Everybody Wants Some

[photo_credit] Photo by Nicholina Metzger [/photo_credit]
Defined by the precious points of land that rise from the central Pacific like a string of sparkling green gems, Hawai‘i is elevated – exalted even – as a paradise on earth. At times Hawai‘i seems like a starlet that everybody wants a piece of – agribusiness, water, land and energy developers, the tourist industry, Hollywood, the military… Hawai‘i’s natural beauty and climate are selling points for professional sports too, particularly golf and the NFL Pro Bowl, which are sought as major events bringing people (and their money) to Hawai‘i. Perhaps Lt. Governor James “Duke” Aiona’s declaration, “Hawai‘i is the Pro Bowl,” was inspired by the $31.5 million in spending and taxes the game generated in 2009.

On the Garden Island, the Kaua‘i Marathon’s slogan is, “Come for the race. Stay for the paradise.” A 2005-2006 newcomer’s guide, “Living in Paradise,” published by the Honolulu Advertiser gushed, “When you mention the Hawaiian Islands to people around the world, they sigh and get a dreamy look in their eyes. Mesmerizing visions of paradise spring to mind.”

Clearly Hawai‘i is a hot commodity. Or is it?


“Often we forget Hawai‘i is a place where people live. Big interests look at Hawai‘i as a place they can make money, but who is Hawai‘i for?” asks Ikaika Hussey, publisher of The Hawai‘i Independent, a locally-owned, online news service.

Hussey asks, “Is Hawai‘i for people who live here or the tourist industry, the military, genetically modified agriculture, and all the other interests that are preying and sucking value out of it? Or as they would say, ‘adding value’? “Tourism is really the new plantation,” he continues. “Multi-national corporations extract profit from natural resources, local labor and culture. It’s someone else’s business even though it’s on our land. This is the commodification of Hawai‘i. The problem is not a new one.” Hussey says Hawai‘i’s other major industry, the military, views the islands as real estate on which they can train and base their operations.

Another force increasingly shaping Hawai‘i is population replacement. Families that have lived here for generations are being forced into economic exile, often being replaced by new residents who have the wealth needed to live in “paradise.” Hussey says current lending practices, land speculators, developers and even large land owners like Kamehameha Schools require closer examination and a reassessment of how these forces drive Hawai‘i’s population shifts.

“With population replacement we are seeing a loss of heart,” says Hussey. “The people who carry the stories, who have been in Hawai‘i for generations, are leaving. We are losing part of our fabric and that is dangerous.”


Every day Hawai‘i is marketed through thousands of images of its natural beauty, especially its beaches, observes Professor Chip Fletcher of the University of Hawai‘i Department of Geology and Geophysics.

“Ironically, it wasn’t until a few years ago that our beaches were taken seriously as a commodity to be carefully managed,” Prof. Fletcher says. And though management practices have improved, he says we now face new threats in the form of accelerated sea level rise, decreased rainfall (but increased rain intensity), rising air and ocean temperatures and ocean acidity which may impact plant growth, ground water stores and reef and marine ecosystems.

“Developers see land as a commodity,” Fletcher says, “yet we do not compel them to analyze the longer, large scale impacts of development.” For example, what does paving land do to groundwater recharge? How does it impact polluted runoff or accentuate the tendency for flooding?

Fletcher says climate change requires us to re-examine how to manage beaches, reefs, water, land, energy and community structures. Thinking of these as commodities is one legitimate way to think of them, he says, as long as it’s not the only way.

“Let’s be sure that if we think of Hawai‘i as a commodity, that it’s only one thread in the tapestry that guides our overall actions. I tend to think of Hawai‘i as a place that is severely damaged and in need of extraordinary care and management,” says Fletcher. “We understand fairly well the potential impacts of climate change on different commodity sectors. Where is the thinking taking place and the leadership to integrate this understanding with real actions?”

[photo_credit]Photo by Nicholina Metzger [/photo_credit]


In 2009 the Hawai‘i Tourism Authority (HTA), along with Hawai‘i Visitors & Convention Bureau and its global partners spent $62.4 million marketing Hawai‘i. Winston Welborn, president of Wasabi Marketing Elements in Hanalei, points out that according to HTA’s own research statistics, the actual experience of visiting Hawai‘i, more than any glossy photo or traveling hula performance, is the best way to promote Hawai‘i.

