The roosters were screaming at a one-day-past-full moon that was sliding down in a snakeskin cloud sky when the dogs and I went out walking this morning. We headed east, looking up, where the world was growing light, rather than down, where it remained dark, walking toward the place where the first streaks of pale gold were turning into soft brush strokes of pink, past the goats lying peacefully in dew-damp pastures, past more roosters, past a stream that gurgled softly, toward Venus, brighter even than the brightness of approaching dawn.
By the time we returned, the birds that live in my yard were singing and twittering more loudly than the roosters, and the rosy flush had stretched all the way across the heavens to turn the verdant slopes of Makaleha into rust, the first of many shifts it will experience this day — heck, this hour.
Since interviewing Adam Asquith a week ago, I’ve been thinking about the concept of sustainability, and what it might take to shift western civilization — or more specifically, those of us inhabiting this particularly speck in the Pacific — into a mindset that would make such a way of existing in the world possible.
And I’ve pretty much determined that it’s not going to happen, or at least, not on any widespread scale, barring a catastrophe that leaves us with no other options.
Creating a sustainable Kauai is, like aloha, one of those concepts that is embraced by most in theory, but only a very few in practice, primarily because it requires us to make profound changes first in our values and worldview, and then in how we live. In other words, it demands the conscious attention, hard work, connection to our environment and even hardship and sacrifice that modern life, ironically, strives so mightily to eliminate.
So instead, sustainability has become an intellectual exercise, something some of us talk about. Malama Kauai, for example, is devoting all of 20 minutes to it this evening — the same amount of time it is giving the mayor to discuss his Sustainability HoloHolo 2020 plan in an event that seems intended more to publicize a political alliance that chew on this meaty issue.
I wonder, will the mayor take the bus to the event — oops, no can, it doesn’t run that late, or traverse the side street to Common Ground — or ride a bicycle all the way from Lihue?
And how, exactly, does sustainability fit into miniature golf courses and solar farms on ag land, celebrating the anniversary of PMRF, pumping thousands of dollars into tourism promotion, and a campaign war chest filled with contributions from the construction industry?
Which is all a way of saying that it’s so much easier to talk and plan and chat and mingle than track a wild pig or coax food from the soil or gore the sacred cows in order to totally revamp our completely unsustainable economy.
I don’t mean to knock Malama Kauai, which has done some good things, or even the mayor, who hasn’t, but to point out how this whole sustainability discourse is just that, which is why I tend to dismiss it as a giant waste of time.
And to see the mayor positioning himself as a leader is not only laughable, but wrongheaded, because sustainability is not, and never has been, a top down, centralized endeavor, as a look at the people who are actually living sustainably in this world makes clear.
If we want to get serious about living sustainably, which I am not at all convinced most of us really do, since we’re not yet forced into it, we need to start by looking at how much we can give up, do without. Or as Adam said, rather than debating how to develop energy projects that will keep people on the grid with unlimited electricity on demand, we need to think of how many hours a day we can live with brown outs or blackouts, and then figure out how to meet those reduced needs with small projects that serve individual households or neighborhoods.
Yet all of our talk about sustainability is couched in this giant disconnect of continuing life essentially as we now know it, which we have already seen is clearly not in any way, shape or form sustainable.
Rather than debating which of our ag lands are important enough to save, we need to be planting all of them, because if you look back at the history of the kanaka maoli, who did sustain themselves here with no outside imports, it’s clear that they were growing food in every available square inch.
As Adam noted, sustainability requires an intensively managed landscape, which runs counter to our aesthetic ideals of open spaces and wilderness and lush lowlands, and our modern mindset of humans distinct from nature.
Living on this island in a sustainable way also requires us to cultivate two values that have gone decidedly out of style: patience and delayed gratification.
But first, it requires that we get honest about how we are able to live the way we currently do, which is possible, to use Adam’s words, “only because we have the ability to externalize our needs and demands. We let someone else exploit their landscape. And it’s largely indigenous people that pay the price for it. Our demand is destroying indigenous people and the remaining resources all over the world.”
“Ignorance,” he said, “is bliss. But now that I know that, I know that I have to find another way and teach my children those values.”
When we start talking about and planning for sustainability within the context of those profound value changes, perhaps we’ll be ready to achieve it. Until then, it’s essentially a feel-good exercise -- nothing more than mental masturbation.