I was able to go back home to Kailua this past Christmas. It was the first time in nearly two years I’ve been in Hawaii. Naturally, the reason for my return was family; 3 of my parents’ 4 children no longer live in-state and we were all back for my brother’s wedding.

Like any prolonged exposure to family, it started off pleasant and enjoyable, but as more family members arrived and unpacked in my parents’ house, the more cramped and busy it became.

At its critical mass, the house had 11 adults and 2 children sharing quarters. Couches became beds, there were two-hour waits for the bathroom, parking was an elaborate orchestration, and there was virtually nowhere for anyone to go for any kind of solitude. The compounding pressure of numbers started to wear on me – I became embarrassingly frustrated and impatient, especially considering I was with my family on vacation and away from the blustery winter weather of Seoul.

Meanwhile, Kailua as a town mirrored this very same dynamic. The town of my childhood has transformed fundamentally in the last decade. Two-plus hours in traffic to go to the grocery store, another 15-20 minutes just to find parking, and even the most secluded and hidden beach accesses I know were packed from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. everyday. At least it’s not below freezing, I reminded myself.

Despite new construction in Kakaako and elsewhere, a shortage of housing remains one of multiple complex issues Hawaii must address for a sustainable future.
Despite new construction in Kakaako and elsewhere, a shortage of housing remains one of multiple complex issues that must be tended to across the Hawaii islands now and in coming years. PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Of course, some of the traffic was a result of President Obama’s vacation. Some of it was from the Sodosopa — I mean, Ka Malanai condos. Some of it was caused by the Target that was built while I’ve been gone — because what we need right next to a Longs and Safeway is a monstrous blob of an even bigger Longs-Safeway hybrid. And some of that traffic has always been there.

The point is not that any of this is inherently bad, though my choice of words doesn’t do much to hide my opinions. The point is that population is a very real, immediate problem when you live on an island.

This is not the mainland. I don’t say that in a “locals only, get off my wave” kind of way. Rather, there are physical limits that apply uniquely to life in Hawaii. Virtually anywhere else on the mainland, you can continue to build inland or upward. In Hawaii, you’ll eventually hit ocean sooner than later, and most communities rightfully have laws prohibiting how tall buildings can be. I would suspect that most residents would be at least a little queasy about constructing more skyscrapers, or stretching development further into the mountains.

These physical limits need to be taken into account by policymakers. Population – and the subsequent stress that an increasing population has on both nature and society – is the elephant on the island. At some point, probably not too soon, yet not unimaginably distant, there will be an inescapable reality that there are simply too many people and too much stuff in Hawaii. The effects are most acute on Oahu, which is by far the most developed and most traversed of the islands.

Think of it like this: The state population has steadily grown from right under a million people in 1980 to around 1.4 million today, an average of about 1.1 percent growth rate per year. Though reason and current trends dictate that the real growth rate should decline, gross population will continue to increase, with consumption alongside of it.

Then, there’s the hidden population of tourists who also should be taken into account because they are always present. Tourism fluctuates due to a complex set of factors, but historically there has been somewhere between 16,000 and 24,000 tourists in Hawaii at any given moment throughout the year.

On Multiple Fronts, A Vulnerable Position

So what’s at stake? As of 2012, around 85 percent to  90 percent of the food consumed in the state is imported. While there have been efforts to encourage more locally sourced food, it is unlikely that it will keep up with the ever-growing population. The amount of in-state resources at any given time, without additional imports, will sustain average consumption for roughly 4-8 days.

This leaves us in a vulnerable position. What happens if there is a natural disaster, like a tsunami or hurricane that leaves Hawaii indefinitely stranded or inaccessible? What if a prolonged drought or blight affects agriculture on the mainland or in Asia? These are possible dilemmas that are compounded by population.

It gets more complicated. One of the obstacles in the way of food-independence is our depleting aquifers. Experts estimate that the freshwater sources for Hawaii will begin to strain within 100 years, assuming current trends remain steady. Those current trends, by the way, have seen a significant drop in per-person water usage. Meaning, even though the people of Hawaii have been good stewards of our fresh water, this will become THE issue in Hawaii for our grandchildren.

It also begs the question: how will local farmers dependably provide more food for the state when water is (slowly) running out?

Don’t forget, the growing population will need places to live, which will continue to push out longstanding locals as housing prices increase. This is to say nothing of the growing number of houseless residents who are already here and have no permanent place to stay. Cost of living and houseless residents will only become greater problems as population continues to climb.

Beyond that, rising housing costs will almost surely amplify the brain drain in Hawaii; affording a house here will require a pretty penny that only a high-paying job will yield — the type of high paying job that is in short supply and high demand. If we want to maintain and develop our local talent, which I believe we should, this will be a pivotal issue to address.

Of course, Hawaii is at a point where it will always depend on imports in one way or another, but the idea is to mitigate that dependency, not magnify it. The more we need imported goods, the more expensive life will be in an already expensive place.

This may sound dire and Malthusian, and that’s fair. But let’s not dismiss the facts in order to stay comfortable. Whether the population reaches critical mass in 50 or 250 years, these are things to be mindful of. There is no virtue in shortsightedness.

Ultimately, physical space in Hawaii is at a premium, and as such it stands to reason that parameters need to be established. Reality dictates as much. How we define those limits and work within them is up to us and future generations. Time for us to set the precedent.

Community Voices aims to encourage broad discussion on many topics of community interest. It’s kind of a cross between Letters to the Editor and op-eds. This is your space to talk about important issues or interesting people who are making a difference in our world. Column lengths should be no more than 800 words and we need a current photo of the author and a bio. We welcome video commentary and other multimedia formats. Send to news@civilbeat.org. The opinions and information expressed in Community Voices are solely those of the authors and not Civil Beat.

About the Author