What the Heck is 'Sustainability?'
January 25, 2007
So what if Maui gets the
reputation for being "anti-development?" Being seen as
"pro-development" is much more dangerous. The mindset on that island,
on all the Hawaiian Islands has to change from this "build, build,
build" madness to something more realistic to sustaining life and
lifestyle on an island with limited resources.
-Lee Cataluna, Maui girl and Honolulu Advertiser columnist, 2004
What is "sustainability," really? It seems that to some,
"sustainability" is what "smart growth" was a few short years ago: a
buzzword and marketing tool. Executives, bureaucrats and developers
sprinkle "sustainability" language into their mission statements,
long-range plans, and promotional materials. It's an appropriate
response to a growing segment of communities that realize the status
quo of living out of balance with the planet's eco-systems has to
shift. But, is it enough?
Last weekend, panelists at the Honua `Ola event at Kamehameha
Schools were asked to define sustainability and explain how we should
Former Maui schoolteacher of the year, Joy Gaston, held up a globe
she called "Spaceship Water" and said, "To understand sustainability,
we must understand how the whole planet works."
One of the problems is that rather than embracing global awareness,
we still tend to "think locally and act locally." We must come to terms
with the reality that Hawai`i is dependent on imports of food (85
percent), fossil fuels (90 percent), and tourist dollars to sustain us.
Any economic downturn, catastrophic weather event or global political
skirmish could bring our house of cards tumbling down.
Worldwide, the handwriting is on the wall. "The maximization of
corporate profits as our economy's highest priority is progressively
destroying the interwoven fabric on which all life depends," says
author Joanna Macy. "Feedback from the biosphere—climatic disruptions
and loss of forests, fisheries, and topsoil—is revealing that our
present economy is unsustainable. It indicates an urgent need to change
the goals our system pursues and the values by which it measures its
Honua `Ola panelist Kimokeo Kapehulehua was succinct in linking
sustainability to Hawaiian culture: "To the Hawaiians, environment and
culture was one in itself." That our Americanized, multi-cultural
society here in 2007 has strayed so far from this precept helps to
explain the predicament we're in.
The 2004 report Sustainable Tourism in Hawaii
noted that with seven million visitors yearly, the 50-year-old visitor
industry may be near the maturation of its life cycle. But unlike the
earlier days of economies based on sandalwood, shipping, whaling, sugar
and pineapple, there is no viable substitute for tourism in sight.
Just below tourism on Hawai`i's top economic generators are the
construction industry and government spending, which is largely
military. Can anyone conceive that either one could be construed as
At the kickoff of the Hawai`i 2050 community planning effort last
August, Ramsey Taum of Sustain Hawaii described environment, culture,
and economy as the "triple bottom line" for the state. The Hawaii
Sustainability Task Force (www.hawaii2050.org) will continue to
facilitate public participation throughout 2007, drafting a
sustainability plan to be submitted to the legislature at the end of
While I attended the daylong Hawaii 2050 event, I was struck by the
need for both hopefulness and a sense of urgency, if the planning is to
be successful. In An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore noted that with
respect to catastrophic climate change, many people go from denial to
hopeless despair without leaving any time for action. Yes, the health
of our planet is in critical decline, and the error of our consumptive
ways as the cause is readily apparent. Yet there's still hope to change
Our new County administration has announced that renewable energy
initiatives and biofuel crops are important to Maui, but that two
months until the budget proposal goes to Council is "just too short" to
offer any new initiatives, though some may appear in the 2009 budget.
Can we really afford to wait?
Large landowners and developers are bringing traditional
neighborhood designs into their planning "charrettes." But they
may neglect to weigh their proposals in the context of the island's
inadequate infrastructure. A wonderfully planned project plopped down
in the wrong place is neither smart growth nor sustainable building.
There is a great need to educate ourselves, our decision makers and
our children on what's possible. Shanah Trevenna is Student
Sustainability Coordinator at the University of Hawai`i's Manoa campus.
She believes the passion of the students provides a "beacon of hope" in
efforts to re-educate, and believes the university must help lead the
way. Under her guidance, interactive kiosks will be installed at
seven-story Saunders Hall, offering touch screen information on
real-time water and electrical usage on each floor.
One of the booths at Honua `Ola featured Hawaii PV Coalition,
working to highlight solar photo voltaic energy, which doesn't produce
the emissions of fossil fuels or biofuels. They provided a handout with
10 simple ways to help reduce emissions and slow global warming.
Unquestionably, our future will look radically different than our
past. Yet, with the wisdom inherent in the Hawaiian culture and many
indigenous cultures, we must honor our connection with the Earth
itself. Watching Mother Nature around us, and listening carefully to
her messages, we may find greater discernment in daily decisions that
lead us to true sustainability, which I define as follows:
Sustainability is providing for current needs in ways that do not
diminish or deplete future generations from enjoying the same quality
of life, or benefiting from the same resources. MTW
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