When Aldo Leopold developed what he called “land ethics,” he realized from his experience in the New Mexico-Arizona territory (circa 1909) the need to transform how we think about the natural environment. This involved an evolution of aesthetic and ethical consciousness devoted to the integrity, goodness, and beauty of the environment conceived as a community.

Leopold wrote “Thinking Like a Mountain” to contrast human-centered pragmatic interests with more ecologically centered practices. For humans, this involved “deciphering the meaning that could be felt, implicit in a hundred small events” in nature.

It requires learning to pay attention to nature through firsthand direct experiences. It is contact, encounters, that serve as a basis for developing guiding principles — ethics — for understanding the significance of place and acceptable social and environmental practices.

Hokulea sails offshore Waikiki on her way to Magic Island.

Hokulea sails offshore Waikiki on her way to Magic Island in June 2017. Voyaging helps provide “the early foundational models for island life,” says the author.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“Place ethics” applies restrictions and obligations on us by assuming a community conception of rights and obligations. All members of the community from the smallest details to humans have a place, a stake, a valued role that is relative and contextual.

Requirements are variable, but always within the context of serving the good of the ongoing natural process, the given resources.

Wealth And Workers

Today, islanders live in a Hawaii run by individual or corporate wealth. It is free enterprise incentivized by the prime values of the accumulation of wealth and power.

In effect, the real community is the capitalist network, not island communal nature.

The economic structure determines the social and personal. Life is lived in terms set by financial institutions, real estate and development businesses, military, agribusiness, shipping and transportation, and the tourist industry. All are “service providers” organized to be self-benefiting entrepreneurs of needs and available resources.

In the middle are politicians attempting to manage the network they cannot afford to transform, dependent on monetary resources from the wealthy and the taxpayers.

It is a social structure of wealth and workers: a democracy of the owners and debtors beholden to those who have. The system imposes upon humanitarian pursuits such as medicine, science, education, religion, and recreation severe business protocols where “the good” is monetized, privatized, with an unfairly allocated distribution system. The mechanisms are not equipped or suited for egalitarian application and compassionate treatment.

The ethical and aesthetic codes in this setting are aimed to satisfy specific constituencies relative to their ability to pay and profit. A bustling economy now confronts, among other things, problems of expanding population, inadequate infrastructure, land and housing inflation, a permanent service class, the sidelined homeless, and continued misuse and degradation of the natural resources.

A Shared World

When the social-environmental spheres suffer from distress, these are forces that energize movements to transform accepted economic practices and their unquestioned assumptions. In this way, the environment as community can help everyone think their way to clarify basic values and where value is to be located.

The surface conflict between business and environmental sciences requires the transformation of conflicting practices. The priorities should be clearly presented as formative of an ethical and aesthetical shared world. It is diverse and rich in value, but fragile and vulnerable, easily seduced by the commotion and glamor of new development.

Today, islanders live in a Hawaii run by individual or corporate wealth.

Serious concerns about historical claims regarding sovereignty and sacredness are being proposed. Can a call to “think like” or “listen to” (for example) a sacred mountain be excluded in decisions that affect the islands? How can we learn to be empowered by such considerations? Do we have the best methods?

The community as a whole has an obligation to integrate justifiable claims for the future good of mountains, waters, oceans and living creatures. Historical assumptions of privileged rights require adaptive revisioning. Eco-humanistic capitalism can have democratic grounding in the values of an island habitat provided by nature and aided by sensible practices. No individual persons or groups have exclusive claims, but claims nonetheless deserve careful consideration.

Eco-democracy has a grounding in the value of the habitat provided by nature and aided by sensible practices. It offers a basis for renewal, a reminder of past wisdom contributions and incentives for innovative work.

Island environmental philosophy is a social and political weapon against prevailing assumptions and practices. It arises as a practical experiential (“grass roots”) response to what these practices have caused for nature and quality of life. The contest is fundamental. It must renovate the laws (policies, practices) in order to more properly manage the dominate economic powers.

It is hard to find one’s island self-grounding meaning and an ethics of place in Waikiki, highly visited tourist destinations, or Kakaako projects. Who exactly is benefiting? How can virtues related to place be given priority in such practices and decision making? Being swept along by current practices should disturb everyone.

A Holistic Mindset

Hopeful informed resistance is admirable and necessary, but the opposing interests are formidable. An aesthetic and ethic of place requires a publicly involved holistic mindset, advertised widely, to help regulate thinking and action. It is a commitment ultimately based very simply on taking time to see what is here and learning how to set aside false appeals and to care about the interplay with the essentials.

The contemporary database of information supporting this revisioning is provided by the social and environmental scientists. They are best equipped to discover the way things operate and provide guidelines for supporting commonwealth interests. Utilizing innovative technology, developing artificial intelligence, and such, the understanding and appreciation of nature and ourselves will be aided.

Despite the historical marginalization, one can hardly overestimate the importance of the Hawaiian cultural heritage whose spirited advocacy of values communicated through their language — such as kakou, aloha aina, malama pono, ohana, the goals of the kapu system and attention to mana — and variously presented and expressed in arts, craft, and activities such as mele and hula.

Voyaging, homemaking, communal celebrations, and productive engagement with the environment have provided the early foundational models for island life. They have provided the grounding and cultivated the basic sensibilities for both a return to basic values of a community ethics of place and the stimulus for imaginative pathfinding to know and care more effectively.

An ethics of place has much to contribute, to help restore and build meaning and significance for a more responsible way of island living which is, at present, suffering continual degradation. It challenges us to think about how best to acknowledge the value of place and to act in ways that enhance the value of island living for all — inspired to think and act like islanders.

It can be a community fueled by ever-renewing strategies to treat each and all with a respect that can be found by careful attention and for which we and future generations can give thanks.

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