Thursday, September 1, 2016

Musings: In Search of Sustainability

It's a word that's often bandied about, and nearly always with a favorable connotation. But what does sustainability really mean?

And if we accept this defintion — the quality of not being harmful to the environment or depleting natural resources, and thereby supporting long-term ecological balance — can modern human activity ever be truly sustainable?

I ask because the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) — comprising folks who sincerely care about environmental issues — is convening in Hawaii now. And it's done a very good of patting itself on the back for creating a “sustainable” 10-day conference — with media like Hawaii Business unquestioningly playing along.
Indeed, the IUCN has an eight-page PDF outlining all of its conference-specific green goals.

But what does that really mean? Especially when you consider that nearly all of the estimated 9,500 participants will have flown to Hawaii — the most isolated inhabited landmass in the world. So it would seem that they're starting in a pretty deep carbon emissions hole.

Yes, they're seeking to neutralize the footprint by purchasing carbon mitigation from the Cordillera Azul National Park Project in Peru. But that only applies to IUCN staff and delegates. Otherwise, it's a voluntary contribution.

On-site, they're touting things like “use of Speedi Shuttles for airport transfers, free bus passes, free bike use, electric cars/buses, biodiesel.” True, any one of those choices produces fewer emissions than a rental car. But not one of them is truly sustainable, especially in Hawaii, where all fossil fuels are imported. Even the bikes are made someplace else and shipped in.

At the venue itself — the Convention Center — they are counting things like “automatic dispensers for sink faucets, hand towels, hand soap and hand sanitizer,” while never considering that these dispensers and their contents are also imported. 

The green guide goes on to note: "Assure that the waste water is treated in the best way." Except, there's only one option for such treatment in Honolulu, and no mention of mitigating the water use or treatment required to accommodate all the low-water flushes and hand washes required by 6,000 persons over 10 days.

They're also shooting for zero waste — no plastic of any kind — and calling for either reusable cutlery, which requires water-electricity to clean, and “recyclable/compostable cutlery.” Except, so far as I know, there's really no place in Hawaii to recycle or compost cutlery. 

They also call for “composting of organic waste (to produce soil fertilizer, or supplying to farmers for livestock feed ). So what, do the pig and veggie farmers drive in Honolulu to pick up food waste at the convention center? Or will it be burned like most of Oahu's opala?

There's a demand for “electronic means” to reduce paper waste, which is great, but the production of tablets, smart phones, laptops, etc., is certainly not sustainable, nor is the electricity generated to power them up.

As for those freebies — usually cheesy — that are part of every conference, IUCN is encouraging “giveaways that convey a green and/or socially responsible message, are reusable and which have been produced ethically, using environmentally- friendly materials, such as organic unbleached natural fibers.” Though many of us would question whether organic fibers are inherently environmentally or ethically friendly, especially when produced with child labor and shipped half-way round the world.

Turning to the menu, they're offering many vegetarian and vegan options, and otherwise calling for “locally sourced, seasonal and sustainable food provided as much as possible.” Which is fine, except no food in Hawaii is produced sustainably. Not when you consider that soil inputs are imported, as is the fuel for farm machinery and transport. 

Does food necessarily have a smaller carbon footprint, just because it's produced locally? Especially when you consider that Hawaii is unable to achieve economies of scale.

I especially liked this: "Only endemic, non-endangered potted plants are used for decoration within venue". How many endemic, non-endangered plants have you ever seen potted in Hawaii? What about the plastic pots?

And I'm sorry, but even if you don't wash your sheets and towels daily, and the shampoo is in a dispenser rather than a little bottle on the sink, there is no way that any hotel in Hawaii can be considered either green or sustainable. They are inherently unsustainable, because they're not producing any of the resources they consume.

Which is not to say that I'm critical of the convention itself — it's great for good minds to come together — or dissing the desire to have as little impact as possible. We all need to be conscious of the toll that our lives take on the natural world.

But let's not kid ourselves that any of this stuff — air travel, cities, convention centers, catered meals, tourism, electronic devices, etc. — is truly sustainable.

