankly, it was a sobering thought.

Canadians are certainly fortunate in comparison with some parts of the world with regard to their standard of living and the availability of social services, but t  he communities of the Cocagne River Watershed have experienced their share of environmental and demographic change. Intensifying storms, depleted fish stocks, decreasing water quality and new invasive species of crabs, insects, and plants are all influencing the ecosystem, but the greatest challenge is undoubtedly the inexorable rise of water levels. Initially settled because of the proximity to the sea, homes and businesses along the coast must now be relocated or protected at great expense. Part of the poorest county in one of the poorest provinces of Canada, many inhabitants have departed the region in a migration movement dating back to the nineteenth century.

At the same time, there is also a subtler return migration of retired people looking for quieter residences or recreational properties near the sea. As a result, the population is divided amongst themselves about how best to use and manage the land.  However, the 2016 Canadian Census demonstrated that for the first time in over one hundred years, the population of Cocagne and its immediate region did not decline. The creation of a new rural municipality and community initiatives like the Sustainable Development Group seem to be making a difference.

Source: Groupe de développement durable du pays de Cocagne

Individuals will act in their own interests and pursue their well-being and that of their children. One of the most obvious and measurable ways that people show agency is in the decision to migrate. At the same time, we can look at the adaptive capacity of a community and in particular the political, social, and economic structures in play that create work, discussion, and opportunities to mobilize collectively. Local context influences who leaves, who stays, and who arrives.

An important factor in the development of effective adaptation strategies for climate and environmental change will be convincing people to stay and take active roles in them. They will be more likely to do this if those strategies are culturally mediated and support local values, objectives, and measures of success. They must have hope that the strategies will work – and will work for them. At the same time, regions that demonstrate resilience should also be prepared to receive new migrants. This will require innovative and practical policies for integration. Arts and culture can create effective places of meeting, understanding, and expression to support this process.

ARTisticc meeting in Porspador, Brittany, France, 2014. The author is second from the left. Source:

[1]Gregory Kennedy, Mélanie Raimonet, Matthew Berman, Ndickou Gaye, Jean-Michel Huctin, Thomson Kaleekal, Jean-Paul Vanderlinden, “Environmental History and the Concept of Agency: Improving Understanding Local Conditions and Adaptations to Climate Change in Seven Coastal Communities,” Global Environment, Volume 11, No 2 (October 2018), pp. 405-433.

[2]Katrina Brown and Elizabeth Westaway, “Agency, Capacity, and Resilience to Environmental Change: Lessons from Human Development, Well-Being, and Disasters,” Annual Review of Environment and Resources36 (2011), 322.

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Gregory Kennedy est originaire de la ville de Winnipeg, au Manitoba. Il a obtenu son doctorat de York University à Toronto en 2008. Après une année en guise de stagiaire postdoctoral à Guelph University, il était embauché à l'Université de Moncton en 2009. Gregory Kennedy est professeur agrégé en histoire et directeur scientifique de l'Institut d'études acadiennes. Il est spécialiste de l'histoire coloniale du Canada et de l'Acadie. | Gregory Kennedy is Associate Professor of History and Research Director of the Institut d’études acadiennes at the Université de Moncton. His book, Something of a Peasant Paradise? Comparing Rural Societies in Acadie and the Loudunais, 1604-1755 (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2014), was awarded the Canadian Historical Association Clio Prize for the best scholarly book on the Atlantic region in 2015. His research centers on the social, military, and environmental history of the early modern French Atlantic world.

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