Kauaian Sustainability: It’s Not What You Think …It’s How Keynote: Apollo Kaua`i L.E.G.S. Sustainability Conference by Ken Stokes Executive Director The Kauaian Institute 13 October 2007
Many years ago, a Hawaiian friend (who happened to be a kahuna) blew my mind by showing me how the ancient symbols tattooed on his arm could be used to tell the story of the Big Bang…and then saying: “This is the story our ancestors told their kids.” Trippy, no? This insight from ancient Hawaiian culture has stuck with me.And I think it offers an important clue as we seek to shift toward a more sustainable way of living on our beloved Kaua`i.
We need to take the best thinking available today on the most complex challenges we face, and reduce them to children’s stories. We need a new story we can tell our kids about how the world works. If that doesn’t help ensure that everyone ‘get’s it’, at least the next generation will.
Now, when we say ‘get it’, we mean something like Goal #1 in Hawaii’s draft Sustainability Plan:So far so good. Yet, what does that mean, in practice? And how do we figure this out?
Here’s a partial answer gleaned from today’s thought-leaders in sustainability practice: Say wot? No, I’m serious. We’re evolving a whole new way of thinking…Because we have to.
And if you want to know why, just listen to what’s gotta be the soundbite of the decade…from Amory Lovins;See what I mean? Somehow, the way we’ve been thinking about things…the way we’ve been coming up with solutions…is not working. We’re methodically creating more problems than we’re solving.
A good recent example might be ethanol from corn, where in our effort to solve our fuel problem, we may be creating a food problem.Perhaps as we forge this new way of thinking, our solutions will actually solve something.
Turns out, we’re already two decades along in forging this new way of thinking …and it’s called sustainability. “You mean sustainability is a way of thinking?”, you ask.
That’s exactly what it is…Because sustainability is about wholeness…about the ongoing, inter-looped processes of a whole system. Sustainability is not about permanence…or holding onto something. It’s not about something fixed and controllable…going on as it always has in a linear fashion. It’s about something complex and dynamic and non-linear and reciprocal.
It’s about a new way of thinking that requires us to hold lots of different things in our heads at the same time, and focus more on the relationships between things rather than the things themselves. It’s about “whole systems thinking.” Go ahead and roll your eyes…yet I assure you…this is not brain surgery. Neither is it child’s play. It is simply essential to shift the way we think so that we can begin to comprehend how humans fit in the whole earth system. Notice I said comprehend…NOT control. This, too, is a key feature of our new way of thinking.
The good news is: We can “dance” with systems. This is how my heroine DonellaMeadows describes our challenge to find and move with the rhythm of the system in which our lives are embedded. We cannot choose the beat, yet we can influence the dance by how we move with it. Sometimes, I like to think of this as the true meaning of the prayer, “Thy will be done.” Inthis case, “Thy will” is the music of the universe, and our “Free will” is the choice of how to dance. So, what is this music of the universe in which we’re dancing? Well, now that we’ve agreed that sustainability is not lots of different things to lots of different people…now that we see system sustainability is about one thing…the wholeness of the human support system…
The first thing we’re gonna need is a new “mental map” for how this system works. And, when we start to draw up such a “mental map”, the first thing we notice is that this one system is actually a set of three inter-related spheres…a blue one, a yellow one, and agreen one…each with their own dynamics. And, the wholeness, the sustainability, of this system is driven by the relationships among these three spheres. So, fundamentally, sustainability thinking is about considering all three spheres… simultaneously.
We know this is crucial because our “modern” method of thinking about parts is what has gotten us into trouble in the first place. Sustainability is the sum of the spheres.]
You probably already know what these three spheres are, but I want to loop them together in the order in which our new learning has been advancing…to include all three.And when we have these three spheres clearly in mind, I want to touch briefly on how this new way of thinking can enrich our discussions here on Kaua`i, as we struggle to comprehend our challenges and shape our choices. Call this the “new story” of the “three spheres”.And, when we’re done, I think you’ll see how this new “mental map” could be made into aninteresting tattoo that we could all put on our arms…to help tell this story…so our kids will better understand how our island world works…And mebbe we will, too.
