The state Environmental Council wants the public — and elected officials — to start thinking differently about how the state measures success.

Instead of looking at economic indicators like the gross domestic product, the council has put forward the notion of a “genuine progress indicator” that would look beyond the amount of goods produced and services provided in a given year.

“It gives you a number that’s more holistic than a simple GDP number,” Council Chair Joseph Shacat said.

Hikers stand in clouds and mist with foreground Lehua Ohia. Waikamoi Preserve became a reality in 1983 when the Haleakalā Ranch Company granted a conservation easement to the Conservancy over 5,230 acres. The preserve was expanded in 2014 when landowner Alexander & Baldwin conveyed a conservation easement over an additional 3,721 adjacent acres, bringing the total to 8,951 acres and making Waikamoi the largest private nature preserve in the state. The preserve protects part of the 100,000-acre East Maui Watershed, which provides 60 billion gallons of clean water annually to Maui's residents, businesses and agricultural community. The Conservancy, Haleakalā Ranch and Alexander & Baldwin continue to work together (as part of the East Maui Watershed Partnership) to protect some of the best remaining forest in all of Hawai`i. Waikamoi Preserve is managed in partnership with the State Department of Land & Natural Resources through the Natural Area Partnership Program.
Hikers stand in clouds and mist in the Waikamoi Preserve on Maui. How well the state preserves such areas would be measured in a proposed “genuine progress indicator.” Cory Lum/Civil Beat

He said a genuine progress indicator would look at social, environmental and economic factors such as lost leisure time and crime, pollution and loss of farmland, income inequality and capital investment.

“What I’d like to see is more awareness that we can do this and that the only thing that’s preventing us from collecting the data we need to provide meaningful metrics is ourselves,” Shacat said.

The council’s annual report, submitted recently to the Legislature, says the GDP is limited by only accounting for economic activity in a formal market, neglecting the depletion of capital stocks like fish and forests. It’s also agnostic to societal inequality, the report said

The council proposes a “genuine progress indicator” to evaluate how well Hawaii is doing. Courtesy: Environmental Council

“How do we really protect our reefs?” Shacat said. “We know it’s valuable but we’d like to be able to put a number on it. You can’t without the data.”

The council, whose members include a cross-section of interests ranging from conservation to business, has all 15 of its governor-appointed seats full for the first time in a decade. Its report highlights numerous issues and challenges facing the state.

“There is a significant, vital nexus between environmental quality and economic prosperity, and I believe the two are not mutually exclusive,” Shacat said.

“Yet, there are many challenges,” he said. “How can we mitigate the impacts of climate change such as drought, coastal erosion, and severe weather? How do we protect and preserve our unique ecosystem from invasive species that seem to be attacking from every port of entry? How do we strike a balance between land use, development, housing cost, environmental protection, and homelessness? How can we support an agricultural sector to fulfill its promise of providing improved food and energy security?”

Sen. Mike Gabbard, who chairs the Agriculture and Environment Committee, supported Joseph Shacat’s appointment to the Environmental Council, which the Senate confirmed in 2014. Courtesy: Mike Gabbard/Flickr

Gov. David Ige has tasked Suzanne Case, who heads the Department of Land and Natural Resources, and Scott Glenn, director of the Office of Environmental Quality Control, to co-chair a multi-agency effort to make Hawaii more sustainable. Glenn is vice chair of the Environmental Council.

Ige’s attention wasn’t always so focused on the environment. He struggled to fill the Environmental Council seats during his first couple years in office, to the point that the council was unable to hold its meetings.

Other environmental posts languished for some time, including a planning director and deputy director of the Commission on Water Resource Management.

But over the last year things have started to change. Environmental posts have been filled, and in September Ige launched his Sustainable Hawaii Initiative that lays out state goals to double local food production, implement a biosecurity plan, protect watersheds, manage marine resources and transition to 100 percent renewable energy over the coming years.

Waianae farming/crops along Waianae Valley Road. 19 nov 2016
Gov. David Ige wants to double local food production by 2020. But without a solid baseline, more resources may be needed to tackle that goal. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The governor also appeared in person at a legislative hearing last week about sustainability. Lawmakers are considering overall budget priorities for the next two years and what legislation to pass.

In the minds of Environmental Council members, what’s needed are resources — it can’t just be big ideas or lofty goals to help Hawaii’s overall sustainability.

“We need improved and more holistic monitoring to help evaluate the true benefits and costs of our actions, environmental and otherwise, and to assess the funding and resources dedicated to environmental programs,” the council’s annual report says. “How we measure and track our growth will help us to continuously take stock and course correct.”

Read the full report below.

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