In line with my previous posts on the livingdreams.tv blog (Is there a natural way to behave? & Sustainable behavior – a logic of irrationality), I want to talk about behavioral aspects of the use of natural resources again. To many people who are not well acquainted with the science of natural resource management, it might seem non-intuitive why the role of norms, culture and attitudes is so strongly emphasized when talking about sustainability. After all, should sustainability, e.g. in a fishery, not be reached, when, based on our ecological knowledge, we build accurate predictions of what, when and how much to fish ideally and simply stick to these predictions? This very technical answer to what appears to be a very technical problem on first glance ignores important facetes of human behabior, namely the social and cultural dynamics that make us the peculiar species that we are.
To illustrate my point I will develop analogies based on the movie “The Lord of the Flies” (1990), which itself is based on the outstanding novel with the same title by William Golding (1983; originally published in 1954) and I will eventually turn to the psychology underlying climate change and the role of cultural evolution.
For those who are not familiar with the storyline, I will give you a very brief summary of the movie (that is yet already a very brief version of the book), but I encourage to see it anyway:
After a plain crash, a group of young cadets is washed ashore on a seemingly pristine tropical island. Quickly, they establish the kid Ralph as their leader and start to look for food and shelter in the wilderness. The children raise a non-stop fire on the top of the island as an emergency signal for ships or planes that might come across. However, the situation becomes problematic when the oldest boy, Jack, is no longer willed to live under the leadership of Ralph, who stresses peace, the maintenance of the signal fire and fishing as most important. Jack, who is a bold and offensive leader, is able to recruit his own subgroup of followers that go hunting for pigs and found their own settlement far from the beach, living with cultic war paint, rituals and in fear of a jungle monster that Jack has invented. The groups quickly run into a conflict and Jack’s group, with their weapons and more physical way of living, pulls more and more boys from Ralph’s civilized community. Eventually, Jack’s gang attacks Ralph and his last fellows. The attacks escalate into violence and death, and in the end Jack and his boys hunt for Ralph with spears and fire as he is the last man standing who is not part of the hunters gang. Finally, the boys are found by US soldiers who anchor at the island and Ralph is saved from being killed by the other cadets.
“Lord of the Flies” and its themes of intergroup conflict and human viciousness have been recognized by sociologists and psychologists and the book was controversially discussed in schools and universities. Yet, I think there some passages in the movie that remarkably well underline how processes of human social behavior affect the way natural resources are used, and reverse. The clique of boys who find themselves on the island start a new society from scratch, a society whose functioning and path of development is strongly tied to the natural environment the boys find themselves in, that is, the sea, the beach and the jungle. It is this microscopic cultural evolution that reveals some graphical examples of how communities and nature interact. I focus on three distinct motives from the storyline of the movie to make that clear.
Immediately after the young survivors gather on the island, one of the boys picks up a large conch from the shoreline. To give the group of lost children some instant political structure, Ralph has the idea to establish the conch as a tool of constructive debate, because only the one who keeps the conch in his hands should have the right to speak. Everybody agrees on this rule. This reduces the complexity the boys face in self-organizing their new community, because now there is common ground for agreed upon and directed action and an assignment of rights, within the “rule of the conch”. The conch becomes an institution, structuring relationships between the boys. Although the conch in itself is meaningless, there is a probably a long tradition in mankind to make use of natural structures to coordinate behavior and expectations, using symbols and “material tokens” (Gamble et al. 2014). With the help of the conch, the boys decide to fish and use the local palm trees to build housings. What does this imply for the governance of natural resources in small-scale communities? Without understanding and acknowledging the local institutions, management is impossible. Often, these institutions are not formalized and tied to local natural phenomena, as in the case of the conch. For example, there have been many failures in attempts to improve sustainability in coastal fisheries, because the ways local fishermen ascribe power, value and meaning through their informal institutions was not sufficiently accounted for (Jentoft 2004).
It’s very apparent how in the movie, with the demise of the conch institution, the welfare of the boys decreases dramatically, and conflicts of interest emerge. At first, the conch is still strong enough to allow punishment of deviators who do not accept it (a dynamic stability that is typical of institutions), for example when Ralph uses the conch to call for an assembly to talk to the boys who are not engaged enough with the rules of the community. However, the more Jack gains power and followers, the more the conch loses its recognition as point of coordination. So, eventually, Jack is responding to Ralph who insists on the rule of the conch drastically with: “Nobody’s interested in you and your fucking conch!” An institutional change has totally altered the governability of the group and their resources. What is the new way of group behavior? It’s hunting.
