Rob Parsons

The Frights of Spring

Signs that not everything is blossoming like daffodils

by Rob Parsons

April 10, 2008

It's spring! Lo, the warming, brightening hopefulness that abounds, as the world awakes from its winter slumbers. Upcountry jacaranda trees begin to blush with their lavender blossoms. Haiku gardenias explode like popcorn on rain-kissed bushes.

On the Mainland, record snowfalls in the Midwest-over 100 inches in my home state of Wisconsin-are finally melting. Baseball season has begun, and thousands of fans will flock to the ballpark, paying a king's ransom for tickets to watch multi-millionaire athletes play a kid's game. Still, as surely as ivy grows on the outfield walls of Wrigley Field, there's a feeling that all's right with the world. Or is it?

Global climate change, still doubted by some, isn't merely stirring up Category 5 hurricanes and dropping historic amounts of rain and snow. It's also busy at work unhinging a portion of the Antarctic ice shelf the size of Connecticut. We can only hope the ice chunk might obstruct the Japanese whaling fleet from killing more than a thousand whales again this year, under the guise of scientific research.

Earth Day is also right around the corner, and there's hope that folks might sign petitions against global warming, whaling, U.S. Navy sonar or even just install a few compact fluorescent light bulbs in their homes. Spring-yes, the perfect time of year for Earth Day.

But what's this I read about Mainland truckers protesting the high cost of diesel at more than $4 per gallon? Why, even Maui's homegrown company Pacific Biodiesel can do better than that, with their price holding steady at $3.49 per gallon. But veteran truckers warn that if something isn't done about rising fuel prices, the cost of many consumer goods will quickly follow.

Last week congressional representatives grilled oil company executives, whose industry had $123 billion in earnings last year. They asked why petroleum companies should continue to receive billions in tax breaks while consumers pay soaring pump costs. An official from Exxon Mobil Corporation, which made a record $40 billion last year, said they are in an "up cycle" and we must look at their investments and earnings over the long term.

A congressman responded by saying that the up cycle has been going on too long, and that anger levels are rising while approval ratings are plummeting. Democratic lawmakers hammered the oil companies for more of their profits, and called them to do more to develop alternative energy sources. Republicans countered by asking to open new areas for drilling to boost oil and natural gas production.

Certainly, rising fuel charges are one of the major factors in the recent closure of Aloha Airlines, ATA, and Skybus, as well as the departure of two of Norwegian Cruise Lines' three inter-island ships. Hawai`i's economy, top-heavy with tourist dollars, will take a hit. And it hasn't helped that the current mayoral administration sought to enforce a large segment of the island economy-visitors wishing to stay in home rentals rather than resorts-out of existence.

Still, Spring Break brought the usual large number of visitors to our island, and if they weren't too upset with all the new construction and traffic, they might even return. But just to be sure, Mayor Charmaine Tavares is asking the County Council to support another spring tradition: approving nearly $4 million for the Maui County Visitors Bureau in the annual budget review.

Now, what if we took the Earth Day message to heart and asked for that money to go instead to Maui's fragile environment-to conservation organizations that depend on grants, donations and volunteer efforts? What if $4 million went straight to sustainability planning for the possible lean times ahead? Wouldn't the word of mouth still reach Maui's visitors and give them even more reason to return-to visit a place that really cares about its most valuable natural resources and is preserving them for future generations?

Preservation seems to be the theme with our neighbors on Molokai, who don't want to see La`au Point converted into 200 luxury lots for the ultra-rich while straining the island's water resources and values. Fortunately, their values include a deep sense of community self-determination, for the road ahead will surely be rocky for 120 workers laid off by the Molokai Ranch's parent company, GuocoLeisure Ltd. of Singapore.

When you add the 1,900 workers laid off by Aloha Airlines, you suddenly have the largest surge in unemployment Hawai`i has seen in recent history. If fuel costs and a sagging Mainland economy translate into less tourist arrivals, what options do we have locally to improve the outlook? Can we, perhaps, build our way out of an economic recession?

