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Aloha to Sustainability

April 14th, 2012 · 1 Comment

This guest post from James Wells provides thinking about islanding and sustainability sparked by a trip to ‘the’ Islands.

On the way to catch up with my family on the island, I met Kai, who was the last of the siblings gathering for the imminent end of their father’s voyage.  Although for the most difficult of reasons, he was glad to return home for the first time in several years, and hoped to be able to return for good at some time in the future, after completing his degree that was only available on the mainland.  Then, he and his family would be able to afford to be home.

In the seat opposite, a man told me was from the “Island of San Diego”, explaining the boundaries that made it so.

We are taught that islands are bad.  “Insular” is a word that conveys isolation and backwardness.

No islands allowed any more
In my line of work which is software, “islands” of functionality are holdouts that need to be assimilated into the Borg of the enterprise system.But perhaps islands are not such bad things.  Since they may be in our future once again, it is worth learning everything that is good about islands and how we can gracefully adapt to island living once again.
The volume of global trade, that endless slinging of megatons of stuff from here to there, has grown vastly in the past few decades.  The pattern of that growth has created a sense that it is inevitable, and even imperative, for the growth to continue.

Expanding this is Imperative?

I question that!

While endless growth is impossible, a question of huge interest is always when the top of the curve will occur, and what will be the shape of the curve.The most likely scenarios that could drive peak global trade are all some version of resource depletion, whether it is due to limits on the available quantities of materials to ship, or fuel to ship them.  2030 anyone?

If there is any reason to believe that the top of curve may come soon, then the next question is how human systems can adapt reasonably well to a decrease in an importable resource such as, say, disposable plastic spoons from China.

Places which have become highly dependent on the movement of vast quantities of goods will find themselves to be, once again, islands.  Whatever will we do without the disposable spoons?  And how will the disposable spoon purveyors retrain for a new line of work?

A successful conclusion of this transition will involve elements of adding local self-sufficiency, efficiency, and durability back into our lives.  [“Durable” being, of course, Bill McKibben‘s great term in relation to this].

In addition any specific measure, there’s an attitude we’ll need.  Island living might just be okay.  With our budget of the precious ability to move people and things, we’ll make thoughtful choices, traveling in person to be with dear friends and make new ones instead of just being experience consumers, and moving items that have real meaning as opposed to anonymous bulk commodities.

The other virtual certainty is that the sooner we start on those changes, both mental and physical, the less desperate things will be for everyone when the desirable becomes absolutely necessary.

If it’s less “efficient” than an invader, let market forces decide who survives?

It’s also probably wise to stop building ambitious new infrastructure for vast volumes of international trade that either won’t materialize, or will be harmful if it does.Once we all lived on islands, bounded by physical barriers or simply distance.  Most of those barriers have gone away, at least with respect to the movement of stuff.

Was the elimination of barriers a good thing?

It seems that if you look at the history of physical islands as they are contacted by the rest of the world, the pattern is consistently one of degradation of the fragile splendor that the island once had.

In human islands, it is much the same.  Progress brings the ability of new agents, in theory those that are the most efficient but in reality perhaps only the most ruthless, to dominate over the ecosystems that once existed in that place.

When strips of nationally syndicated hamburger chains and big box stores displace locally owned stores from their former habitats, how different is it really from that arrival of rats on an island where the birds have always made their nests on the ground?

The Hawaiian islands, having endured huge impacts from invaders both human and human-brought, may be one of the most well suited of locations to restore real island living.  Other than energy, the islands can certainly provide for many of the things that people require every day, most notably food.

The honu have started coming ashore again
after we stopped killing them

Currently, the islands receive 90% of their energy from imported oil.  This lifeline is clearly a great source of vulnerability.  On the day when the cost of that oil doubles, or triples, or on the day when the oil tanker simply doesn’t arrive, while jet-fueled tourism craters for the same reason, life as it is currently constructed on the islands will come crashing down.Unless, of course, the intervening time is used wisely.

