Island Earth

Opinion by Holly Moeller
Nov. 17, 2014, 8:36 p.m.

WAIMANOLO, OʻAHU – Bobbing up and down in the warm waters of Makapuʻu beach, Chris waits for the perfect body-surfing wave while I turn in slow circles from ocean to shoreline back to face the ocean again. I am in the very definition of a tropical paradise: Coconut palms dot a shoreline backed by the fluted Koʻolau Mountains, and the water is a stunning turquoise, somehow crystal clear despite the sand-churning five-foot shorebreak a few yards away. A handful of local bodysurfers share the cove with us.

Looking back at the mostly deserted swath of sandy beach, it’s hard to remember that Oʻahu is only 597 square miles in size but is home to almost one million people. Drive just an hour out of Waikiki and you can reach Oʻahu’s famed North Shore, replete with slow-moving cars bearing “Keep the Country Country” bumper stickers and cyclists carrying their well-loved surfboards to the beach. Understandably fond of their laid-back lifestyle, many of these residents are keen to confine the high-rise hotels and urban bustle to Honolulu.

The locals have good reason for concern: On an island, there’re only so many places to go. Not only is physical space restricted, but plenty of other resources are in short supply as well. A trip to the grocery store reveals the high prices associated with importing most food items (though we do stock up on fantastically cheap pineapples and papayas). Only a tiny, fuel-efficient car saves me from further sticker shock at the pump. And what comes onto the island must either go back off, or find a permanent home here. Despite above-average recycling rates, Oʻahu’s single municipal landfill is running out of space. Plans to deal with piling up garbage include incinerationopening new landfills and even shipping containers of the stuff back to the mainland.

For all its present-day pleasantries, the reality of life on a Hawaiian island also foreshadows humanity’s grim future of resource limitation and expensive essentials. Just like Oʻahu, Planet Earth is an island – with one key exception: There’s no mainland stockpile to bail it out.

Though they must pay a pretty penny for doing so, Hawaiʻi residents can import the food and energy they need to make ends meet. In contrast, the globe is a closed system. The 7.2 billion and counting humans who share it must make do with the available supplies of farmland, fresh water and energy. Add to this the fact that 87 percent of our energy comes from non-renewable sources (fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas), and achieving sustainability becomes a grand challenge.

The (relative) inexpensiveness with which First World citizens can currently meet both needs and wants is linked directly to the current cheapness of energy. But as we start to exhaust easily extractable supplies, we’ll see prices climb alongside the growing costs associated with manufacture and transport. Eventually, mainland price tags will equal, then exceed, present-day Oʻahu’s. It’s hard to imagine what the world will look like then, especially for the poor.

Still, continental residents have advantages that islanders do not. As my seatmate on the flight to Honolulu, a local banker, remarked, “Hawaiʻi has no economy of scale.” The islands, separated by channels miles across, are not easily connected. Businesses, like those that produce alternative energy, cannot grow beyond the bounds of a single island, which limits their customer base. This restricts the economic opportunities of industries with large up-front costs. But on the mainland, it’s relatively easy to hook new wind or solar farms into an existing grid of clients. We’re already seeing such solutions come on line.

Hawaiʻi, in turn, can teach us a great deal about living local. On a hike to Maunawili Falls, Chris and I crossed the remnants of an ancient Hawaiian field system, used by the pre-contact residents in one of the most productive agricultural systems we have discovered. Hawaiians managed their land in wedges, from mountains to sea, acknowledging and harnessing the interconnectedness of the land and adjusting their cropping style accordingly. Modern agriculture prefers to use the brute force of fertilizers and pesticides to grow cash crops, but we can gain sustainability and efficiency by tailoring our growing styles to local conditions as the Hawaiians did.

This process is beginning, even now, with local farms “keeping the country country,” keeping mainland locavores fed, and keeping families and communities healthy. On Oʻahu, we even pass a small windfarm, near where a surfing contest is being held off the shores of a resort whose roof is literally carpeted with solar panels. Small steps for a small island. Now it is our turn to take bigger ones.

Contact Holly Moeller at hollyvm ‘at’

Holly is a Ph.D. student in Ecology and Evolution, with interests that range from marine microbes to trees and mushrooms to the future of human life on this swiftly tilting planet. She's been writing "Seeing Green" since 2007, and still hasn't run out of environmental issues to cover, so to stay sane she goes for long runs, communes with redwood trees and does yoga (badly).

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