Civil Beat says, “It’s time for Hawaii to have a conversation about economic growth in the islands.” (“Beyond Hotels and Beaches: Can Hawaii Really Diversify its Economy?” April 2.)

NOTE: pick the correct link

Why? There are better ways to live well. Let’s not just assume that economic growth is the answer.

Economic growth can mean increased incomes for the rich while the rest of us continue to sit on the freeway for hours to get to the dead-end jobs we need to cover our outrageous mortgage payments. Economic growth often fails to lift the bottom half.

An alternative approach would be to focus on strengthening communities or creating new ones, places in which people live and care about each other’s well being on a day-to-day basis. Such communities are not about doing charity better, but about making charity unnecessary.

Deliberately designed communities, commonly described as intentional communities, do not offer clever solutions to social issues such as poverty and homelessness. Those issues simply don’t show up on those communities’ agendas.

The organized homeless camp at the Waianae Boat Harbor. The state should consider giving the residents land.

Civil Beat

As I pointed out elsewhere, communities can function well even if they have little money. Charles Eisenstein writes that throughout history, many people have “lived largely outside the money economy. In a small village in India or Africa, most people procured food, built dwellings, made clothes, and created entertainment in a subsistence or gift economy, without much need for money.”

George Kanahele said the same thing about pre-contact Hawaii:

The starkest forms of famine occur in much more harsh natural environments than Hawaii’s and, ironically, in part as a result of the industrialism which makes marginal economies dependent upon international political and economic events over which people in such economies have no control. We cannot honestly imagine absolute hunger occurring among the families dwelling in a self-sufficient iliahupuaa in the days of old.

There is a good deal of interest in ancient Hawaii’s foodways (Bremer et al. 2018; Watson 2019). Maybe a few residents could go totally off the grid and return to the pre-contact lifestyle in Hawaii, but certainly not all of us, not unless we made more radical changes in lifestyle than we are willing to make. But we can learn from the past about ways to live together well.

Just about everyone who goes hungry is poor, but not everyone who is poor goes hungry. Where people care about one another’s well-being and about the environment in which they are embedded, few people go hungry. This is true even in poor and in so-called primitive societies.

In modern times, some of the poor are ejected by the mainstream economy.

But notice that the people living on the streets do that in clusters. Living together with caring, supportive friends is more important than houselessness. Instead of offering bare housing, a better approach would be to offer those people opportunities to live in strong communities.

Puuhonua o Waianae is a group of about 200 people who have been living in an encampment near the Waianae Boat Harbor. It has been operating under the leadership of Twinkle Borge under strict rules. They have been struggling to find a new site to establish their community on a permanent basis.

At the same time the city government spends millions for sweeps of homeless people, often bumping them and their tents from one sidewalk to another. The state’s Department of Agriculture acknowledges that there are thousands of acres of good agricultural land sitting fallow. It would not be difficult to find underused land.

Giving Puuhonua o Waianae a bit of land would be a wonderful investment. That is, it would be a good investment if we measured outcomes in terms of self-sustaining enrichment of the quality of life for hundreds of people, and not just in terms of increases in money wealth.

Helping people help themselves is a good investment. It would be good even if it did not produce measurable economic growth for the state.

Once the group had a specific piece of land to work with, they could begin their planning for the long-term functioning of their new community. They could start by drafting a charter. They could consult with people with all sorts of experience and expertise, perhaps contacting some of them with the help of the Internet.

They could draw on the best available technologies. Many experts would gladly share their knowledge and enthusiasm about gardening and other kinds of skills.

Maybe some people in the community would be interested in setting up a farm as a cooperative. If they set up a restaurant next to it, I would be glad to visit, and bring along some friends, and buy some fruits and vegetables on my way out.

Yes, Hawaii can diversify its economy, especially if we diversify our understanding of what should be valued.

We should value the well-being of all people and the whole environment, past, present and future more than we value the accumulation of wealth.

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About the Author

  • George Kent
    After more than 40 years of teaching in the University of Hawaii’s Department of Political Science, George Kent retired in 2010 as professor emeritus. Currently he serves as an adjunct professor with the Department of Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney in Australia and also with the Department of Transformative Social Change Program at Saybrook University in California. Kent has worked with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the United Nations Children’s Fund, the World Food Programme and several nongovernmental organizations. He has also written on food policy issues.