Cargo cults



Picture this: flight control towers, satellite dishes, head phones, radios, and even planes, made entirely out of bamboo and grass!

This is not some strange amusement park, this was the response of indigenous people in the South Pacific after the abandonment of western military bases at the end of WWII.

If you build it, they will come

Although there are previous of reports of Cargo cults prior to WWII, the rising of cults following WWII is the most widely documented. At the heart of this phenomenon is the interaction of one culture with a more technologically advanced culture. When the US (and the Japanese) arrived in the South Pacific, their appearance signaled a rapid and dramatic change in lifestyle and societal structure for the indigenous cultures. First and foremost was the sudden appearance of western goods or “cargo” being dropped with regular occurrence by planes. To the locals, these regular cargo drop-offs were akin to a supernatural occurrence.

When the war ended and the military bases were abandoned, the regular cargo drop-offs ended. In response to this sudden stop in cargo, charismatic leaders arose, promising that more deliveries would come. Thus, began the cargo cults. Leaders promised that more cargo would arrive if the cults beginning to mimic the day-to-day behaviour of the US military. Hence, the elaborate bamboo airstrips, control towers and planes being contructed in an effort to promote the appearance of cargo.




The religion of material objects

Religious dogma was cobbled together consisting of beliefs that the foreigners were linked to the gods, hence the miraculous deliveries from the sky and the incorporation of western culture into their religious practice, as well as the building of the bamboo airstrips. The leaders promised that the “western objects” could be obtained by supernatural means.

Scholars and theorists argue that the cargo cults are actually apocalyptic cults, where the end of the western goods signalled the apocalypse or end of times. Others argue that the cults are in fact a religion centered around object worshipping. This based on the fact that objects carry a self-concept-based meaning i.e. high religious value is placed in an object, where the sudden change in the availability of the object can change the meaning of life for individuals. For example,  the beginning of the end of days or of a new millennium.

A new era of cargo cults

In my research for this post, it became clear that there is a new era of cargo cults. One of the first new age cargo cults mentioned was Burning Man. The association of Burning Man with a cargo cult is based on the fact that Burning Man centres around a bartering system of objects and goods, and thus despite being touted as a festival of inclusion and decommodification, it is in fact a place of object worshipping where giant wooden effigies are erected and symbolically burnt.

The second new age cargo cults mentioned were those of the clean eating and (obsessive) lifestyle/fitness movements. These movements have a core belief that is almost doomsday-ish or end-of days-ish in its fanaticism. Devotees believe that if you don’t follow the practices i.e. are vegan, or only eat raw food, don’t consume sugar and so on, you are only consuming toxins, will become sick, and basically are signing your death certificate! Whilst not like the popular image of a doomsday cult, nor the South Pacific cargo cults, these movements have a core element of object worshipping and end-of days mentality that put these movements directly into the court of cargo cults.

Final thought:

To me, it seems that there are cargo cults everywhere, with object worshipping working its way into our daily lives.

At the heart of the South Pacific cargo cults was a charismatic leader making promises that more cargo would come if they changed their culture/lives. In a similar manner, in modern western society, we are promised by charasmatic sales people, inventors or personalities that buying a (new phone, shoes, TV, computer, car etc) object, or adopting certain practices will change our lives, stave off unhappiness or alter our position in society.

Isn’t this similar to the cargo cults??


For an interesting article around cargo cults and science, read here.

Click to access bad_endings.pdf

Click to access My-Favorite-Things-A-Cross-Cultural-Inquiry-into-Object-Attachment-Possessiveness-and-Social-Linkage.pdf

4 thoughts on “Cargo cults

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