Rob Parsons

What the Heck is 'Sustainability?'

By Rob Parsons
Published in Maui Time Weekly
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 address it.

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 success."

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 "sustainable?"

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 this year.

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 course.

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.