Photo credit: Dean Miller
An aerial view of the atoll island in Papua New Guinea where this research was conducted. The island is home to a fishing community comprised of ~952 people that are heavily dependent on the marine environment and coral reefs to support their livelihoods.

By Michele Barnes, Lorien Jasny, Andrew Bauman, John Ben, Ramiro Berardo, Orjan Bodin, Joshua Cinner, David Feary, Angela Guerrero, Fraser Januchowski-Hartley, John Kuange, Jacqueline Lau, Peng Wang, and Jessica Zamborain-Mason.

This Plain Language Summary is published ahead of the article discussed; check back soon for a link to the full paper.

We learn from others; we influence others; and we often work with others to solve complex problems. For these reasons, social networks play a critical role in sustainability, e.g. they enable people to come together to find cooperative solutions to environmental problems. People’s relationships with the environment can also influence sustainability outcomes.

We studied how these relationships between people and the environment (i.e., social-ecological networks) evolve over time in the context of global change. We conducted our research on an island in Papua New Guinea which is home to a fishing community we have been working in since 2002. The people in our study community rely on coral reef fish to support their livelihoods. Yet over the past decade the island has experiencing dramatic social and ecological change which threaten the long-term sustainability of the reef and their way of life. We asked: how they had adapted their social-ecological networks in light of these changes?

Over time, we found that the community appeared to be ‘bunkering down’ and looking inward in response to increasing risk to their livelihoods and the breakdown of a customary resource management system which had traditionally sustained them. Community members were increasingly forming ties with others within their clan, with friends of friends, and with those connected to resources that could indirectly impact on their own (being linked in the foodweb). These types of ties are often referred to as “bonding ties”.

Whilst bonding ties may support cooperation amongst small groups and are often critical for recovery after extreme events, they can lead to different subgroups emerging in the network which can pose challenges for the larger-scale cooperation needed to confront global change. Divisions often emerge between different network subgroups in societies, which can stifle social learning and limit the spread of innovations.  Our study raises the important question of how common ‘bunkering down’ might be in response to change more broadly. Although increased in-group cooperation may be crucial in the short-term or for overcoming certain types of change, it may be maladaptive for confronting grand challenges such as climate change and pandemics.