Where there is no vision, the people perish.
The Hawaiian Islands are rooted to the ocean floor, yet Hawaii today is politically adrift. Our state government is mindlessly obliterating the last vestiges of Hawaiian culture and unspoiled landscape, which is the very thing many tourists come here to discover. Without a major change of direction, all of Hawaii will soon look like Kihei – indistinguishable from a thousand examples of mainland urban sprawl. And to power this sprawl, Hawaii’s hillsides, farmlands and fisheries are being trashed with the industrial blight of inefficient “wind farms.”
Where are the spokesmen for the tourist industry? Don’t they understand that once Hawaii looks and feels like all the places tourists come here to escape, they will mostly stop coming? Once Hawaii has nothing left but warm weather and the beach, mainland tourists will just pop over to Santa Cruz, Coronado or Mazatlan – and Asian tourists will seek greener islands closer to home. Why would I fly 2500 miles to sunbathe in the shadows of a wind turbine? In a misguided effort to “go green,” our Hawaii government is systematically killing off its own main source of revenue. And once we drive away the tourists, heavy new taxes will be just around the corner. Worse, this state-sponsored vandalism is also silencing the alternative vision of the indigenous culture, a culture every politician loudly claims to cherish and respect. This is an outcome nobody wants, but one which nearly everyone is allowing to happen.
Where there is no vision, there is usually an excuse. The big excuse for mindless drift in Hawaii today is “clean energy.” (Never mind that this is an oxymoron, since all power production is “dirty” in some way.) “Clean energy” is one of those big, dumb platitudes, like “national security,” that we use to conceal our lack of imagination, foresight or courage. In the name of clean energy, Hawaii’s political leaders are conducting a fire sale of unspoiled landscape, essential farmland and historic sites. In order to reduce our “carbon footprint” they are inviting dinosaur wind developers to bulldoze giant footprints all over the land. No one is in charge of this development; no one has thought it through; and there will be no one to blame when we finally realize what we have done.
Sprawl is not progress. Development is not civilization. Chewing up nature into commodities doesn’t satisfy the needs of the soul. These are bitter truths that mainlanders have had to learn the hard way. So why is Hawaii repeating mainland mistakes?
It’s no secret where the mainland went wrong. Mainland culture is rootless and nomadic. The European immigrants who settled the mainland all had one thing in common – they fled. They fled the limits and claims of family, master, priest or king. They fled persecution, famine, poverty, or the long arm of the law. And once they got to America, many kept on fleeing, restlessly moving on and on, looking for better land, or fewer neighbors, or more money. Because they lost their own connection to land or place, they came to see every new landscape as empty and interchangeable, as simply the raw material for development. On their march westward they killed and stole, but in their own minds they were just clearing empty land for cultivation.
Officially, the mainland frontier ended in 1893, a date also significant to Hawaiians. But the pioneer spirit lived on, sparked imperial adventures, and finally found a happy new home in the fantastic world of large corporations. Here, even today, rootlessness is celebrated and rewarded. Here modern nomads still take pride in their ability to strike anywhere, turn a quick profit, and move on. Here every place is still seen as raw material. No matter who owns them, big corporations are still “marching westward.”
Big corporations were bound to reach and covet Hawaii. Looking for opportunities, they see Hawaii as just another empty space, another wilderness to be tamed, developed, and finally abandoned, just like the places they’ve already paved. The big wind developers angling for Hana, Lanai and Molokai are just one recent example.
History is rich in irony. In Hawaii corporate nomads are unexpectedly crashing into another group of mainland nomads. They are clashing with tourists who haven’t come to golf and shop, who are seeking beauty rather than opportunity. These gentler tourists are fleeing the brutal past and seeking something they’ve lost – a slower pace, a human connection, a spiritual rebirth. They are fascinated with Hawaiian culture, precisely because it’s about roots, land and place. Even when their efforts to “go native” are obnoxious or comic, they still express a crying need. They come to learn, and when they learn, they often stay.
Hawaii’s gentler tourists know the devastation of mindless development firsthand. They can see that Hawaii is small and fragile. They can see that Hawaii is home to many people who are not nomads, who are building for future generations, and who want to hand on something better to their children than strip malls and industrial waste. If a dialogue can begin, these tourist immigrants can help the locals understand the destruction that is coming their way, and perhaps help them to insist on smarter alternatives.
In the l970s Hawaiian voices began to demand such an alternative. They tried to articulate an older vision of the ‘aina, in which the land is alive and the people are its children. They worked to halt the destruction of Kaho’olawe, and raised hard questions about sprawl and development. Some even shouted for the tourists to go home.
The state responded by funding more Hawaiian programs and periodically earmarking land and monies for Hawaiian use. Over the years, parts of the Hawaiian Movement have evolved from state critics to state clients. There is nothing wrong with this, but it has allowed the state to avoid taking the alternative vision seriously. Forty years after the protests, there is still no comprehensive state land use plan. Despite decades of lip service and pious rhetoric, Hawaiian lands are still open to negotiation with every corporate raider who jets our way. In the words of one Ulu Palakua homeowner who has been watching wind farm bulldozers scatter the bones of his ancestors, “Once you lose the ‘aina you lose everything.”
It’s time for all of us to heed the example of the Hawaiian Movement and form a Save Hawaii coalition. It’s time for everyone who calls Hawaii home to force our state government to do its job, which is to protect the whole ‘aina, to set priorities based on present and future needs, and to halt the fire sale once and for all. It’s time to post a big sign at the airport that says, “Aloha and welcome to Hawaii. Please be advised that we have no empty land. Mahalo.”
About the author: Larry Tool is a former college instructor, longtime Bay Area business owner, local official Martinez, Calif. in the mid-90s, reviewer for SF Chronicle 80s and 90s, happily retired letting Molokai change me.
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