The majority of our County Council seems to think so. How else do you explain their approval of Wailea 670 (or as the developers like to call it, "Honua`ula")? I know, they told us it was about affordable housing, not the 700 luxury homes and private golf course, while potentially bulldozing botanical and cultural treasures.

Construction and real estate have long been the second tier on our economic pyramid, having surpassed agriculture decades ago. But it begs the question, "How many more housing units does Maui really need, and for whom?"

The County Long Range Planning Division wrestled with this inquiry, and last week finally rolled out its maps for the General Plan Advisory Committee. Upwards of 40,000 new housing units is what they projected will be needed by the year 2030.

The Planning Department also wants to limit the demand for non-resident housing by 25 percent through a combination of policy, taxation and locating the units. But Planning Director Jeff Hunt noted, "To be honest, we're not absolutely confident" that the policies would work.

With all the talk of impending changes due to Peak Oil, climate change, environmental degradation and overpopulation, why is future planning so obsessed with the number of housing units needed? Isn't there a greater need to plan for a sustainable community, one capable of self-sufficiency to feed and cloth itself, provide adequate fresh water, produce local renewable electricity and building materials and rejuvenate our economy along with our natural resources?

Shouldn't discussions of this ilk supersede those to boost numbers of approved construction projects and provide tax rebates as an economic stimulus? It was noteworthy to see that poll respondents largely said they planned to use a federal tax rebate of $600 to $1,200 to pay bills.

Still, apparently many feel it's their God-given right to continue blithely down a consumer-happy, air-conditioned path of shopping, buying, driving and propagating, with expectations that all they want and need will magically continue to appear on the shelves at their local Big Box store. We know they're buying stuff, lots of stuff, since the County Solid Waste Division Chief is asking for $12 million in next year's budget for a new Phase V of the landfill to bury the junk we're throwing away.

We occasionally get glimpses of the impending darkness, such as the day last week when Maui Electric's (MECO) grid came to a screeching halt, plunging most of the island into an afternoon blackout. Apart from some kamikaze driving through traffic signal-less intersections and general inconveniences such as melting gelato, there were no major problems. But MECO couldn't even pinpoint the cause of the outage, stating only that it originated from a "flashover" at a Kihei substation.

The shadows have crept across lending institutions on the Mainland, including the recent collapse of investment bank Bear Stearns, the same folks who introduced the investors for BlueEarth Biodiesel to Hawaiian Electric Company. The country's fifth-largest investment bank had to agree to sell shares for $2 each, sending shockwaves throughout Wall Street. If the U.S. economy were a car, wrote USA Today, all its dashboard warning lights would be flashing red.

Still, there are signs of optimism, aren't there? How about this: 40 years after the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., there is hope that a man of mixed racial background may be elected to lead our country. We can hope that the political process won't be hijacked as it was with election-machine tampering and a Supreme Court ruling to appoint George W. Bush over Al Gore, who had won the popular vote. But can superdelegates overturn a popular vote for Barrack Obama and nominate Hillary Clinton instead, assuring an extension to the 20-year family affair of Bushes and Clintons in Washington D.C.?

How did we ever get this discombobulated? More importantly, how can we get back on track? It may take things getting really bad before we are individually motivated to take action. Sometimes, carrying the torch of hopefulness may seem like holding a single candle in the darkest of nights.

A few days ago in Paris protesters extinguished the Olympic torch, once a symbol of reconciliation and friendly competition between nations. Carrying Tibetan flags, these activists sought to illuminate the ongoing oppression by the Chinese people over that Himalayan nation steeped in spirituality, even though their religious leader has been in exile for decades.

What candle, flame or noble cause will each of us carry in the days, weeks, months and years ahead? How can we cultivate inner peace to allow us to survive the turmoil that surrounds us? How may we remain inspired to "spring" into action and let our dreams blossom? Isn't it time to wake up and smell the gardenias?