Rob Parsons

2050 Vision

Seeing Hawai`i's future in the crystal ball

By Rob Parsons
Published in Maui Time Weekly
May 10, 2007

A vision without a plan is just a dream. A plan without a vision is just drudgery. But a vision with a plan can change the world.

Two community meetings last week invited Maui's citizens to share their ideas and vision for the Hawai`i 2050 Sustainability Task Force. While some of us have a hard time planning for next week or next month, others among us may relish the opportunity to help envision a future that will hopefully improve on our present day existence. About 130 people took part in the process.

The exercise is not new. Strategic plans and long range plans abound in businesses, organizations and government agencies. Even now the Maui County General Plan Advisory Committee is preparing to revise guidelines that may (or may not) direct our growth and development over the next two decades.

In 2003, Focus Maui Nui asked 1,700 residents, more than one percent of our population, to discuss their values and priorities. Five key strategies for action evolved from that process. "Overwhelmingly, participants in Focus Maui Nui expressed a sense of optimism that the islands could become a model for clean, sustainable living and a place where every child could grow to lead a successful and productive life amongst family on the islands," touts the Focus Maui Nui website. But to what extent do our utopian plans and dreams actually become tangible? As one veteran community activist said of the Hawai`i 2050 meetings, "I am concerned that we will end up with a report that spends more time on a shelf than being implemented."

In 2005 the state Legislature created the Hawai`i 2050 Sustainability Task Force, and supports it with $1.4 million in funding. The stated goal is to involve as many people as possible in the state's long-range planning process and to provide input by the end of this year for legislative review in the 2008 session. The final Hawai`i 2050 plan will complement, rather than replace, existing planning laws and processes.

Hawai`i 2050 had a unique kickoff event last August at the Dole Cannery building in Honolulu. More than 500 people attended, with at least 50 each from the Big Island, Kauai and Maui. To help shake participants out of their traditional thinking and beliefs, students from the Hawai`i Research Center for Future Studies-under the direction of pioneer futurist, Jim Dator-acted out four possible future scenarios.

One scenario portrayed Hawai`i under a military dictatorship, with a full-blooded Hawaiian designated as king. Tourism and consumerism are remembered as past extravagances, and money and credit have vanished. Bartering of goods and labor provides the economy's foundation. A second alternative is something of an economic success story, with tourism the main economic driver. Governance is made up of representatives from the multi-national corporations that run the tourist industry. Most food is genetically modified and nuclear plants on all islands provide ample electricity and desalinized water to support four million residents.

A third future scenario depicted local self-sufficiency, resulting from the end of cheap and abundant energy, sea-level rise, global economic collapse and pandemics. There's no more mass tourism. Fertility has been reduced and in-migration is strictly controlled. Values derived largely from Hawaiian culture govern all life and social interaction.

The fourth imagined future differed greatly from the others, in that the definition of "humans" had changed profoundly. Technological revolutions led to artificial intelligence and cyborg modification of brain and body. Wars, injustice, oppression and environmental devastation are things of the past. The old spaceship launch pad at South Point, Hawai`i is now a major distribution center, teleporting goods across the globe and to off-Earth settlements.

While none of the four scenarios is much like the present, the seeds for each can be found in the present. The point of the exercise was to challenge existing assumptions and to help people clarify and dream of the future they want to face, and want next generations to live in. Or put another way, how can we recognize the limitations and challenges of our present societal system, design a "preferred future" that addresses and corrects the course we're on, and then connect our present to that future?

Albert Einstein once said, "I never think of the future-it comes soon enough." But he is better known for his quote, "We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them."

With that in mind, it may be useful to look at the support structure for our long-range planning processes. The Maui Economic Development Board guides Focus Maui Nui, which in turn organized and hosted the Hawai`i 2050 meetings on Maui. The Maui 2050 Task Force representatives include the Chamber of Commerce President, its past president, the president of a real estate development firm and the Maui County Planning Director.

The construct appears weighted on the side of economic interests. We've heard so many times that "our environment is our economy" that it's hard to understand why there isn't at least one environmental representative on the 25-member task force. After all, protecting the natural environment ranked second on the Focus Maui Nui priority list, right after improving education.

In any case, why don't we have a better education system, protected and restored natural resources, abundant alternative energy, vibrant local agricultural opportunities and universal health care? It seems that we always run up against roadblocks formed from the existing economic power structure and the government bureaucracy dutifully supporting it.

Our federal government spends tax dollars in obscene amounts on a grossly obese military budget under the guise of national security, but at the expense of addressing widespread domestic issues.

Locally, we continue to fatten the coffers of tourism, our strongest industry. The Hawai`i Tourism Authority (HTA), which has an annual budget nearing $60 million, now apportions a few million dollars worth of grants to Cultural Heritage Tourism and Eco-Tourism endeavors. But that came about only after a 2002 Supreme Court challenge by the Hawai`i Sierra Club. The environmental group maintained that the HTA's wish to increase tourism two percent every year would broadly impact local resources, and should require an Environmental Impact Statement, triggered by the use of public funds. The court ultimately ruled that Sierra Club did not have legal standing to challenge, but the issues saw wide discussion and today environmental groups have a seat at the table at HTA in the form of a Natural Resources Advisory Group. On Maui, the County Council's annual budget review can be marked by missives from Kihei community activist and volunteer Buck Joiner, lambasting the County's awarding of nearly $4 million (and $3.4 million from the state) to the Maui Visitors Bureau.

"You will hear sustainability preached statewide, at Focus Maui Nui, by the mayor and council members," says Joiner. "Maui needs a dairy, an egg farm and a pineapple operation. Did the county provide money to keep any in operation? No. Instead it gives $4 million to the richest, most successful industry on Maui, the exact opposite of sustainability."

The Maui County budget is complete and ready for the mayor's signature. For the first time ever, it has topped the half billion-dollar mark. How much of that is allocated for education and environmental protection, the top two Focus Maui Nui priorities? Not enough.

There are many definitions of sustainability. One is that sustainability enables islanders to satisfy their basic needs and enjoy a better quality of life without compromising future generations, while living within the limits of the natural environment.

Sustainable communities, environment, economies and quality of life won't just happen. They need our collective input and spirit to correct the state's heavy reliance on imported food, energy and dollars.

Perhaps Mahatma Gandhi said it best: "You must be the change you wish to see in the world."