About the Author
Editor’s note: A version of this article was originally published by the University of Hawaii Press and Center for Biographical Research of the University of Hawaii Manoa in “The Value of Hawaii 3: Hulihia, the Turning.” Beamer has updated the article for Honolulu Civil Beat.
Some years ago, I was at a gathering at the second or third home of a one-percenter, a large mansion in our islands.
Such gatherings have never been entirely comfortable for me. I start feeling uneasy when the security for the gated community grants me entrance. The food — often eaten at a stunningly beautiful koa wood table — is usually good, and the conversations can be engaging enough to keep my interest. The problem is that I just can’t get past this lingering disquiet — one difficult to describe, but what I will call a feeling of inequity.
That night there was so much to look at. Stunning ocean views. A picturesque sunset. An infinity pool. And a front door that probably cost as much as the down payment on my house. But this was supposed to be a chance to gather insight and perspective from a person with national networks and powerful government contacts who might assist us in reaching our last fundraising goal for a project.
Yet when I mentioned “ecological peace and social justice” and said that “we want to advance aloha aina as a way of being for the world,” the expression on the face of our hoped-for comrade abruptly changed.
Suddenly I was defending myself against allegations that I was trying to take society back into a past where we lived in “grass huts” and survived “off of only the fish we caught.”
Perhaps the most important lesson for me was how angrily some intelligent and decent Americans react to the idea that aloha aina could shape our future.
At that moment, I did not know that I would spend much of the next decade explaining how aloha aina could inform how we can envision and how we will operate our future economy.
I had not even heard the term “circular economy” then, though the next few years of my professional career would take me on a voyage to where I can now clearly “see the island.”
Here I am referencing navigator Nainoa Thompson, who said: If you as the navigator lose sight of the island in your mind and spirit in the midst of the voyage, you and the collective effort are lost.
Thompson’s phrase has been recaptured by Neil Hannahs as a metaphor for vision in leadership and seeing our way to a new future.
While the one-percenter that night dismissed the promise of aloha aina, there are others who have seen it immediately. After my first presentation at the University of Augsburg in Germany, a colleague there said, “This aloha aina can help to save our world.”
This Is Not About Subsistence, It’s About Innovation
Aloha aina and a circular economy will be essential and instrumental for the future of Hawaii. I’ve recently stopped using the term “subsistence” to describe the hookele waiwai (economy) of our ancestors.
It is true that the innovative agricultural and agricultural systems of our kupuna took only what we needed from nature to subsist as a society with little to no waste, thereby preserving precious resources for future use and future generations.
But I have come to recognize the veiled Anglo-European economic assumptions lying behind labeling a society’s primary mode of production as one designed simply to subsist.
For two thousand years, our ancestors did much more than this.
We created regenerative agricultural and aquaculture systems that were aligned with, and took advantage of, ecosystem niches to produce food in abundance for generations. We constructed loi systems, developed new varieties of ancestral plants to push the limits of production and, utilizing the power of the tides, we farmed algae to feed herbivorous fish.
Dr. Peter Vitousek has called Hawaiians the world’s best agriculturalists.
We also established institutions such as kalaiaina (ancestral economic redistribution of resources), which ensured a substantial redistribution of wealth with each new moi (sovereign), preventing that vast acquisition and retention of wealth seen among the one percent today.
When our ancestral economy is classified as subsistence, much if not all of this rich history of innovation disappears.
Even more destructively, this branding has carried within it the justification for replacing the existing economy, often violently, as part of the workings of imperialism and linear “progress.”
The replacement economic systems seek to maximize the extraction of natural resources in their drive to get products to markets.
Among the results are surplus and excess, significant waste and environmental damage on a scale that has plunged our planet into a climate crisis.
In the pursuit of endless growth, through colonialism and imperialism, these linear economic systems have exploited, then destroyed ancestral economies around the world.
International efforts today are trying to reassess the benefits and the consequences of such economic systems on the natural resources and human communities of our planet. We are currently extracting and consuming resources at a rate that would require 1.75 earths to be sustainable.
By 2050 we will need the equivalent of two earths.
