Trust can fix our future: lessons from the simplicity of island life

After spending twelve days on an island in Palau without the ample resources of modern life in developed cities, Andrew Broadbent ponders the crucial role trust will play in restoring our communities.

Andrew Broadbent
16 December 2014
Islands of the Republic of Palau

Islands of the Republic of Palau. Dr. James P. McVey/Wikipedia. Public domain.I recently returned from The Republic of Palau, a low-lying island country located in the western Pacific. I travelled to Palau with five others to take part in an island survival experience. With minimal training and an armory of just two freshly sharpened machetes and a small fishing net, we were left marooned on an island named Ngerechur to test our skill for survival for twelve days.

I went into this experience hoping to gain a sense of the true meaning of sustainability. I also hoped to become more appreciative of the privilege of my place in society and to seek a more sustainable lifestyle upon my return (a personal quest not yet diminished). Each day on the island, I took time to collect my thoughts and capture the mood in the camp in a journal.  Reading through the diary again, I see a progression towards starvation on an unhealthy level and a depiction of the prospective boredom that seeped surreptitiously into the group with the same unyielding lapping effect of the tide. The real learning experience, however, was that in order to succeed and to survive, we would have to cooperate.

The late British historian Tony Judt remarked that ‘all collective undertakings require trust’. It is crucial to rely on the contributions, abilities, capacity and motives of the individuals at your side when one’s most primal instinct – survival – is tested. The experience clearly brought to life what Judt called our ‘natural propensity to work in collaboration to collective advantage’. My particular role was that of ‘the fixer’. I was relied upon to bring practical solutions to challenges that the group faced using the resources we had at hand. The group put their trust in me to play this role, and I, in turn, trusted that the other individuals in the group would simultaneously fulfill their roles. This co-operative commune was successfully maintained by the shared ambition of 'true survival'. Life on the island was not without its disagreements; we had a number of petty, hunger-driven, squabbles over the distribution of our most precious and delicious sustenance, coconut water. Despite this bickering, life on that beach would have been much harder without our commons goal and an undercurrent of trust.

...life on that beach would have been much harder without a collective goal and an undercurrent of trust.

Can this same trust fix our future?

Over the past thirty years or so, our society has become characterized by a ceaseless, self-interested materialism. Naomi Klein says we have become ‘little more than singular, gratification-seeking units, out to maximize our narrow advantage’. Quite obviously, such self-serving behaviour does not inspire trust in one another as is evidenced in the breakdown of local communities and civil engagement over the same period. As an alternative, developed societies actively choose to place this trust in larger and much more powerful institutions: in governments they believe act in their interest, in banks they believe would not play fast and loose with their savings on the stock markets, and in mortgage brokers they believe would sell them a product that was in their interest. Has this been a good investment of such a treasured commodity?

Once corroded, trust is virtually impossible to restore. We are at a critical point in history where the trust we have invested in these establishments is at its thinnest. There is a groundswell of unrest and uneasiness regarding the future of our planet. The question of our societies’ sustainability and implications of technological advancement mean that we, the people, have the tools and interconnectivity to make substantial changes that can be communicated almost instantaneously and at a global scale. Klein suggests we need to focus this opportunity on the process of ‘rebuilding and reinventing the very idea of the collective, the communal, the commons, the civil, and the civic’. In essence, we need to take this opportunity to re-establish the level of trust and cooperation that our group experienced on Ngerechur, a possibility that I believe resides in us all.

The more people we can get to step-in to this level of trust and cast off some of what Charles Eisenstein calls the ‘fear-based thinking’ that lies behind individualistic, competitive and profit-driven behavior, the greater chance we have of reforming the sociopolitical climate. The only real antidote to the fear of stepping outside the norm - from stepping from a paradigm of individualism to a new reality of collectivism - is trust.

The only real antidote to the fear of stepping outside the norm - from stepping from a paradigm of individualism to a new reality of collectivism - is trust.

There are many possible ways. These include providing education to navigate the turbulence of future events, instilling hope and belief that there is a more equitable and harmonious alternative, reforming politics to a state where politicians are morally invested activists and not merely publicly empowered faces to their capitalist sponsors, and challenging the economic status quo to enable the redistribution of vast amounts of wealth. The only way that any of these things could ever gain traction against the current status quo, however, is to move back to a model of collaboration, cooperation and trust.

As a vision for the future the stark simplicity of life on the island is far beyond the level of sustainability that we need to achieve in our quest for a more compatible relationship with our planet. However, it is obvious to those who want to accept it, that currently this relationship is not balanced, harmonious or sustainable.

I truly believe that as a starting point we firstly need to establish a shared foundation. My time on Palau allowed me to rediscover that the one thing that allowed us to work co-operatively, throughout the experience, was the growing conviction that this trust was both evenly distributed across the group and reciprocal. If Judt’s remark that ‘all collective undertakings require trust’ is accurate, we desperately need to re-establish trust throughout every sector, demographic and institution of society before we even begin to attempt to reverse the negative impact we have had on our home planet.

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