Why perpetuate the delusion that bringing 6,000 people from all over the world to an Island in the middle of the Pacific can be achieved without serious and significant environmental impacts? 

Pretending otherwise is merely a distraction, a way to make people feel good about what they're doing, even when it doesn't mean anything.

I had a phone chat with a University of Washington professor the other day on the topic of sustainability. It's something that scientists often consider. Most recently, however, the conversation is moving toward whether it's too late to be talking about sustainability as realistic, attainable goal. 

It seems to me that we're already well past that point. A planet with 7.4 billion people — most of them addicted to fossil fuels, consumer goods and war — is not sustainable. 

Yeah, we can delay, mitigate the pain with technology and conscious choices. But if you look at the history of humans on the planet, we seem incapable of living without harming the environment or depleting natural resources.

So let's start talking about what that really means for the future, for the way of life that so many of take for granted, instead of making like it can all be mitigated and made “green” by insisting a vendor sign his/her contract with non-toxic ink.

It seems a suitable subject for the IUCN to tackle. But while there is of much of interest scheduled, I didn't see that particular topic on the program.

27 comments:

Anonymous said...

Bravo Joan.

Thought-provoking; this is the important conversation we should be having.

Anonymous said...


Bravo indeed Joan.

Probably in your top ten.

I, for one feel better every time I read you.

Do ever write novels? Sustainable or not would be on my next to read list! For now, just keep on doing what you do.

I turned my mom onto your blog-- her and I view things differently! But she loves you.

And she does not say that very often!

Anonymous said...

Joan Said, "Except, so far as I know, there's really no place in Hawaii to recycle or compost cutlery. "Then know this. There are hundreds of garage sales where they recycle knives, forks, and spoons which I believe qualifies as cutlery.

Anonymous said...

But where did this recycled cutlery items come from, not here. You missed the point.

Anonymous said...

­čĹŹ­čĆ╗ the over population and depletion of our resources is a big problem. But does anyone one to make the sacrifices. Big oil won't stop making money until they have used every last amount for profit they can.... And so on and on and on....

Anonymous said...

You spread more thought-provoking insight with this column than with the last two hundred columns you wrote about Gary Hooser. It would be nice if this path turns out to be sustainable for you and for us - pun mildly intended.

Anonymous said...

Gosh, Joan, you are so much more measured in exposing IUCN's hypocrisy than you are with your snark-fests against Center for Food Safety's hypocrisy! Why the double standard?

Anonymous said...

@ 3:11 PM - It's not big oil that makes you drive your car. It's your choice to do so. No one is forced to use fossil fuels. It is our choice to do so. So all we need to do it to change. So easily said. Kinda reminds me of the localizationists. "Do not use or consume anything that is not made within bike riding distance of your home."

Anonymous said...

kinda simple..if the barges stop for any significant amount of time (like a year) a lot of people would probably leave...all the locals would keep on doing the do.....easy to make car gas , food is easy if u know how, then that would take care of the traffic in kapaaaa, yay...not quite sure about the toilet paper tho

Anonymous said...


3:11pm rides a sustainable donkey to work. And when that runs out 3:11 reverts to a Jackass.

But then everyone got mad at 3:11 for the donkey pooped on tha Aina. So then 3:11 got smart and rode a mule. Then the mule took the biggest shit you ever saw! Then all the dogooders ran round and round cause their shit don't stink. And "banned da mule".

Donkeys, Jackasses also got sunk like the superferry to the delight of timeshare owners. Till they realized that they killed the golden goose!

One brave Nene named Goldie da goose was a smart bird and hauled ass. Duck duck goose!

Anonymous said...


2:12 sounds like a last ditch pollitition that won't be realected . Talk about a sinking last anal retentive pathetic gasp!

See--ya. Maybe a thousand years from now scientists will be able to get to that depth, and have a good chuckle.

Dear future scientists, the drinks are on me.

Make sure you leave a refreshment for those that come a thousand years after you!

Cheers my future friends!

Anonymous said...


Dear 4:51, Gary Hooser is such a divisive scourge on our little agricultural island ,

WE ALL have to keep bashing him until he is done! That Joan has the energy for this near thankless task is a testament to her .

