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Sustainable Development as Cargo Cult: Strange Tales of Scale Making from Melanesia and Beyond

Publication Date
  • Melanesia
  • Porgera
  • Papua New Guinea
  • Cargo Cults
  • Development
  • Environmental Politics
  • Feasibility
  • Subjectivity
  • Agency
  • Social Organization
  • Ethnology
  • Anthropology
  • Ecology
  • Geography
  • Linguistics


While the hyper-exotic discourse of 'cargo cult' continues to draw attention in popular media representations of Melanesia, many anthropologists have noted that the movements thus labeled represent a more general Melanesian form of sociality which emphasizes the creation of social unity as a means of obtaining wealth. This paper contrasts 'Cargo Cults' with corporate and environmentalist discourses of sustainable development, which seeks to unite stakeholders in a state of social unity in order to obtain wealth and the good life. In both cases the success of desired change at the macro-level depends on micro-level subjects taking "ownership" of the proposed changes to social life. The difference is that some 'cargo cults' such as the Christian Fellowship Church in the Solomons and the John Frum movement in Vanuatu have created social orders which have endured for decades while the vast majority of 'development' projects in Melanesia have failed. This paper asks: how and why do white discourses render credible, believable, and intelligible discourses of 'sustainable development' 'fighting corruption' and 'capacity building' while the macro-level aspirations of grassroots aspirations slip constantly back into the derogatory and exoticizing label of 'cargo cult'? Can our sense of an unproblematic notion of 'credibility' emerge unscathed in a world where Melanesian enthusiasm for organizations like 'integrated conservation and development areas' is now continuous with white dreams of reforming Melanesian social orders in the name of the environment?

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