Editor’s Note: Today we say aloha to a new regular columnist, Zuri Aki. Zuri is a student in his final year at the University of Hawaii’s William S. Richardson School of Law, where he has focused his studies on international and environmental law. You may know him already, from the articulate and outspoken commentary he has submitted in our Community Voices section, usually adding a perspective from young Native Hawaiians. He is a candidate to be a delegate in the Nai Aupuni election. We’ve asked Zuri to write generally about issues he feels are important to his generation in Hawaii, and he touches on many of them here in his debut column. He’s particularly interested in exploring high tech and sustainable development sectors.  Watch for his commentary every other week in Civil Beat.

“Wish you were here!”

It’s the unofficial slogan of paradise everywhere. It is the invitation to the unfamiliar, the enticement of exotic beauties, the allure of untold adventure. It is the promise of pleasure and of dreams manifested into dreamlike reality.

“Wish you were here” is the picture-postcard, beckoning call for that evanescent moment that belongs to the privileged – but not to “you.”

Paradise for all is a paradox. The very notion of paradise implies an underlying element of exclusion – that is to say, the picture of paradise is large enough to capture your every desire, but small enough that not everyone will fit within it.

Paradise is paradise so long as most do not have a piece of it.

DFS Galleria Waikiki life-sized hula dancer cutouts in a display along Royal Hawaiian Avenue. 9 jan 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

DFS Galleria Waikiki displayed life-sized hula dancer cutouts along Royal Hawaiian Avenue.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

As paradises go, the Hawaiian Islands have been the paradigm – at least, that is what the marketing campaigns have said.

The age-old trope of the Hawaiian paradise is the story of attraction between the weary traveler and the innocent native, set against the backdrop of an untouched natural place, where perpetual peace, prosperity and happiness would rain down from the heavens if not for the fact that heaven itself is the Hawaiian Islands. Hawaii is the ultimate escape from the utter torment of human civilization.

Or, maybe, Hawaii is tormented human civilization wearing a flower lei, an Aloha shirt, and a plastic smile.

Hawaii is not the innocent and naïve grass-skirt-wearing, coconut-bra-sporting girl who fawns over egomaniacal notions of self-stated superiority. We are not the jolly, overweight and carefree, ukulele-playing, brown-skinned guy who makes the perfect wingman in any Hawaiian adventure.

Behind the rhetoric is a roiling conflict: the struggle, from time immemorial, of Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians) to secure for themselves the right to exist – a right made volatile over the century since we were told we did not have that right. Kanaka Maoli are burdened with care as every day becomes a fight for survival. We have to fight non-stop to protect iwi kupuna (the bones of our ancestors), wahi kapu (sacred places), Aina (the natural world), and ea (our way of life) from destruction.

Paradise is lost for many Kanaka Maoli, half of whom make up the great Hawaiian diaspora and no longer reside in their ancestral homeland. Antipathy to an unaccommodating system of governance manifests in frequent protests and the ongoing pursuit of self-governance.

Hawaii is not that untouched natural place with singing birds and frolicking fuzzy creatures that developers advertise in airline magazines. We are not endless stretches of white sand beaches, awe-inspiring pristine views and infinite natural resources, where you can have your piece while preserving paradise.

Beneath the trope is environmental devastation. The incredibly irresponsible, rapid and rampant urbanization of the Hawaiian Islands has played a critical role in making this isolated archipelago the “endangered species capital of the world.”

The incredibly irresponsible, rapid and rampant urbanization of the Hawaiian Islands has played a critical role in making this isolated archipelago the “endangered species capital of the world.

The Hawaii 2050 Sustainability Task Force reported in 2007 that “near self-sufficiency would require an estimated 243,000 acres” of good farmland. At that time, the inventory of good farmland in Hawaii was estimated to be around 249,000 acres – barely enough for “near self-sufficiency.”

In the eight years since, the Hawaii Land Use Commission, appointed by the governor, has approved rezoning thousands of acres of good farmland for urban development projects such as Ho‘opili, Koa Ridge, and potentially Olowalu Town.

The increasingly urban character of the Hawaiian Islands directly undermines the precautionary principle, long held by environmentalists, that development should take into account the need to conserve the natural world.

In 2013, the University of Hawaii produced a climate change study that has been characterized as the revelation of ruin for the Hawaiian Islands. And yet, urban development, or rather, unsustainable human consumption, continues to be business as usual.

Hawaii is not perpetual peace, prosperity, and happiness. We have a substantial houseless (homeless) population suffering what many believe to be inhumane, cruel and degrading treatment. These are human beings, a large number of whom are native to the Hawaiian Islands, and some of whom have found their way here because of injustice elsewhere. And the state’s answer to the overall problem – often the result of our flawed socio-political-economic system – is to sweep it under the proverbial rug or send the problem away so that the image of paradise can be preserved. Paradise is exclusive.

A lei frames Waikiki Beach.

A lei frames Waikiki Beach.


The paradox of a-paradise-for-all is nowhere more evident than in the ridiculously high cost of living in Hawaii. The price of gas and electricity here is among the highest (if not the highest) in the nation. We are trapped in a job-challenged economy with greatly limited opportunities. We are seemingly stranded in a low-wage system because of the stranglehold of the tourism/construction oligopoly – so we earn little and we pay more.

Tourism is dependent on the image of paradise, while construction is dependent on the paving-over of paradise. The collision of these conflicting interests has produced a mangled wreck of human civilization under the guise of something that it is not.

With the average house here in Hawaii selling for triple the national average, and given the very limited space in these islands for houses to be built, there is undoubtedly a housing crisis.

Recently, the Building Industry Association of Hawaii, “the voice of the Construction Industry,” proposed that the solution to people being “priced out of paradise” is to deregulate and further incentivize the construction industry. In essence, the BIA suggests that the government make it easier to let the construction industry build and just let them do it.

Paving over the Hawaiian Islands with unsustainable urbanization may very well be an inevitability.

Curious as that may be, the character of paradise is not often – maybe not at all – associated with the hustle-and-bustle of unsustainable urban sprawl. The idea of building more to prevent being priced out of paradise is, in itself, a paradox within the paradox of a-paradise-for-all. Paving over the Hawaiian Islands with unsustainable urbanization may very well be an inevitability. And when every available space is spoken for, then surely there will be an exclusion – that is, if anyone still wants to live here (shout-out to the climate crisis).

The truth is, about 1.42 million people are carving out their piece of the Hawaiian Islands. How many pieces remain, until we, the people of Hawaii, realize that it isn’t the carefree, kick-back-and-relax-your-fears-away place being sold to vacationers and foreign investors?

If Hawaii was ever a paradise, then it has been tortured, beaten, derided, degraded, abused and misused. What remains of her former self is something pretending to be a brilliant paradise in order to hide its very dark shadows.

Maybe Hawaii isn’t a paradise and maybe that’s OK. Maybe we’re just an archipelagic community struggling with problems that actually need to be addressed, rather than ignored.

“You” are here, so let’s do something about it.

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