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Progress Toward Sustainability in Hawaii

— July 27, 2020

Despite – or because of – high unemployment and economic chaos from COVID-19, progress toward sustainability in Hawaii is a growing inspiration for anyone interested in a greener world.

Hawaii is having a hard time. As I write this, Hurricane Douglas is bearing down on the islands, and even an indirect hit would be a disaster. The coronavirus pandemic continues apace, complicating not only hurricane preparation, but also the everyday effort of obtaining food and supplies, most of which are imported from the mainland. It didn’t have to be this way, though. Hawaii’s once self-sufficient economy was colonized away, and recovery efforts have been long in coming. Happily, progress toward sustainability in Hawaii has been picking up speed in recent years, and the island state could be a model to inspire other internal U.S. colonies reaching for a better future.

Pineapples plants growing in a farm field.
Pineapples at Dole Pineapple Plantation. Photo by Calgary Reviews, via Flickr. CC BY 2.0

The sugar industry took root in 1830s Hawaii, and became a well established part of the nation’s economy by the 1850s. Planters and missionaries followed the money, bringing economic and cultural upheaval. The naval base at Pearl Harbor followed in 1887, and in 1893, a coup led by an American, Sanford Ballard Dole, relieved Hawaii of its last Indigenous monarch. President Dole (yes, from that Dole family) submitted a controversial treaty of annexation to the U.S. Senate, and after the Pearl Harbor base proved strategically important during the Spanish-American war, the U.S. annexed the island territory (largely against the will of most Hawaiians). In 1959, Hawaii became the 50th state.

Colonies typically serve the mother country at the expense of native populations by providing raw resources, labor, and a market for finished products. Land that once grew food for local people now makes a cash crop for export, like sugar or pineapples. Unable to support themselves in traditional ways, people must work for money instead. Finally, that money flows away in exchange for costly imports. At every step, wealth is funneled away from the colony. Even now, Hawaii imports 85-90% of its food from the mainland.

This system works, at least for some people, at least for a while. The immediate economic chaos brought by the coronavirus, however, is highlighting the cracks in a system so dependent upon imports and exports. Progress toward sustainability in Hawaii has grown in recent years, and Hawaii’s people are rising to the challenge.

In 2015, Hawaii became the first state in the Union to commit to a complete transition to renewable energy sources. A solar energy project on Kauai is helping reach that goal by providing 11% of the island’s electricity (and, for extra green cred, the grass is mowed by grazing sheep).

Progress toward sustainability in Hawaii is made easier by the island’s natural resources, a native environmental ethos, relatively small size, and a collection of unusual projects that capitalize on local conditions. Two Hawaiian companies have innovated ways to take advantage of the temperature differential between deep and shallow ocean water to generate energy or cool buildings. One of these pulls cold water from four miles away and 1700 feet below the surface, and uses it to chill fresh water that provides air conditioning in Honolulu, before returning the warmer water to a shallower area offshore.

Everyday Hawaiians are also pitching in and making a difference. With a third of the state’s residents filing for unemployment due to the pandemic, food insecurity has given rise to plenty of do-it-yourself solutions. One newlywed couple shared the story of how they took advantage of the rich volcanic soil in their back yard to plant a large garden, trading their surplus with neighbors, friends, and people they met online. In a few months, they found they were spending less than a quarter of the $850 per month that usually went toward groceries, likely enjoying a healthier and more sustainable diet as well.

It’s hard to believe, being surrounded by water, but Hawaii imports 63% of its seafood. Aquaculture startups are working to change that, by leveraging generations of traditional knowledge and ancient techniques alongside modern technology and conservation practices. New businesses are also popping up to turn seaweed into a variety of useful products, from ink to straws, which replace imported items made from fossil fuel derivatives. Cultivated and wildcrafted seafood also reduces the amount of land needed to raise livestock, lightening the load.

The good people of Hawaii are even cleaning up after the rest of us. The Honolulu-based Ocean Voyages Institute recently completed a 48-day expedition to clean up a record amount of plastic adrift at sea. Derelict fishing nets and consumer plastic trash made up the bulk of the 103-ton load recovered by their vessel. According to OVI, all of the plastic will be recycled or somehow repurposed instead of ending up in a landfill. That’s good work!

Despite economic hardship and the toxic legacy of colonization, progress toward sustainability in Hawaii has never looked brighter. With a vibrant and growing array of local initiatives, from farmer’s markets and community-supported agriculture to renewable energy projects and environmental cleanups, Hawaii’s vision is an inspiration for everyone interested in building a sustainable and regenerative future.

Related: Decentralize the Food System – For Good


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