In the Yacht, Toilet Manager. Here, Captain.

by Begum Kilimcioglu.

I recently watched the movie Triangle of Sadness by Ruben Ostlund (see the trailer) and was quite amazed by it, by the performances of the actors and by how the movie was shot. But I was most amazed by how accurately it was reflecting human nature and by how relevant it was to my research.

Let’s start with a brief summary of the movie. The movie is situated in a luxury yacht full of rich people on vacation. Naturally, there is a significant amount of crew members serving the rich, awaiting any (extravagant) wish they might have. The hierarchy between rich and the poor (and not just between but also the hierarchy within these groups) is portrayed very well. The journey starts smoothly, the life on the yacht picturesque and the rich enjoying it. However, at a certain point, due to rough waters, the passengers start getting seasick, the crew members forced to work to attend the sick passengers, cleaning their vomits.

Just as we start thinking that the yacht will sink (also due to the captain’s announcements saying so) it is attacked by pirates! First time that this movie shows us that money cannot buy everything. As a result of the attack, the yacht is shipwrecked and some of the passengers are stranded on an remote and abandoned island. Among them, there is the female toilet manager (the lowest person in the cast system), the female crew manager (above the toilet manager, but still an employee), the model couple (higher on the cast but not among the super-rich) and the super- rich.

When stranded on the island, nobody knows how to handle the situation, except for the toilet manager: Abigail. She is the only one who knows how to make fire, to catch fish, clean and cook it. We see how the hierarchy is overturned, together with the gender stereotypes. In the yacht, the captain was an incompetent white male. On the island the captain is the former toilet manager, a Filipino worker, working overseas (see for more details on the Abigail character). The situation is quickly cemented when Abigail makes everyone call her the captain. When giving the others food, her strong words are ‘In the yacht toilet manager, here captain!’.

This is the second time in the movie that we see that money is not the solution. In Chief Seattle‘s words “Only when the last tree has died and the last river has been poisoned and the last fish has been caught will we realize that we cannot eat money”. It made me think about the dependency of humankind on technology. What are we without it? How do we have the audacity to act as if we created nature, the environment, mother earth? Or as if we have managed to tame her? How can we forget that the nature was always there and will always continue to be there? We come from mother earth, she is giving us the air to breathe, the food to eat, the water to drink. But we have been so cruel to her, exploiting her to her fullest, stripping her from all the things she has been giving us so generously for centuries, overstepping far beyond her boundaries (see Jason Hickel and Tim Jackson on this).

Of course, the selection of Abigail as the character to rule them all with her knowledge of the nature, facilitating their survival, is not a random choice. She is not a white, super-rich character. On the contrary, she has probably spent her childhood and her prior life in the nature, close to the sea or a lake, learning from her elders how to build a mutually-benefiting relationship with nature. In the movie, she does not hunt more than they need, she treats nature well and does not strive to exploit the things the island has to offer. It is a simple life on the island. Abigail teaches them how to live with what they actually need and not with what they think they need.

We are living in a world where we are not able to distinguish between what is enough, what is a necessity and what is a desire. The lines between our needs and desires are blurred to an extent where we think that everything we desire is an absolute necessity for our life. We have drifted so far from reality that we have forgotten about our surroundings, both people (sometimes even our loved ones) and nature and what it is to built symbiotic relationships. We have become blinded by our desires, fueled by the economic system we are living in. We have forgotten that living a meaningful and healthy life builds on being in harmony with our surroundings, giving back, loving and caring for each other. This blindfold is so extreme that we do not even think about our family members, our friends, our kids who will have to live through the mess of a planet we are leaving them. We know it right? We know what we are doing but we still keep going, aren’t we? Isn’t it scary to have these desires, knowing their consequences?

It is like how we say in Turkish: ‘Bana dokunmayan yılan bin yıl yaşan’ or ‘let the sleeping dogs lie’. But the dogs aren’t sleeping anymore, are they? There are undeniable facts, backed by our science, our technologies. We feel it now, don’t we? Summers are hotter, species on the verge of extinction, natural disasters like floods, forest fires, tornadoes all around the world, oceans polluted, icebergs melting… But who cares as long as I – as a person, as an individual – live the life I want to live? The environment is degrading, the climate is changing and our planet is slowly dying.

How much of it all do we actually need? We of course do not need to live at the utmost minimal. We can certainly give back a lot, not even to save our planet but to save ourselves. “We are living on this planet as if we had another one to go to.” For centuries we have thought that life is a struggle, a struggle where only the fittest wins, that we have to compete, for more always. We came up with the idea of capitalism to justify our never-ending desires and forgot what matters the most (see the beautiful chapter ‘Economics as Storytelling/ The Power of Metaphor’ in the Tim Jackson book ‘Post Growth- Life After Capitalism, pp. 85-89).

So what do we do on the ground? The way Abigail acts in harmony with nature brings indigenous practices to mind. We must learn from the environmental examples set by indigenous communities who have lived harmoniously with the nature for thousands of years. Traditional knowledge is critical in protecting the planet’s biodiversity and sustaining the health of the ecosystems. In this regard, according to a study done by the University of British Columbia, indigenous peoples are integral in ensuring species survival and thriving.

As identified by the United Nations Climate Change News, indigenous practices such as native tree plantation, community-managed natural forests, active revitalization of traditional technologies or restoration of sustainable fishpond systems also combat climate action. However, although they are the real guardians of our planet, they are the ones disproportionately and adversely affected by how we treat our world. Many indigenous communities, especially in isolated regions, face threats like disease outbreaks, poverty, environmental injustices and human rights violations (see the Guardian). They care for us and the planet, with so much wisdom hidden in the way they view the world. But we fail to care for them. Understanding indigenous views on life and changing our own mindset is important for saving the planet. Not taming nature but learning to tame our own desires.

The movie provoked a lot of thoughts in me and touched somewhere very close to my heart where also my research lies. I recommend it to everyone who is playing around with the ideas of sustainability, degrowth and human rights as it excellently mirrors in a satirical way the realities of our lives. Maybe one day we will realize that setting sail in expensive beachwear on a luxurious yacht will not mean anything if there are no dolphins to see, if there are no clear skies to lay under or if our skin cannot bear the temperature anymore. Action comes with awareness, so start thinking today!


Begum Kilimcioglu has completed her bachelor’s degree in law at Istanbul University, Faculty of Law. She is a nonpracticing lawyer of the Istanbul Bar Association. Currently, she is working as a PhD researcher at the University of Antwerp, investigating the use of private law tools in preventing human rights impact of environmental harms in global value chains in the extractive sector.

The opinions expressed in the text do not necessarily reflect those of R&D, but are those of the author.