Hawai’i has tremendous opportunities to move toward energy self-sufficiency, as well as a great need.  Geothermal power, solar, and wind, are a good match to the geography of Hawai’i.  For instance, wind power can operate at up to 40% of nameplate capacity, about double the capability in many mainland locations.  The current renewable portfolio standard for electrical service in the state is now 40% by 2030 in addition to a separate energy efficiency standard that is intended to significantly reduce electricity demand (at least compared to some baseline that presumably assumes some continued growth in demand).

Always turning, at the north end of Oahu

Coupled with increased use of renewables for electricity, the fact of being a set of islands is natural match to electric and PHEV vehicles.  You just can’t drive that far and stay on land.  It would not take much charging infrastructure to make these islands into some of the most electric-friendly places in the world, because most commuters would be able to simply charge at home each night.The same issues are certainly not limited to geographic islands, in the sense of patches of land surrounded by water.

Here in Whatcom County, WA, we find ourselves smack in the middle of similar questions.

Less efficient than Costco perhaps, but Costco has no love.

We are an island already, in a good sense.  The Chuckanuts to the south protect us from the encroachment of Seattle and its syncophant burgs, while the Canadian border, which at one time I might have considered an anachronism, actually helps the same to the north.  It is just inconvenient enough to commute across the border each day that most people don’t make that part of their plan.  Some magical way, our island has managed to be exactly the right size for anything you could ever want in daily life, such as a public school system where children are safe and have quality learning each day with their friends, who are also their neighbors.

Yes, it grows here!

In Whatcom County, we currently eat about 2% local food (defined as food produced in the county), which seems pathetically small considering what a breadbasket we are.  The berries from here go someplace else, while we import Twinkies and Wonder Bread.  A local organization has set an ambitious goal to increase our local food consumption– all the way to 10%.  It’s easy to stack up impressive percentage gains when your starting point is low.But perhaps the actual percentage, at a given moment, doesn’t matter as much as the direction and velocity.  We are learning to, once again, feed ourselves in some measure, a skill that may come in really, really handy at some point in the future.

A huge issue in this area and all through the PNW coast is the set of proposed coal export terminals, up to 6 now proposed, that if allowed will create a swath of destruction from the strip mines all the way to the point of combustion in China (and then everywhere else as the air pollutants linger over the years).  This to serve the alleged “imperative” that we grow the volume of global trade.

Imperative or not, the growth will end.  I just wonder where our seat will be when the music stops.

On the flight, Kai told me that his full name (which he said for me, and was long) meant essentially, “watcher of the surf”.  He recounted a time when a friend, who is a very experienced dive instructor, planned to enter for a shore dive.  Kai looked out and suggested that it was a bad time, on an apparently benign day.  A few minutes later, Kai was obligated to save the friend plus dive partner by pulling them, with what gear could be recovered, from the newly pounding surf.

Surf watcher in training
Kai just said that the waves spoke to him.  I supposed that he had seen similar conditions a million times before, and his integrated knowledge had constructed a message that would have been useful, had it not been ignored.  There may be no difference between the two interpretations.Peace, brother, and thank you for the wisdom.

Everywhere around us, there are surf watchers, who have important messages. It’s time to listen to them.

References and credits:
For some great discussion about human and natural islands, see The Great Turning by David Korten.

Barath provides excellent analysis of directly related topics on a regular basis, some of which fed directly into this diary.

Pictures courtesy of Paul Anderson, Jeff Margolis, and Nicole Brown.

Any time you are in our corner of WA state, don’t miss the iconically great local retailer Everybody’s Store in Van Zandt WA

[Note: I get it.  Failed the purity test, again, by getting on a plane.  Increased our 2012 directly attributable GHG emissions by 3%.  It is a real question and I do ponder it.  We do many things at home to reduce GHG emissions (by a lot more than 3% from before we started various changes), and we chose this indulgence, at least this time.  All choices are trades, and the best answers are those that provide the most personal value, meaning, and learning for a given impact.]

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Tags: environmental · environmental economics · Global Warming · guest post

1 response so far ↓

  • 1 John Crapper // Apr 18, 2012 at 3:32 pm

    The points made here are very insightful and stated in elequent fashion. “Islands in the sand that is what we are and we rely on each other uh uh!!” Nature will be the determinant of when we get back to living closer to its dictates. We fool ourselves if we think otherwise.