Introduction: Coastal Futures

From the Series: Coastal Futures

A marsh restoration project in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, near the mouth of the Mississippi River. Taken during a damage survey flight following Hurricane Ida. Photo by Sheehan Moore/SouthWings.

Over the last fifty years, efforts to create, plan, and manage coastal zones have multiplied globally in the face of threats posed by intensifying development and dramatic environmental change. Governments, NGOs, private industry, property owners, and many kinds of coastal caretakers are entering into complex alliances to define and mitigate the crisis. Unlike traditional planning paradigms that envision bright futures with ever-expanding opportunities, most contemporary coastal endeavors take place in the context of imminent environmental catastrophe and a deepening distrust of expert knowledge and technocratic control. In a sense, official coastal planners plan against the future, not as empty time, but as crisis-ridden and threatening. Planners purport to “work with nature,” even as they seek to shore up all-too-human boundaries between land and sea, deploying massive infrastructural projects grounded within (neo)colonial and exclusionary knowledge practices and political processes. For all their appeals to novelty and urgency, coastal plans frequently reproduce uneven and racialized distributions of climate impacts. This Theorizing the Contemporary series presents innovative anthropological work responding to coastal conjunctures around the world—sites emerging from the pasts that inform them, present openings and uncertainties, and the futures imagined in places where land meets water.

The social and ecological materiality of any coastline is never an a priori given. Attempts to formally plan coastal areas are projects of definition and exclusion, asserting boundaries through resistant and fluid layers of geography and history. Time and again, we see coastal management schemes enforcing new terrains for state intervention and environmental governance causing coastal residents to organize around their own alternative senses of place, stewardship, and reciprocal care that sustain life amidst waves of extractive schemes. The contributions that follow bring ethnographic attention to spatial meaning-making, offering a methodologically powerful counterweight to reductive framings of coastal peril.

Several essays in this series center the material histories of state-led coastal plans, including the ways they extend from local trajectories of development and dispossession. Marc Brightman and Vanessa Grotti show how centuries of land reclamation and industrialization projects on the Italian coast of Ravenna make it difficult for state planners and coastal residents alike to imagine a different approach to coastal management in the present. Here in the context of recent flooding, new threats from climate change and the effects of industry are blurred by official narratives and nostalgic triumphalism around historic efforts to control water. Similarly, Shelly Biesel’s work in the Brazilian coastal state of Pernambuco reveals how the prioritization of industrial development has contributed to the ongoing degradation of coastal ecosystems. As Biesel argues, the Brazilian navy’s recent decision to scuttle a ship loaded with asbestos and other toxic cargo in the waters off Pernambuco is deeply connected to broader environmental justice issues facing Afro-Brazilian fishers and other residents. Uneven coastal development extends to urban environments, too, as Jonna Yarrington demonstrates by situating “piecemeal” present-day adaptation projects within Norfolk, Virginia’s legacy of racially-exclusionary urban renewal projects. These analyses show how coastal management approaches—even seemingly novel ones—inherit and extend existing state attempts to manage “unruly” social and environmental arrangements while bracing capital against mounting precarity at the same time.

Mainstream visions of coastal futures are often firmly rooted in revisionist interpretations of the past. On the one hand, state-backed resilience projects are often promoted as preserving historic properties and ecosystems, even as the terms of valuation are often appraised through white, settler colonial logics. Brian Walter observes this in Charleston, South Carolina, where efforts to protect the affluent Battery neighborhood build on a depoliticized sense of white-washed “nostalgic ecomodernism.” And on the coast of California, Ryan Anderson shows how wealthy homeowners advocate for coastal policies to return coastal beaches and upmarket residences to an ahistorical “natural” state, before erosion-related property losses. On the other hand, legacies of resistance to dispossession suggest other possible paths forward. In Louisiana, the site of the United States’ most ambitious and fast-moving coastal engineering projects, Monica Barra thinks with Black and Indigenous coastal residents about a concept of “coastal repair” designed to center long-standing relationships of survival among coastal peoples and ecosystems within a broader vision of just planning. Along these same lines, Adrian Cato looks to Black and Indigenous oyster harvesting traditions on the U.S. Atlantic coast to imagine “living shorelines that are also acts of living history.” For Cato, the Black geographical tradition offers a radical approach to reconceptualizing oysters as coastal infrastructure.

Even as new master plans represent coasts as abstract, manageable frontiers, these efforts are always set amidst place-based ecological relationships that precede and exceed them. Oyster harvesting, net fishing, and seasonal migration, for instance, are ways of inhabiting coasts that present alternative paradigms for restoration, yet these same practices become targets for state regulation and enclosure under the logics of settler colonialism and racial capitalism. Scott Erich elaborates this dynamic in an example from the Gulf of Oman, where a growing fish farming industry has led to a remaking of ocean space and the privatization of what had effectively been a coastal fishing commons. Ella Vallelonga and Georgina Drew consider recent restoration work on the Great Barrier Reef. By approaching the reef as one actor among many, they suggest new ways of thinking about care-ful human “nudges” toward more reparative futures offshore. Both of these essays, in their own ways, communicate something of the precarious openness of a coastal present in ongoing negotiation.

In addition to their critical work to document the layers of inequity and precarity that shape the coastal zone, the contributions in this series underscore the place of ethnography as an essential tool for apprehending coastal values and relationships. Camelia Dewan, for instance, usefully contrasts ethnographic data to the “climate reductive translations” used by planners to oversimplify contemporary coastal precarity. In Dewan’s case study of Bangladesh, state actors and NGOs promote expanded saline aquaculture as an inevitable and obvious solution to sea-level rise. Yet coastal residents point out that their precarity is the product of poor environmental management decisions, and that other future development paths are possible. Anthropologists can also play an active role in promoting equitable coastal futures. Paige West, John Aini, Michael Ladi Piskaut, Mark Almais, Mary Sauri, Bernard Tubail, and Boniface Fode provide one succinct example of this in their account of an Indigenous-led coastal engineering project on the island of Lovongai in Papua New Guinea. The project, facilitated by the NGO Ailan Awareness in conjunction with anthropological partners, has revitalized traditional marine management practices from a century ago. The authors encourage readers within anthropology to center the place of “socio-ecological sovereignty” in their own work.

As a whole, this collection brings together timely and pressing investigations into coastal planning around the world. Amidst technoscientific schemes, state policy aspirations, and declarations of impending crisis, these contributions investigate human and nonhuman worlds that weave together processes of nature-making, extraction, inequality, and recovery.