…In the beginning was the economy… We used to think the Economy sphere was the whole thing, and that everything else wasan “externality”. The Financial Capital at the center of the Economy sphere was thought to rule the world.
Now, we see that the Economy sphere is inter-looped with and fundamentally shaped bythe sphere of Community. And we now recognize that the Social Capital at the center of the Community sphere is at least as important as Financial Capital.Why? Because this is where we manage our housework and community work. And, BTW, as we have learned to measure the true value of this work, we find that it rivals our Economy in size.
Yet we’re not done, because more recently we have come to recognize that both theEconomy and Community spheres are themselves completely embedded in the Ecology sphere and that our Natural Capital is probably more important than anything else.Why? Because our human system would not function at all without the services provided by our ecosystems. This is not to say that we should only focus on Ecology, any more than we can focus exclusively on Community or Economy. We need to think about Economy AND Community AND Ecology all together.
Nor is this an abstract conceptual challenge. This is where we are learning about a newform of Governance. This orange arena where the spheres overlap is where we human’s are beginning to come together to simultaneously manage all three spheres.Think about that: there is no sphere for Politics. Instead, our Governance arena is defined by the intersection of Economy, Community and Ecology. And in this sense, “politics” is not about conflict…it’s about integration. It’s not about choosing which sphere will dominate…because that’s not a choice we can make.It’s not a balancing act, as we are so often told. It’s not about the tradeoffs of one versus the other. It’s about integrating our best understanding of the interrelationships between all three spheres all the time.
In this sense, it’s more like juggling with all three aspects of our earth’s human support system…with three balls in the air at all times.Our challenge is to integrate all of our human behavior and practice so that it becomes a positive feedback loop for system sustainability. Having come to this realization, we are staggered by the implications: If we need to besimultaneously managing our financial, social and natural capital for system sustainability,then it turns out that most of what we have been doing for the past several hundred years is precisely the wrong approach. By granting primacy to the Economy sphere, we have pretty much shot ourselves in the foot.We have done this, mind you, not because we are stupid, but because we were ignorant.
We did not know—or at least we pretended not to know—that everything is connected. [Kauai map] The new commonsense is that long-term prosperity and ecological health not only go together, they depend on one another. Thanks to our new “mental map”, we see much more clearly now that just because it’s complex doesn’t mean it’s incomprehensible. In fact, once we get the hang of sustainability thinking, it’s more often like a “DUH” thing. We go: Sheesh, I knew that!Most important, sustainability thinking helps us cut to the chase and root out the errors in our ways. Rather than simply gnashing our teeth, we change our ways. Much of the way we used to do things becomes simply unthinkable. It doesn’t fit on our new “mental map.” Got it? …Good, then. Let’s exercise this new “mental map”, shall we? Let’s look at three ways we can use it to better understand our sustainability challenges.First, we want to place on this “mental map” the major sustainability threats that we face.Then we want to map our new ways of measuring sustainability onto these three spheres. And finally, we want to articulate the new criteria for assessing our sustainability in each sphere.When we’re done, I think you’ll see how this new kind of sustainability thinking can guideus toward a set of three strategic priorities for moving our beloved Kaua`i forward into the world a’comin’.
Ready? Here we go. Here’s how we can map onto these three spheres the awesome threats to sustainability that we face today. We can see Peak Oil as the most significant threat to our Economy, and Climate Change as the most significant threat to our Ecology. We can also see that Unrest is the most significant threat in our Community sphere.BTW, if you haven’t given a lot of thought to this third threat, you might want to take a look at a new book by Paul Hawken, called “Blessed Unrest.”What Hawken shows is that, yes there is simmering unrest across the planet in the face of gross inequity. Yet, everywhere, people are rising up and organizing to address theseinequities, so that, today, the social justice movement is simply stunning in its scope and scale. And the reason Hawken uses the word “Blessed” in his book title is that, some say,without the social justice movement, our world would quickly devolve into barbarism. And I don’t have to tell you that’s a threat we want to avoid just as much as the other two. The important point about each of these threats is that they are symptoms of unsustainability. Peak Oil, Climate Change and Unrest are not the problem; unsustainability is the problem.And, we cannot resolve any one of these threats without finding resolutions for all of them together.
