In endorsing Hawaii as the site for the recent International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) shindig, President Obama wrote:
After successfully hosting APEC, “it is appropriate that Hawaii now turn its focus to the intersection of economic development and environmental sustainability.”
So what did Hawaii do? It navigated straight to the well-traveled intersection that has supported its economy for the past half-century: tourism.
In the exact same manner that has generated trillions over decades, Hawaii opened its arms to some 8,000 IUCN delegates and attendees who flew to Oahu Hawaii from points around the globe and stayed in the high-rise hotels of Waikiki.
We know that tourism has been an effective form of economic development for the Islands. Hawaii has that part down pat.
But there is no road to environmental sustainability from the tourism-economic development intersection. Tourism in Hawaii is inherently unsustainable.
There is nothing green, save for money, in flying 8 million people annually to the most remote inhabited land mass on earth, cooling and transporting them with imported fossil fuels, feeding them imported food, selling them imported trinkets, decking them with imported lei, washing them with water pumped, via fossil fuels, from the finite sources of underground aquaducts.
Yeah, you might opt not to have your hotel towels and sheets washed daily. You might select a menu item prepared from locally-sourced greens. But at the end of the day, it's all window-dressing.
Former Gov. Neil Abercrombie, who worked to land the convention for the Islands, was reported as saying:
What ultimately influenced the selection was that Hawaii is a “textbook operation” in confronting the very issues that the IUCN is focused on. They include water conservation, protecting endangered species, reducing dependency on fossil fuels and developing clean, renewable energy sources.
So why didn't Hawaii become a “textbook operation” on how states and nations must grapple with the immense challenge of transitioning from an inherently unsustainable form of economic development, which includes nearly all enterprise — without driving people into poverty?
The closest they got, apparently, was when Katherine Novelli, the U.S. under secretary of state for economic growth, energy and the environment, said:
“Economic activity and environmental sustainability have to go hand in hand. You can’t tell people that their alternative is to starve to death.”
Yes, that we already know. But how, exactly, do you do you achieve that? For modern humans, that's proven an elusive goal. We have yet to figure out how to build that particular intersection.
As for the IUCN itself, what about the elephant in the room? By which I mean how tourism impacts all of the issues — conserving water and endangered species, reducing fossil fuel consumption — that it seeks to address? Where was the discussion on the environmental, social, cultural and political impacts of tourism (and that includes ecotourism)?
Some 16 years, I wrote a piece about a Sierra Club lawsuit that sought to force the Hawaii Tourism Authority to conduct an environmental assessment of the visitor industry's impact before spending $117 million over three years to promote tourism.
Though the Hawaii Supreme Court rejected the lawsuit, the HTA tried to smooth things over by saying, “the Sierra Club's concerns are being addressed in state studies that look at each island's tourism 'carrying capacity' from social, cultural, environmental and economic perspectives.”
In the decade-plus, have you seen that carrying capacity identified, much less enforced?
Meanwhile, the number of tourists has grown steadily, from 7 million when the lawsuit was filed to an estimated 8.8 million for 2016.
Roads are congested; beaches, trails and parks are overwhelmed; long-term rentals have been lost to the thriving legal/illegal vacation rental business; homelessess is on the rise; substance abuse is worsening; and locals are leaving for greener pastures, replaced by starry-eyed newcomers in search of paradise.
Environmentalists have turned away from scrutinizing tourism and are now focused on agriculture: fighting ag users for water, opposing GMO seed fields, suing to stop a pasture-based dairy, celebrating the demise of Hawaii's last sugar plantation.
Their focus now is on “organic farming,” “pure food,” “true food,” “food self-sufficiency,” as if the bat guano and neem oil, the weedblock and tractors, the GMO grain that Louisa Wooten feeds her goats to produce
organic [correction; it is not marketed as organic] cheese isn't brought in from somewhere else, at
significant environmental cost.
No doubt many of them were at the IUCN, speaking earnestly about the need to stop this or save that, without ever looking very closely at their own belief systems, expectations, activities — aside, perhaps from clutching a refillable coffee cup.
One of the organizers of the Hawaii IUCN was Chipper Wichman, a man I deeply respect, both as a human being and for his lifelong devotion to walking the talk of conservation. As Civil Beat reported:
Wichman said that a major benefit of hosting such a prestigious conference here is that it can influence local policy decisions, from City Council members to Gov. David Ige. He hopes that the conference will also capture the attention of the average Hawaii household.
“When we look at the return on investment in terms of impact on conservation, not only for Hawaii, but for the world, it’s incredible,” Wichman said. “It’s going to be catalytic.”
Yet the event itself was superficially reported, and a Star-Advertiser poll showed that most people had no interest in the proceedings.
Shortly afterward, this comment was left in an article about the IUCN:
They said the event would bring at least $50 million in tax revenues to the state as well as allow Hawaii to showcase its commitment to environmental sustainability and renewable energy to a global audience.” So 13 million nets us 50 mill, for a profit of 37 million. I’ll take that deal every time.
And so does everybody else. Which is why we keep passing through the same intersection, blinders on, without ever looking very seriously for any side streets, any other way out, while talking a blue streak about going green.