Why Go to Hawaii to Study Sustainability?

Whenever I tell friends and family that I’m going to take a group of Calvin students to Hawaii to study sustainability, I typically hear two responses.  First, they ask if I need an assistant to help with on-site activities; and then they often ask why we have to go all the way to Hawaii to study sustainability.  That’s a fair question.  Hawaii is, after all, a long flight away from anywhere – ensuring a large carbon footprint for each visitor.  We certainly could learn a lot about sustainability and study our society’s complex (and dire) situation by staying at Calvin.  But there are a few reasons why this experience would not be quite as rich educationally.

The Hawaii archipelago affords unique opportunities to study “Island Earth” sustainability challenges and opportunities,  To understand why this is the case, you first have to realize some facts about Hawaii:

  • One of the most remote locations on the planet, Hawaii is 2500 miles (4000 km) from anywhere else.  Thus, it costs a lot to ship goods to and from Hawaii.  This puts considerable constraints on the Hawaiian economy that are not shared with the mainland.  We will see this right away in our first trip to the grocery store.
  • Hawaii is a significant biodiversity hot spot.  There are numerous endemic species, found nowhere else on the planet.  These and other native Hawaiian species are threatened by exotic invasive species, by climate change, and by habitat loss.  We will see how Hawaiians are responding to these challenges, seeking to instill traditional native Hawaiian values of malama ‘aina (care for the land).  Indeed, cultural diversity and values are also a big deal in Hawaii; we have a lot of new (and richly meaningful) terms to learn.
  • Hawaiians recognize their economic vulnerabilities and have begun to take steps towards better sustainability.  They learned this lesson in the wake of the 9/11 attacks when air travel took a nosedive.  They are utterly dependent on tourism, on oil, and on imported goods.  Because 85% of the food consumed in Hawaii is shipped in and because there is at any given moment an estimated 11-day food supply in Hawaii, they are serious about taking steps to promote food self-sufficiency.  We will see how far they have come and how far they have yet to go.
  • More so than their mainlander counterparts, Hawaiians recognize that sustainability cannot be achieved by simply tweaking the status quo, adopting a few simple steps in the name of “being greener”.  While these kinds of things may reduce one’s ecological footprint a bit, real sustainability requires a significant paradigm shift away from consumerism and towards a set a relationships with others and with God’s creation marked by aloha (love) and pono (righteousness).  We expect to encounter these values in the people and places we visit throughout the islands.

An Action Plan

In light of these facts, the state government developed a comprehensive plan entitled the “Hawaii 2050 Sustainability Plan”.  Its goals are depicted in the star figure posted above.  In addition to visiting relevant sites in Hawaii, we will be reading and discussing the aspects of sustainability (water, energy, food, culture, etc.) as outlined in the companion “Hawaii 2050 Issue Book”.  For those interested in reading following along, you can download it at this website: http://hawaii2050.org/images/uploads/HI2050_web5.pdf.  And if you would like to submit comments, questions, or feedback to student postings on this blog, we’d certainly welcome them!  You may do so by filling out our contact form on the About page.

– David Koetje, course instructor and professor of biology at Calvin


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