As part of their efforts to mitigate the damage and develop resilience within the global climate crisis, a significant number of nations have embraced the concept of a circular economy and are setting goals for achieving it.
A circular economy seeks to decouple economic growth from environmental degradation. The European Union has an action plan to shift toward a circular economy as part of its 750 billion Euro COVID-19 recovery plan.
Individual cities such as Amsterdam have developed circular economy policies and strategic plans for making their economies circular.
Unlike linear economies, where goods and services are produced through a process often described as “take, make, use, waste,” a circular economy operates on a model devoted to reducing resource consumption, recapturing resource materials from products and then repurposing those formerly “wasted” materials into new products.
Circular economy proponents seek to eliminate waste as much as possible from production, reuse resource materials and power manufacturing through renewable energy. They are also dedicated to creating a more equitable and just economic system.
Inspired by the closed-loop systems that have made life possible on Mother Earth for billions of years, the concept of a circular economy offers some hope.
The Lessons Of COVID-19 And The Way Forward
Establishing an aloha aina-based circular economy in Hawaii would be one of the most revolutionary, productive and beneficial things our generation could do.
An aloha aina economy, one also devoted to a living wage and health care for all, could not only replace our current antiquated and destructive economy established primarily in plantation-era Hawaii but also lead us into a more humane and productive future.
Gross Domestic Product cannot register the value of the fulfillment and love that results from living and being provided for by aloha aina.
Like the hana (work) of the skilled mahi ai (farmers) and lawaia (fishers) of old, a circular economy is based on a “give, take, regenerate” model. Examples are already underway — the Waipa Foundation on Kauai; Heeia and West Oahu; Hana, Maui; Molokai; and in pockets on Hawaii island.
With the right leadership and policies, imagine what large-scale efforts we could initiate to address the impacts of tourism by mandating the use of products whose waste can be turned into resources for regenerative agriculture?
Imagine if instead of the existing policy, we required power companies to purchase power from any community or household that can install systems, as is the case in much of Europe.
Isn’t it peculiar that even as they are creating their own solar farms, these companies make it difficult for families to be compensated for supplying the grid?
In 2020, a collection of us established the Aina Aloha Economic Futures effort. This is an effort to achieve a more just and equitable economy for our islands based on our ancestral values and through the engagement of our community.
We gained broad public support from robust sectors of Hawaii’s community, from aloha aina non-profits to the Hawaii Tourism Authority and the Kamehameha Schools.
All of our materials can be found at www.ainaalohafutures.com and we even developed a decision-making rubric and a policy playbook for legislatures that uplifted existing community efforts.
In the 2021 session of the Hawaii Legislature, we helped to propose the creation of a Circular Economy Task Force for our islands. It passed in the Senate and through two committees in the House, only to not be heard by the House Committee on Finance.
At this time, when we are all questioning the impacts of unfettered tourism on our islands’ natural resources and our quality of life, we cannot enable a return to an economic system that at its best produced ALICE — Asset Limited, Income Constrained and Employed — outcomes for a large percentage of Hawaii’s residents.
It simply wasn’t working for most of us pre-COVID-19, and it won’t be better in the future without a rebooting of the entire operating system and the adoption of policies that ensure living wages for Hawaii’s people and caring for our precious aina.
To submit an essay or if you just want to talk over an idea, contact:
IDEAS Editor Julia Steele
COVID-19 showed us that our traffic problems are directly tied to the unbridled tourist economy. COVID-19 taught us our beaches and mauka/makai environments can restore themselves when they are not being overrun on a daily basis. COVID-19 taught us we really have a leadership problem, not a lack of community innovation.
Now is the time for leaders to empower and embrace more sustainable and equitable outcomes for our island’s economy.
We cannot let our progress be slowed by those still supporting the cruel and obsolete economic systems of the past centuries.
We need to move forward.
Sign up for our FREE morning newsletter and face each day more informed.
Join the conversation
IDEAS is the place you'll find essays, analysis and opinion on every aspect of life and public affairs in Hawaii. We want to showcase smart ideas about the future of Hawaii, from the state's sharpest thinkers, to stretch our collective thinking about a problem or an issue. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to submit an idea.