“Word of mouth and actual experience make people want to come here,” Welborn says. Rather that investing tens of millions of dollars in external promotions, he says those financial resources are best used for the preservation of Hawai‘i itself – its open spaces, parks and natural resources. “Imagine if even a portion of that marketing budget was, over the last 20 years, put into improving the situation here for locals and visitors?”

Welborn says by improving a visitor’s experience (like investing in comfortable, effective public transport), the experience of discovery will be improved, achieving more than any advertising blitz, while making life better for locals too.


Commodity is defined as useful material that can be bought and sold but Sabra Kauka says Hawai‘i is not a place to use, but a place to preserve. “If we understand and practice those conservation methods and values that have supported life here for nearly 2,000 years, we will continue to be able to live not just on these islands, but on this earth,” says Kauka, a Hawaiian educator and kapa artist.

As a leading member of the Nāpali Coast Ohana, a volunteer group helping restore natural and cultural integrity to the once populated Nu‘alolo Kai on Kaua‘i’s rugged Nāpali Coast, Kauka knows well the threats Hawai‘i faces. She points to pressures in Hawai‘i stemming from a population increase of more than one-third since 1980.

As for tourism’s impact on Hawai‘i, Kauka says, “A lot of people depend on tourism for their income, but we need tourism on our terms. There is a limit to the carrying capacity in the resident and visitor population. We need to be ever-conscious of that.”

[photo_credit] Photo courtesy MA‘O Organic Farms[/photo_credit]

On Kaua‘i’s north shore, Keone Kealoha, co-founder and executive director of Mālama Kaua‘i, a non-profit organization working for innovative and sustainable island solutions, looks around and sees a lot of lip service being paid to buzz words like “sustainability” and “energy independence,” but says even positive-sounding approaches to Hawai‘i’s challenges can be misleading.

He refers to energy projects like capping Kaua‘i’s landfill to capture methane gas for use at the nearby Pacific Missile Range Facility and an algae research project on Kaua‘i’s Puna moku (east side) that focuses on generating jet fuel.

“These innovations are less about getting our communities off fossil fuels or moving toward a more equitable society, than supporting tourism as usual and maintaining a military, which recognizes that in a world competing for natural resources, in order to secure Hawai‘i as its mid-Pacific base, they’d better find sustainable energy sources,” Kealoha says.

Kealoha does not reject tourism, but says it needs to be reinvented in a way that makes our infrastructure and communities more sustainable while preserving our sacred places.

Energy is still viewed in terms in terms of control and a top down approach, Kealoha says. “If we were really looking to build a more equitable energy future, we would examine other forms of decentralized energy.” He mentions feed and tariff models and also microsolar, microhydro and small wind farms that allow anyone to harness their own energy in a more community-based, truly sustainable manner. “We could be doing this here, but we’re not. There aren’t a lot of incentives for people to do so,” Kealoha says.
“People always talk about being a model. Right now we are perpetuating a mold of the past with new technology. We’re not being a model.”— Keone Kealoha
In detail he lays out a long list of concrete steps to improve food and energy security, ways of building better, more affordable and aesthetic housing using materials that can be grown in Hawai‘i, supporting student-farmer programs to teach people how to improve the soil and make it more productive. He also talks about Hawai‘i’s one asset (let’s not call them a “commodity”) which may be its most neglected — its youth — today’s students who will be Hawai‘i’s parents, teachers, farmers, and leaders tomorrow.

Kealoha says we need to teach young people how to better understand and preserve Hawai‘i’s natural and cultural resources and foster generations of highly trained, professionals rather than directing them into low-paying non-advancing service jobs or driven out of Hawai‘i.

“We have some of the most incredibly diverse ecosystems on the planet and are one of the endangered species capitals of the world. But are we really training young people to be resource managers?” Kealoha asks.

Instead of following a business as usual educational model, Kealoha says we should be laying the groundwork to teach Hawai‘i’s young people to become the farmers, energy producers, scientists and architects who will redefine our relationship with the land and sea that is our home.

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