From the nomadic pastoralist tribes of East Africa to the hunter-gatherer societies of Australia, many subsistence communities around the world depend directly on the natural environment for their livelihood security—defined as “adequate and sustainable access to income and resources to meet basic needs” (Baro & Deubel, 2006, p. 528). Traditional livelihood practices in such communities are synchronized with the rhythms of nature, which are codified in the community’s traditional knowledge (Drew, 2005). Traditional livelihood practices of interacting with the environment are locally evolved and inter-generationally transmitted to help communities follow environmental patterns and maintain livelihood security (Berkes, Colding, & Folke, 2000).

For example, the Maasai tribe of East Africa uses its knowledge of the environment to periodically migrate livestock to locations with water and greener pastures, thus ensuring livelihood security for present and future generations (Viswanathan et al., 2016). Traditional livelihood practices in such communities change gradually to keep pace with incremental changes in local environmental conditions (Homewood, Kristjanson, & Trench, 2009). However, what happens when disruptive environmental changes drastically diminish the efficacy of traditional livelihood practices in maintaining livelihood security? The relevance of this question is reflected in Arun’s opening quote and informs the research we report herein.

We address our focal research question through an immersive study of a small fishing community off the coast of Bay of Bengal in South India. This community is reeling from the devastating impact of several environmental disruptions (tsunami, floods, and oil spill) in the last 15 years, which have completely changed the character of the sea and threatened the livelihood security of people living in the community. Our analysis of multi-source qualitative data from the fishing community advances two important insights. First, we find that environmental disruptions that threaten livelihood security in subsistence communities can call into question the legitimacy of traditional livelihood practices. Second, in the face of livelihood insecurity, the community exercises agency by legitimizing adaptations to traditional livelihood practices to re-establish livelihood security. We find evidence of three types of adaptations to traditional livelihood practices: (1) blending traditional livelihood practices with non-traditional livelihood practices, (2) expanding beyond the domain of traditional livelihood practices, and (3) altering the knowledge base underlying livelihood practices. Multiple constraints hamper the ability to bring about these adaptations to traditional livelihood practices. We label these constraints self-identity threat, self-efficacy threat, and continuity threat. Our findings illustrate how and why local subsistence communities balance these constraints to reestablish livelihood security.

Natural-resource-dependent livelihoods such as fishery, forestry, agriculture, and animal husbandry directly support a large fraction of the poor in subsistence marketplaces across both the developing and developed world (World Bank, 2000). For example, more than 75% of Africa’s population is directly dependent on the natural environment for everyday survival (Thomas & Twyman, 2005). Consequently, any environmental disruption can pose a serious threat to livelihood security in these vulnerable sections of society, calling for a scholarship of a transformative kind (Blocker et al., 2013; Mick, 2006). Our paper responds to this call by presenting policy recommendations that can enhance the welfare of subsistence communities threatened by environmental disruption.

The remainder of the paper proceeds as follows: we first review and synthesize key insights from prior literature that provide the conceptual ingredients for our study. Then, we describe the details of our methodology, after which we present our core findings. Next, we draw on the findings to outline policy interventions that have the potential to bring about transformative outcomes. We conclude the paper by discussing the implications of our research to marketing research in general.