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Sustainability: What is it, How Do We Get There?
David A. Perry Talk to Hawai'i Island Green Party. April 4, 1998

Aloha kakou. Mahalo for the opportunity to talk story with you this morning.

I want to begin with a personal story that at first may seem to have little to do with my topic, but which actually has quite a lot to do with it.

In the '60's I was a graduate student in physics involved (in a minor way) with some of the early research on the behavior of complex systems. We were running an experiment that involved filling an opaque container about the size of a loaf of bread with a particular gas and slowly heating it. The container had a number of small glass ports scattered around its surface, through which light could pass. We directed a beam of light into the container through one of these, and attached photocells to the others to measure how the beam was scattered by the heating gas. Initially, the light was scattered chaotically, beams flying wildly in all directions, reflecting the chaotic motion of the gas molecules as they were heated. The gas invariably reached a point, however, in which it abruptly changed into a highly ordered state. The signal of that state was to my eyes then, and 30 years later still is, astounding; in a heart beat all the wildly chaotic light reflected through the gas and into our photocells collapsed into a single beam. The direction of that single reflected beam was impossible to predict, but that it would occur, and the temperature at which it would occur, were totally predictable.

Those were the early days of complex systems science. We now know that under the proper conditions systems of many kinds -- physical, chemical, ecological, and socioeconomic--exhibit the same kind of behavior. Not gradual change, but rapid transition; order out of chaos, or, more accurately for the ecological-social-economic systems that form the core of our world, one kind of order breaking down into a period of ferment and turmoil, followed by the emergence of a new kind of order. Many people I talk to believe industrial society is in that transition phase now. David Korten, author of When Coporatins Rule the World and founder of the Positive Futures Network, says "As a species we humans have arrived at a defining moment. For the first time in our history we have both the opportunity and necessity to assume concious collective responsibility for creating our future".

Joanna Macy, teacher of deep ecology, Buddhism, and general systems theory (quite a combination!) writes:

"I imagine that future generations will look back on these closing years of the 20th century and call it the time of the Great Turning. It is the epochal shift from an industrial growth society, dependent on accelerating consumption of resources, to a sustainable or life-sustaining society. There is no guarantee we will make it in time for civilization, or even complex lifeforms, to survive. Yet it is clear that there's no alternative, because we are, in systems terms, "on runaway", consuming our own life support system. I consider it an enormous privilege to be alive today, in this Turning, when all the wisdom and courage we ever harvested can be put to use and matter supremely".

I would guess all Great Turnings throughout history have been preceeded by strong cross currents of action and reaction; the old denying its imminent failure by growing even stronger, like a dying tree that produces bumper seed crops, while at the same time the seeds of new possibilites begin to grow and flourish. As our current epoch (which is often called industrial but which, following Daniel Quinn in his wonderful novel, Ishmael, I prefer to call the era of the "Takers") nears its end, its strength seems to grow. There has been a five-fold expansion in economic activity since 1950, fueled by nonrenewable resources. Originally envisioned as a vehicle for bringing peace and prosperity to the planet, the global economy, in the perverse way of complex systems, has taken on a life of its own. Opposed by no government and promoted by the most powerful, some believe--and I am one of those--it represents the greatest threat that democracy and the environment have ever faced. Economies have become so thoroughly intertwined that failures in one region send shivers of fear through all. Wealth is increasingly concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, an intolerable situation both socially and, in the long run, economically. Alternative economists in Germany, the UK,, and The US have been tracking the state of these countries using indicators based in human well being rather than aggregate economic output. Based on these indicators, economic well-being peaked in 1971 in the UK and has fallen 50% since, peaked in 1968 in the US and had fallen 40% by 1992, and peaked in Germany in 1981, falling 40% in the following 7 years. On top of all that, the end of the energy that fuels industrial economies is in sight, we are experiencing what is probably the greatest rate of extinctions in the planet's history, and the global climate system has almost certainly been altered by humans, with consequences that are largely unknown and may range from minor to catastrophic.

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But new seeds are growing--some born of fear, others of hope. Despite the rather grim realities that need to be faced, I see little value in fear and would much rather talk about hope.
Let's start with what people are thinking: recent polls show that about 1 out of 4 adults in the US (quoting David Korten) "embrace the values of an emerging integral culture defined by a committment to environmental sustainability, an appreciation of foreign places, people, and cultures, a highly developed social conscience, the practice of altruism, spiritual exploration, and a concern for families, community, and caring relations". Pollster Paul Ray calls thsi group the "cultural creatives".

*Organizations devoted to promoting sustainability are proliferating: The Positive Futures Network, Redefining Progress, and, on our island, Plan To Protect, to name just a few. The Federal Govt has initiated The Presidents Council on Sustainable Devlopment; the National Association of Counties has a subgroup on sustainability, of which Curtis Tyler is a member, and our own county council recently passed a resolution--introduced by Curtis-- supporting policies and planning strategies that promote sustainability (I'll come back to this resolution).

