Rob Parsons

Bold Steps

Diving into the deep end of a sink-or-swim global shift

by Rob Parsons

July 30, 2009

Sen Gary Hooser, Candidate for Lt. Gov.

"In our present state of affairs, the very survival of humankind depends upon people developing concern for the whole of humanity, not just their own community or nation." –His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso, 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet

In his number one bestseller, The World is Flat, socio-political author Thomas L. Friedman skewered the topic of globalization with the directness of the boy in the crowd exclaiming, "The Emperor has no clothes!" The renowned New York Times foreign affairs columnist explicated both the opportunities and drawbacks inherent in the "flattening" of the globe and the explosions of wealth in China and India, the two most populous nations.

With the same laser-beam insightfulness, Friedman's Hot, Flat, and Crowded examines the immediate challenges of our time: rising competition for energy, changes in the planet's climate and the need to work collectively to provide solutions while we still can. For all the hoopla, he contends that the needed "green revolution" has barely begun. 

Advocating an ambitious national strategy he dubs "Geo-Greenism," Friedman states that while saving the planet from becoming feverishly hot, we can also "make America healthier, richer, more innovative, more productive, and more secure."

These are exactly the sort of values that we could use on Maui and throughout the Hawaiian Islands, but there appears to be a disconnect when it comes to implementing change. Our leaders aren't getting us there fast enough on their own, and citizens may feel powerless against the gravitational tug that keeps us stuck in our status quo.

While bold, transformative actions are needed, often the best place to begin is with common sense baby steps close to home.

Sen. Gary Hooser of Kauai, as down to earth a local politician as you're likely to find, will lead a workshop on Maui next week titled Public Advocacy 101, a de-mystification of the legislative process and a primer for political action. The August 6 event, sponsored by South Maui Sustainability, features a presentation Hooser has offered to communities around the state over the past two years.

Hooser also mentioned Thomas Friedman's Hot, Flat and Crowded when we spoke recently. When I asked him about diversifying the economy and moving away from dependence upon tourism, real estate and construction, his answer was immediate. "Energy is the direction we should go," he replied. "Not to be too simplistic, but with [the] $7 billion we're sending out of the state yearly [to import fossil fuels] it makes the most sense."

Hooser said he favors the "democratization of power," an increase in distributive generation by many electrical power producers rather than a centralized large generation facility powering the grid. "The utilities hold all the cards," said Hooser. At Public Utility Commission meetings, where polices and guidelines are established, he said Hawaiian Electric possesses "the info, the money, the attorneys, and the expert witnesses. It's part of their supply and demand capitalism, and we need to break the logjam."

Hooser said that switching to solar hot water systems could average $50 savings monthly per household, or $600 annually. "And of course there would be the jobs provided for those doing solar installations," he added.

I asked if we were on track with the Lingle Administration-led Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative. "Unfortunately, we fell off track," he replied. He singled out House Bill 1271, which would have levied a $1 per barrel tax on imported oil, raising an estimated $30 million yearly for clean renewable energy sources and for revitalizing our local agricultural capabilities.

The bill was among those vetoed by Gov. Lingle, and the special legislative session failed to override her decision. Though the measure would have added only a few cents per gallon to the average consumer, it was opposed by the airline industry. Lingle also said she felt the tax would hurt the poor.

"I'm disappointed," sighed Hooser, who has announced his candidacy for the Lieutenant Governor's office in 2010. He believes the bill can be "cleaned up" and re-introduced for next January's legislative session. "I think we can better articulate where the money raised by this measure will go, possibly through direct transfers to tax credits," he said.

Such bold steps—part of what Friedman calls a "Green New Deal"—need popular support from citizens as well as lawmakers. But America's bad habits, says Friedman, "have weakened our society's ability and willingness to take on the big challenges." 

Hooser said he realized a while back that a lot of good people try to shape public policy, but they may not have the basic information needed to navigate the bureaucratic maze. "It's a lot of work to follow the bills and to understand the process," he admits. "We are surrounded by professional lobbyists who do know how it works."

Hooser often begins his workshops by asking audiences if they know who their district representatives are. With the fast pace of the session and competition for representatives' time, he believes relationships are key. "A lot of people don't realize that if you call up your representative and ask to meet and talk about an issue, more than likely they'll say 'yes.' In that sense, all politics is local," he said.

"If you don't have time or can't do it yourself," Hooser continued, "then affiliate with an organization that is working for the same goals. I firmly believe there is a tremendous amount of power in personal involvement, and there is value in joining groups."

Some 10 years ago, "eco-philosopher" Joanna Macy co-authored Coming Back to Life: Practices to Reconnect Our Lives, Our World. It has served as a "how-to" guidebook, and has been the basis of workshops she has taught worldwide over the past decade. Her group methods, which she terms, "The Work That Connects," have helped people transform despair and apathy into constructive, collaborative action.

Macy's Web site describes her lectures, workshops and training as bringing "a new way of seeing the world, as our larger living body, freeing us from the assumptions and attitudes that now threaten the continuity of life on Earth." Embracing the concept of "deep ecology," or healing our fractured relationship with the natural world, is central to her work.

Seeing this deep ecology as a foundation or platform for change enables us to look beyond personal needs and to tackle solutions with newfound enthusiasm. 

Thomas Friedman acknowledges that the challenge of embarking on a green revolution is a task of great enormity. "This is not something you do as a hobby," he says. "If we can pull this off, it will become the biggest single peacetime project humankind will have ever undertaken."

It involves "trying to change the climate system…trying to preserve and restore the world's rapidly depleting ecosystems—our forests, rivers, savannahs, oceans, and the cornucopia of plant and animal species they contain…and trying to break a collective addiction" to fossil fuels.

"It doesn't get any bigger than this," Friedman continues. As Kermit the Frog said, "It isn't easy being green." Perhaps not. But it's time.