Jack starts to build an army that hunts for wild pigs in the jungle. Also, he uses typical human symbolism to build social cohesion: he uses facial war paint for himself and his “warriors”, dresses differently and establishes the cult of a “jungle monster”. The hunting experience, the fear of the monster and the strong emotional leadership that Jack provides remarkably alter how the boys use their natural resources: they stop spear fishing and living by the coast, as it was custom in Ralph’s group, but actively target the mammals in the forest. By creating a culture of hunters, a new institutional setting emerges since the way of living as hunters provides relational structure and rules. Notably, the functioning of Jack’s group becomes dependent on the population of pigs – not only as source of food, but as a source of socio-cultural value that nourishes the sacrificing rituals for their monster cult and the sense of group belonging through hunting. It has been acknowledged in the field of natural resource governance that ecosystem services are not bound to the mere physical benefits they provide, but also extend to cultural benefits. For instance, Oleson et al. (2015) report that in Madagascar coastal people put even more value on the bequest of their fishery as a source of culture and way of living as on the payoff from fishing products. How sustainable is the new hunting culture of the boys on the long-term? This has much to do with their behavior towards the signal fire.
Whereas Ralph had put much value on maintaining the large fire on top of the island’s hill, Jack lets the fire diminish and rather spends the time with hunting and rituals. Ralphs rule to implement fire wardens gets neglected and finally abolished by Jack, with his followers embracing that the boring job of protecting the fire from going out is over. Thus, any chance for being saved is foregone. At one point, Ralph shouts: “Face it Jack, you fucked up! We could’ve been rescued.” Why does the group, apart from Ralph, lose its sight for the long-term goal of their society, that is, to be rescued and to be able to survive for longer than a few months? There is great parallel between the boys who get way too easily distracted from their goal of being saved from the island and the struggling of our global community to deal with climate change. As George Marshall describes in his book “Don’t even think about it: Why our brains are wired to ignore climate change” (2015): climate change is an environmental challenge that demands cooperation in its most problematic form: cooperation of many actors, with tremendous uncertainty and extremely delayed benefits. We do not know how climate will change, we do not know which countries will reliably invest in climate protection and we will possibly see the results of our efforts in a century. That does not look attractive. Thinking of the movie again, the boys are able to cooperate when they go hunting, a challenge much less severe to our human social psychology, because the benefits of such a form of cooperation are immediate (meat), the groups are small and cohesive (bound by mutual control and a strong leader), and there is quite some certainty that pigs can be hunted, because the boys gather experience with their task. All these aspects look totally different when they have to cooperate for maintaining their signal fire: it is uncertain when and if they will ever be rescued and the fire can be lost due to a single warden who does his job badly. In a way, our long-term goal of avoiding climate change looks very much like the boy’s goal of keeping up the fire. It is simply not a rational action to invest in this form of uncertain long-term cooperation, given that there are much more incentives to reach short-term satisfaction.
With this perspective in mind, it is very ironic that when war and death start to corrode the cadet’s island community, the boys come to the profound question: “We did everything just the way grownups would have. Why didn’t it work?”
Allen, L.M., & Hook H. (1990). Lord of the flies. USA: Castle Rock Entertainment
Golding, W. (1983). Lord of the Flies. Penguin. Amazon book here
Marshall, G. (2015). Don’t even think about it: Why our brains are wired to ignore climate change. Bloomsbury Publishing USA.
Gamble, C., Gowlett, J., & Dunbar, R. (2014). Thinking big: how the evolution of social life shaped the human mind. Thames and Hudson.
Jentoft, S. (2004). Institutions in fisheries: what they are, what they do, and how they change. Marine Policy, 28(2), 137-149.
Oleson, K. L., Barnes, M., Brander, L. M., Oliver, T. A., Van Beek, I., Zafindrasilivonona, B., & Van Beukering, P. (2015). Cultural bequest values for ecosystem service flows among indigenous fishers: A discrete choice experiment validated with mixed methods. Ecological Economics, 114, 104-116.
I am a teacher who would like to use your section, “The Fire Irrationality”, to prompt my high school communications class to think about how society progresses when a group is shut off from our “modern” society.
I have made some grammatical corrections. May I use your work as a discussion prompt?
I hope you let me know. If you don’t, I’ll link to your full article, but I find my students do better with focused topics.
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Tom Vierus is an award-winning photographer, filmmaker, and marine biologist based in Suva, Fiji Islands. This blog is dedicated to his assignments and to sharing some behind-the-scenes footage.
Hobbes is perhaps the greatest thinker of mutually beneficial social cooperation, because he doesn’t make cooperation about altruism but about self-interest. Social cooperation is the essence of the social contract, and the role of the modern state is to facilitate social cooperation. Reading about the six boys reinforced my view that Hobbes was right. Thanks to prudence they soon realised that the best way for them to survive was by working together, cooperating, helping each other out. They survived for a year, which is a miracle, but would their harmony have lasted if they had not been rescued?