Here’s where we come to the meat of the presentation.You know, the field of sustainability thinking has been evolving so fast. When I started out as an economist back in the early 70s, we were just beginning to ask questions about “real” values and integrated systems.Now, the answers to these questions are coming thick and fast. And along the way, we’ve been learning how to measure things that were previously thought to be un-measurable.Let’s look at three new measures that correspond to our three spheres. And, while we’re at it, let’s use these measures to see exactly how unsustainable we are…on this planet…and on this island.Mind you, we are only just beginning to assess our island sustainability. In fact, this will be a major focus for the Kaua`i Planning & Action Alliance in the months ahead. Still, we can offer a few clues, drawn from KPAA’s community indicator report produced earlier this year.In the Economy sphere, we are replacing the standard measure of economic growth with something called the “Genuine Progress Index.” In the Community sphere, we are learning how to place a value on what we call “Ecosystem Services.” And in the Ecology sphere, we are learning how to measure something called our “Ecological Footprint.”
Here’s a chart of the Genuine Progress Index juxtaposed with the economic growth index. The idea here is fairly simple. Instead of just adding up all the “goods” produced by our economy, we also need to subtract out all the “bads”. When we do this, we can see thatour genuine progress has eroded since the late 1970s, even though our economic growth has continued to climb.
Now, put this in the context of Kauai’s economy. Here’s a chart showing the growth in
Now, put this in the context of Kauai’s economy. Here’s a chart showing the growth in resource usage per capita since 1980. Don’t ask me why we Kauaians need more andmore cars, water and power each year, or why our waste per capita keeps going up. Butthat’s our track record. Ask yourself, does any of this have anything to do with “Genuine Progress?”
Here’s a chart showing the true value of the planet’s ecosystems compared with the globaleconomy. Notice that the services provided by our ecosystems are at least one-third more valuable than all of our economic activity combined. I say, at least, because since these measurements were first introduced some ten years ago, this figure has been going up. And, today, some ecologists say our ecosystems are worth three times our economy.
Now think about this in terms of the quality of our water on Kaua`i. Here’s a chart showing the water quality at three of our beaches, and notice that all three are consistently farabove the minimum quality standard. Now that we know how truly valuable clean water is, why would we allow this incredibly valuable resource to be a dumping ground for our economy and our community?
And here’s a chart showing the Ecological Footprint of all humans on the planet juxtaposed with the earth’s “bio-capacity. If we add up all the land required to support human life and absorb our waste and our emissions, it turns out that we’re using up the equivalent of 1.3 planets. We are in what’s called “overshoot.”Bear in mind that’s the average footprint for all humans, which comes our to about 4 acres per person. Of course, the American footprint is much bigger: more than 20 acres per person.
If we prorate these figures for the Kaua`i population, here’s a chart of our island footprint.Notice that we use more than 5 times our “global share” of 4 acres. In fact, the footprint for our food consumption alone is almost as big as our total share, and everything else is overshoot. Think of an island five times bigger than Kaua`i. That’s the ecological footprint of ourAmerican standard of living. That’s “bio-capacity” we’re ‘borrowing’ from somewhere else.Now ask yourself: what’s the “carrying capacity of our island” if we took no more than our global share?
