A friend and I were having dinner last week and talking about our businesses. We’re both female small business owners here in Hawaii – not the easiest feat on Earth, but challenging and rewarding.

We dove into a discussion on scale and growth, and both found ourselves admitting that neither was particularly interested in endlessly growing a company. That for us, the goal was to run businesses that were socially responsible, financially sustainable, and allowed for us to have enjoyable, quality lives.

All we wanted, and needed, was to have “enough.”

This is actually quite an important island concept. On an island, resources are naturally finite. There is only so much land and so much water. Granted, that’s true everywhere, but we feel it more. We all should be more attuned to the geographic and natural resource limitations of our society.

Traditionally Hawaiians used lo’i, irrigated agricultural terraces, to cultivate staple crops like kalo. A highly effective farming method, Hawaiians and local communities have worked to reopen lo’i and restore this cultural practice at places like Ka’ala Farms. Trisha Kehaulani Watson/Civil Beat

Appreciation of this certainly allowed for Hawaiians to live in these islands sustainably. Surplus was truly a foreign concept. Traditionally, Native Hawaiians took only as much as was needed for themselves as individuals, their families, or the community which would be using those resources. People did not consume in excess.

How indigenous peoples consumed resources from the world around them was entirely different than what we experience now. Today, people consume thoughtlessly, largely disconnected from the source of the resources from which they are taking. We, in large part, have no idea where our food comes from or what resources were mined to make our smartphones.

This fact seems largely absent from the sustainability discussions that too often revolve around keeping recyclable material out of landfills or adopting new technologies to counter our resource consumption.

Perhaps the discussion needs to center more around how we can begin to consume less. Maybe we need to stop embracing a mindset that tells us more is better. Perhaps we need to reteach people the importance of being satisfied with enough.

“More” is not better. More is, in fact, unsustainable and destructive, because there isn’t enough “more” for everyone.

This, of course, is counter to everything capitalism promotes. Capitalism champions the concept that we, as good people, should always be wanting more. More money. More wealth. More stuff. Just more.

But “more” is not better. More is, in fact, unsustainable and destructive, because there isn’t enough “more” for everyone.

The Hawaiian kapu system actively regulated against those who sought to take in excess from the resources around them. Too often misunderstood as a “taboo” system, the kapu system was Native Hawaiian’s complex and thoughtful approach to resource management that operated ahupua‘a sustainably by ensuring residents had only as much as they needed.

If a resource began to run low, the konohiki would place a kapu on that resource, which would allow it replenish. Once the resource was replenished, the kapu would be lifted. Kapu were not intended to be permanent bans, but time-limited ones based on the health and sustainable yield of the resource.

Hawaiians thrived under this system, because they were willing to consume only what was available. They actively adapted, in real time, to the environment, and as a result, they lived in balance with the world around them.

Hawaiians, as most indigenous peoples throughout the Pacific and the world, understood that the health of the natural resources around them was far more important than any individual want or demand.

The ‘auwai (traditional Hawaiian irrigation) system reflected this concept. Fresh water was mindfully directed from stream sources into lo‘i (irrigated pond fields), where the abundance of flowing wai would help staple crops to thrive. Ever careful not to horde this waiwai for themselves, every ‘auwai included a ho‘i, or output, where the water would be returned to the kahawai for the next steward to use downstream.

They took only what was needed, and this allowed for many to have enough. Prior to contact, it was a right of the people to have enough to sustain themselves and their families. Good political and environmental management was reflected in the well-being of the people.

As people globally and locally rally for “livable wages,” I think to myself that a Hawaiian belief system where communities collectively saw to it that all who resided within their shared space had enough would serve us well as we struggle with economic inequity today.

What an extraordinary world it would be if all of us sought to achieve excellence, integrity and contentment over wealth and power.

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About the Author

  • Trisha Kehaulani Watson
    Trisha Kehaulani Watson is a Kaimuki resident, small business owner, and bibliophile. She holds a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Hawaii and J.D. from the William S. Richardson School of Law. She writes about environmental issues, cultural resource management, and the intersection between culture and politics. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views. You can follow or contact her on Twitter at @hehawaiiau.