I very much dought that she enjoys it. That she has the perseverance, bravery, fortitude to do what the rest of us cannot----wow.

Keep on Rockin Joan . You are at a level that most of us need a telescope to understand.

Anonymous said...

Thanks 4:41. No dought abought it.

Anonymous said...

And again in today's Garden Island.........Bill Burley continues his bizarre relationship with Da Hoos by quoting him again.
The Garden Island, Gary's own little mouthpiece. Embarrassing.
Da Hoos has never been for better roads, because better roads bring more houses and businesses.
Gary has consistently been against all Roads, housing and businesses, unless they are for himself or his friends. Fact.
History speaks louder than Bill Burley's Baloney.


Anonymous said...

Import 10 Amish families to Kauai and they will show all you idiots how to farm. "Idiots" includes all the Chemical Farmers and the Organic Farmers.

Anonymous said...

Damn right 12:32 AM!

Can you imagine what could get accomplished if we had a Joan on the Council?
Or several of her at the State legislature?

Anonymous said...

Great points. It does 'feel good' to support efforts in sustainability. However, the IUCN initiatives are unrealistic are by no means measurable.

Also, the expansion of Papah─ünaumoku─ükea was pretty interesting- timing wise.

"On Friday, President Obama will expand the Papah─ünaumoku─ükea Marine National Monument off the coast of Hawaii, creating the world’s largest marine protected area" -whitehouse.gov

Anonymous said...

But with no mo donkeys and horses, there'd be less methane (we already got rid of the cattle) HOWEVER we'd have to start killing off humans because of the great volumes of methane caused by their diet of beans and other fiber foods. Awe!

Anonymous said...

Why even Monsanto quite frequently on the website uses the term sustainable agriculture. I guess they think it means mono-cropping, kill worms and microbes and spray and pray.

Anonymous said...

11:24---hau leaves might do it!

Anonymous said...


11:24 and 4:54--

I recommend Mango leaves!

Wait wait wait----- do not do that-- I was kidding.....

Mango leaves are very similer toward the poison oak/ ivy family. If the stuff in poison oak/ivy gives you a reaction---- do not wipe your ass with Mango leaves!!!

11:24 might have good advice about hau leaves. Unless your allergic to them?

Sometime ya gotta use sticks and stones then jump in the water and scrub your stinky ass with coral sand?

Please come back John Kauai, I bet you have insight on this?

Larry Bragg Jr. said...

Heavy stuff. We'll get better as we exploit more planets, if we make it that far. I feel like I'm ready for a Consumption Confessional after that, they probably have one at Burning Man - they are having a Renaissance (af)fair don't ya know. Viva italia in the desert. Welcome home.

Anonymous said...

@9:34 shit we might even have to destroy Kilaue caldera since it releases so much CO2 and other harmful compounds. But its natural so that must be ok.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous Anonymous said...
But where did this recycled cutlery items come from, not here. You missed the point.

September 1, 2016 at 2:25 PM

No YOU missed the point because if it were Joan's point that would make her profoundly anti-farmer because almost everything they grow and almost every tool they use is not from here. I doubt Joan is advocating a return to pre-contact AG methods.

Joan Conrow said...

No, 5:26, you missed the point of the entire post, which was that virtually nothing we do as humans, and certainly not in Hawaii where almost everything is imported, is truly sustainable. So let's be honest about that in our discussions about and definitions of "sustainability."

Anonymous said...

Joan 6:54, "No, 5:26, you missed the point of the entire post" That was a cheap shot. Clearly I was not addressing your entire post but just what I quoted "Except, so far as I know, there's really no place in Hawaii to recycle or compost cutlery."

2:55 also missed the point because sustainability and location of origin is the same contextual bait-and-switch that you used by saying I missed the point of the "entire post" when I was clearly addressing just a part of the entire post which is why I quoted what you said.

Feel free not to post this because it is "attacking you" or whatever other excuse you use to censor anyone who would deign to disagree or challenge your linguistic bait-and-switch antics.

Anonymous said...

To me sustainability means keeping the barges running.