To review, the first time we measured our genuine progress, we found that we were going backward. The first time we measured the value of our ecosystems, we found that they were worth more than our economy. And the first time we measured our footprint, we found that we were already in overshoot.Uh, would you have preferred that green economists and ecologists didn’t figure out how to measure these true values? (heh
Now, we’re into the home stretch. These three threats and three measures applied to our“mental map” of three spheres can be used to derive a new, unifying set of criteria that all Kauaians can use to assess our own system sustainability.In the Economy sphere, we need to ask if it’s smart for Kaua`i to continue to rely on fossil fuels. In our Community sphere, we need to ask if it’s fair to allow island inequities to fester. And in our Ecology sphere, we need to ask if it’s safe to continue despoiling our island (and our planetary) ecosystems as we have in the past. Let’s take these questions one at a time…
Here’s our fossil fuel diet for a single day on Kaua`i. 105,000 gallons for our cars, 65,000 gallons for our electricity, and 34,000 gallons for our planes. That’s over 200,000 gallons every day!Have any of you ever seen the oil barges docked at Pt. Allen? Each oil barge brings about 40,000 barrels of oil. So, we need more than one barge each week to meet our fuel demand. Are we certain those barges will always come? Is it smart to assume they will?
Here’s a picture of the inequity in Kauai’s housing market. As the price has skyrocketed, the share of Kauaians who can afford it has plummeted. As of last year, the median Kauaian household had only 35% of income needed to purchase the median priced home. Is that fair?
Part of the problem is that we haven’t been building housing for our residents. Here’s achart showing that nearly half of all housing built on Kaua`i in the last 15 years has beenfor non-residents. And only 12% has gone to meet the needs of our renters. Is that fair?
And, finally, we find that we have some serious safety issues in our ecology. We used tothink that our Tradewinds took away all the soot from our cane fires. Come to find out, the Trades also bring us dirty air from elsewhere.Here’s a chart showing that on many measures of air quality, Kaua`i is not so special after all. In fact, if we look at the particulate matter causing most bronchial problems, we find that Kaua`i is in the 40% percentile among all American counties. Not so safe, eh?
And, look what could happen to our shoreline if the ice continues to melt at anaccelerating rate. NASA scientist James Hansen is now worried that we could be past thetipping point in ice melt, in which case sea levels could rise by 7 meters or 21’ within 100 years. Is it safe to assume that all of our vaunted shoreline development, not to mention our harbor facilities, will be somehow immune from this prospect?
To review, when we consider how NOT smart it is to drive our economy with oil, it seems clear that we’re going to need to switch energy sources.When we consider how NOT fair it is to focus our building on the needs of non-residents, it seems clear that we’re going to need to rebuild our communities from the bottom up.And when we consider how NOT safe it is to breath the coal dust from China that comeswafting to us on the Tradewinds, or to continue to develop in our low-lying areas, it seems clear that we’re going to need a strategy for adapting to the climate changes coming our way. We need an adaptation strategy to protect our people. We need to build from the bottom to achieve equity for our people. And we need to switch fuels to ensure the long term viability of our island economy.
In sum, with our new “mental map”,we are learning how to ask these three questions,
…to address these three threats to the sustainability of our island life.Now, we see that sustainability is about actions which are ecologically safe, economically smart, and socially fair.
So, how do you like this story of the “three spheres”? Anyone care to join me down at the tattoo parlor?Actually, the fact is, most Kauaians would rather not think about any of this. Hopefully, we can now at least see HOW to think about it.
Still, as one of my favorite Kauaians likes to say:And, never mind that our old way of thinking led us to believe that all this stuff was simply a consequence of our “modern” way of life.
Guess what folks? Sustainability is post-modern. It’s not about going back to chewing bark. It’s about moving forward to ensure the sustainability of our island life far into the future. Whatever may come our way. It’s not about differences between Democrats and Republicans. OR conflicts betweencompanies and communities. OR tradeoffs between our Economy and our Environment. What we need now is neither left nor right, but forward. I say, to heck with the “modern” world. Make mine “post-modern’…as in sustainable!
Learning how to think about sustainability in this new way…and beginning to talk aboutour island’s sustainability in this new way…and then starting to act on the sustainability challenges we Kauaians face… Surely, this is our best path forward. Perhaps, like me, you’re already turning to face this daunting future.
Perhaps, like me, you see there’s no turning back.Perhaps we can see that sustainability is about all Kauaians moving forward together. Imua e na pokii! IMUA! IMUA! IMUA!