Climate Change and Conflict By John Campbell and Carol Farbotko  |  20 February, 2023

Habitability and Relational Security

Image: ChameleonsEye/Shutterstock

Notions of security have played a significant role in climate change impacts and adaptation research and policy development.  Various aspects of security have been called upon such as food and water security, livelihood security, environmental security, health security, human security and national and international security in the context of conflict resulting from climate change impacts and adaptations to them, and so on.  All of these are essentially phenomenal (tangible, physical) in nature and climate change may very seriously threaten the material necessities of life and wellbeing. However, focussing on the phenomenal can cause us to overlook or neglect the non-material elements of people’s security which for most people in, and from, Pacific Islands, are critically important.

A useful starting point in exploring the idea of non-material security is the notion of ontological security.  This term was introduced by the psychologist R. D. Laing in 1960 in relation to people’s psychological difficulties and adopted three decades later by the sociologist Anthony Giddens  in a much different way to describe an individual’s sense of security in everyday life in the context of late modernity.  The idea is becoming increasingly recognised as useful to holistically capture material and non-material elements of human security particularly in relation to migrants and, on some occasions, to those vulnerable to climate change. In short, ontological security is best encapsulated as an individual’s security of being.  Of certainty in one’s existence.  Of confidence in everyday expectations of social, environmental and spiritual conditions being met, enabling individuals to manage life from day-to-day. 

Ontological security enables individuals to rely on things – other people, objects, places, meanings – remaining, by and large, the same tomorrow as they were yesterday and are today. In terms of place, it ensures a safe location which provides protection from uncertainty and to which one may return without anxiety. As Giddens suggests, it relates to a feeling of continuity in one’s life that is based on a sense of belonging and confidence in one’s identity. From a Pacific perspective, ontological security includes material elements such as space, soil, plants animals, crops, land, ocean, health and safety; social aspects such as kinship, community, leadership and reciprocity; and cultural factors including place, identity, birth, death, belonging, stewardship, past and future.  If any one of the three components – material, cultural or social – is missing, then ontological security may be compromised.

In our consideration of the meaning of habitability on atolls we conclude that definitions based on material ‘life support systems’, such as those used in contemporary scientific and policy approaches to adaptation in Pacific Islands, are inadequate. The concept of security of being, nevertheless, is a critically important component of habitability on atolls and indeed other Pacific Islands.  However, it is much more than is encapsulated in ontological security, a notion elaborated in a western context and centred on the sense of security held by individuals.

The worldviews of most people in Pacific Islands are highly relational where all elements are connected.  Accordingly, people cannot be separated from their environments, individuals from their community and/or kinship group and everyday life from the spiritual realm.  Important concepts illustrating this relational ontology are *banua (including fenua, vanua, etc.) and vā (a concept of space which does not separate places but may also be seen as the space in between).  These relational aspects are not part of the ontology of ontological security.  Ontological security, the security of one’s existence, in the Pacific, however, cannot exist without the *banua and vā, and the individual’s relations within them.  The importance of kinship and communal relationships, the connection to *banua, and spatial connections in the Pacific are at odds with ontological security’s individual focus.  This is not to deny the importance of individuals but to place them in a much wider context.  This is recognised by the late Fijian anthropologist, Asesela Ravuvu in his description of vanua in a village in Fiji:

The people of Nakorosule cannot live without their physical embodiment in terms of their land, upon which survival of individuals and groups depends. … Land in this sense is thus an extension of the self; and conversely the people are an extension of the land.

Accordingly, while the idea of an individual’s security of being is very important, it is strongly linked to the group, to the land (and associated terrestrial, biological, atmospheric, and marine ecosystems) and to the spiritual world.  It is here that we consider Pasifika ontological security departs from that in the western world.  Given that relationality is a critically important part of Pacific life, we suggest the term relational security may help distinguish the Pacific security of being from the western and individualistic characteristics of ontological security.

Given the importance of relational security in the lives of Pacific people, climate change may indeed be seen as a very serious threat.  But, if relational security is not accounted for in adaptation policies and practice, other existential threats may emerge.  It is only if the voices of the people affected by climate change are given a central position in adaptation decision-making, that such threats may be avoided.  Relocation of communities from places identified as becoming less habitable or uninhabitable is increasingly being promoted as a ‘rational’ climate change adaptation. Such moves, however, may cause people to lose their original place based relational security. Without relational security, new places may be seen as sites of uncertainty and danger, and as a result uninhabitable, even if they provide all the material requirements of security in the face of climate change. The challenge for policy makers, planners and practitioners is to widen concepts of security beyond the mainstream Western security discourses to incorporate the relational dimensions of security which lie at the heart of Pacific peoples’ worldviews and underpin their understanding of security.  This can only be achieved by meaningful involvement of local communities in adaptation decision making.

Footnote.  We use the Austronesian term *banua here in place of specific words such as the mostly Polynesian words fanua, fenua, honua, vanua and whenua.  Typically translated into the English term land they stand for a much more relational concept that incorporates land, the rest of the environment, people as individuals and communities and the spiritual world in an interconnected whole.


Related articles

Atoll Futures – Defining Habitability (5-minute read)

Filling the Basket of Knowledge: Workshop on Climate Change, Human Mobility and Peacebuilding in the Pacific (5-minute read)

Ontological Security, the Spatial Turn and Pacific Relationality: A Framework for Understanding Climate Change, Human Mobility and Conflict/Peace in the Pacific (Part I)  (25-minute read)

Ontological Security, the Spatial Turn and Pacific Relationality: A Framework for Understanding Climate Change, Human Mobility and Conflict/Peace in the Pacific (Part II) (25-minute read)


John R. Campbell has been researching population and environment issues in Pacific Island countries since the 1970s. He is currently working on the human dimensions of climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction including environmental migration.

Carol Farbotko is a cultural geographer with research interests in climate mobilities and the politics of climate risk, focusing on the Pacific Island region. She is an Australian Research Council Future Fellow at Griffith University.