Trash is super interesting.

That’s one of the main takeaways from the year I spent answering reader-submitted questions about the environment on the “Are We Doomed” podcast.

Of the 300-plus thoughtful and relevant questions submitted to the podcast, many were about our waste.

Thanks to our readers Civil Beat was able to find out — for the first time— where Hawaii’s recyclables were being sent and then examined the environmental impact of the industry.

I learned a lot about landfills, including the physical and emotional impact of waste disposal on neighboring communities and how almost every landfill in Hawaii is expected to reach capacity in the next 20 years.

Litter, from Hawaii residents and from around the world, is a huge concern and we looked at how marine debris and microplastics affect environmental and human health.

Like everything, the production of “Are We Doomed?” was affected by the pandemic, and while it was challenging to record a podcast in my closet it was a joy to interview gardeners who were helping their neighbors grow fresh fruits and vegetables at the start of the pandemic. We also examined how climate change affects the spread of disease, what the pandemic has taught environmentalists about responding to climate change and the relationship between the pandemic and single-use plastics.

Through it all, Civil Beat readers were endlessly focused on solutions: they wanted to help the environment, their communities and their children. So we looked at innovative solutions for plastic waste, reef-safe sunscreen and diversified agriculture.

“Are We Doomed” received a lot of questions about what individual actions could help the environment, and at the beginning of this project, I reported on how purchasing carbon offsets and going to zero waste could help the planet.

But after talking to experts and historians I learned that the hyper-focus on the environmental impact of a single individual is a PR tactic used by fossil fuel companies. Meaningful change is going to have to focus on systematic changes, which will surely make day-to-day life different, but a hyper fixation on reusable water bottles and plastic straws won’t save the planet.

Which brings us to the titular question: are we doomed?

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Kimeona Kane 808 Cleanups
“Are We Doomed?” You can find past episodes on Apple podcasts, spotify or wherever you listen to podcasts.
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Suzanne Frazer Beach Environmental Awareness Campaign Hawai`i

The fate of some things, like many endangered species in Hawaii, is already set in stone due to past climate change and environmental degradation, said Robert Cowie, an endangered species expert and research professor at the University of Hawaii.

“There have been five mass extinctions in the history of the Earth and this is the sixth that we’re going through right now,” he said. “And it’s different from the others because it’s caused by humans.”

Snails are Cowie’s specialty, and an estimated 70% of Hawaii’s rare and unique snail species have already gone extinct.

An extensive United Nations report found that wildlife populations have declined 68% since 1970, and those ecological impacts negatively impact food security, clean water and human health.

Human-caused greenhouse gas emissions have already warmed the planet by about 1 degree Celsius since the industrial revolution. Since the 1970s climate scientists have been warning about the disastrous impacts of 2 degrees of warming.

“We do know that there are a number of processes that will be significantly stronger and more catastrophic,” said Jessica Hellman, a climate scientist and ecologist with the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment.

One such process is the rapid melting of Arctic permafrost, and the resulting sea level rise would greatly impact Hawaii.

International policy has stressed the importance of keeping global temperatures below 2 degrees of warming, not only for the environmental impacts but because the technology exists to stay below 2 degrees of warming.

“The 2 degrees is also an important target because it’s still feasible if we wanted,” Hellman said. “It’s really a very interesting combination of science and policy and politics.”

Since it’s still possible to avoid the disastrous effects of 3 degrees of warming, humanity isn’t apocalyptically doomed. But we are doomed to change, since the status quo isn’t sustainable.

But Kimeona Kane thinks Hawaii residents are up to the challenge.

Kane is the outreach director for 808 Cleanups, a volunteer group that leads beach cleanups and environmental restoration projects across the islands.

So although Kane sees the negative impacts humans have on the environment every day, he also has a front-row seat to how much time and energy people in Hawaii will dedicate to righting past wrongs.

“So are we doomed? In my personal opinion, no, we’re not doomed,” he said. “Are we doomed if we keep ignoring where we’re headed? You know, we might be answering that question for ourselves very soon. So good luck, get involved, get educated and then be a part of that solution.”

“Are We Doomed? And Other Burning Environmental Questions” is funded in part by grants from the Environmental Funders Group of the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation.

Want to hear more? Check out Civil Beat's other podcasts.

Are We Doomed?! And Other Burning Environmental Questions
Are We Doomed?! And Other Burning Environmental Questions

What the heck is reef-safe sunscreen? Where does all the trash go? Why is it so hot? Join Civil Beat as we tackle your questions about Hawaii's environment. Smart. Irreverent. Never boring. This is not your grandma's science podcast.

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Offshore is a new immersive storytelling podcast about a Hawaii most tourists never see.

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