*Finally, and perhaps the seed with the most potential to actually affect change--local communities are beginning to take control of their own fate. In my experience the best example of local communities becoming empowered is right here on this island, most dramatically in Hamakua, but also in North Kohala and Ka'u. This a global phenomenon. As of 1997, over 1400 communities worldwide had adopted and were using their own currencies, a step some alternative economists believe is essential for local sustainability. There is a growing trend, started 20 years ago with the Grameen Bank in India, toward local, "peoples" banks.

The major issue before us now is how to nuture the fragile seedlings of hope, how to protect them from the goats of the global economy, which have insatiable appetites and will surely consume any unprotected thing in their path.

Much has been written on this lately. Let me offer some thoughts based in my own experience and the thoughts of many others.

First, we need to establish a covenant with our children.

Contracts are popular in politics these days, but what I'm talking about is more than a business deal, it is an agreement that springs from love, care, and responsibility. It warrants a covenant.

Second, we need a vision of where we want to go, and indices that tell us whether indeed that is where we're going.

Third, we must establish protocols for learning, teaching, experimenting, adapting, and ho'oponopono.

Let me discuss these in more detail.

1. A covenant with our children

When we discuss sustainability, we are really talking about the legacies this generation passes, or does not pass, to the future. Most of you have seen recent articles about the growing problems with young people on the big island. The response here, as on the mainland, is to build more prisons, while at the same time neglecting schools. With these kinds of messages, it should not be surprising an increasing number of youths become disaffected.

I recall the bumper sticker, usually attached to a $50,000 camper, that proudly proclaimed "We're spending our children's inheritance". I don't begrudge anyone fun in their retirement, and cite this example to illustrate a mindset that probably evolved in the 50's and has lasted much longer than it should. It is an attitude that expects every generation to be wealthier than its predecessor. In the 50"s, 60's, and even the 70's that was an understandable attitude. The inheritance of children was not in what their parents had saved, but in an endlessly growing economy. With the imminent death of the mythology of endless growth, something I expect our youth sense even if many adults don't, it is time to let our children know in no uncertain terms we have responsibilities to them as well as they to us. And because we didn't raise any dummies, our actions must match our words or we'll end up breeding cynicism instead of hope.

2. A vision of where we want to go, and indices that tell us whether indeed that is where we're going.

Various people have written about what constitutes a sustainable community: For alternative economist, Richard Douthwaite, sustainability within a given territory--such as this island or this group of islands--requires a stable population that supplies its own basic necessities from renewable resources, and is able to protect itself economically, which to Douthwaite means having its own currency and banking system. (Note, Douthwaite is not suggesting sustainability equates to isolation; flows of information, nonessential goods, and some eseential goods would be global, but the global structure would essentially be a hierarchy of communites within communities).

The Northwest Policy Center lists 6 steps for achieving sustainable communites: foster committment to place, promote vitality, build resilience, act as stewards, forge connections, and promote equity.

A fine line is walked in visioning; too general and anything goes, too specific and no room is left for creativity. I believe it's essential to establish guiding principles and let creativity flourish within those. The cornerstone, absolutely nonnegotiable, principle is that sustaining human societies and economies means sustaining that which gives us life---soil, water, air, diversity. This is ancient knowledge that became lost in the hubris of the last 50 years. On this island I've promoted drawing on traditional Hawaiian concepts of land and stewardship, as summarized by Burrows:

'Aina. According to Burrows, "The Hawaiian interpretation of 'aina is that which feeds and provides substance". Put another way, that which gives us life is not a lifeless commodity, but a vital essence, a gift to be respected, valued, and protected.

Mana'o'i'o. Faith, respect for nature. Whatever specific forms faith takes, what it basically boils down to is understanding one's self as part of a larger system that, either through evolution, the design of the Maker, or both (they are not mutually exclusive), has beauty, integrity, and grace.

Lokahi. Unity, balance, harmony. Again, quoting Burrows, "Early Hawaiians considered themselves to be part of nature, (they) were always striving to be in a harmonius relationship with...their island world".
Malama. Caring. Caring for one another, the land, the sea.

A quick comment on unity and caring. The mayor has adopted a new strategy for getting pulpwood onto county lands in Hamakua. It involves a land trade with Bishop Estate, which would get the Hamakua lands in return for scattered parcels in other districts. This of course appeals to county councilman in some other districts because they get something for their constituents, so the land swap has a good chance of passing council. I ask myself, is this divide and conquer strategy really something the residents of this island want to buy into, or would they choose to stand in unity with the Hamakua communities? Do the residents of other districts even know the tradeoffs involved?

The question of knowing about tradeoffs is at the core of achieving sustainability, which leads to the final, and in many ways most important Hawaiian principle listed by Burrows

Ike, knowledge.

The only chance of achieving sustainability in practice is if local communities have ownership--that is it must be their vision and not someone elses. However, it is necessary to understand that visions do not arise from a vacuum. People on this island, like people most everywhere--like me and probably all of you--have grown up in the Taker culture. There are no well established models for anything different. Few people anywhere are environmentally and economically literate, not because they're ignorant, but because they have not been taught. Rural people on this island know plantation sugar, but not agroforestry, and many rural and nonrural alike equate forestry with a single narrow approach-- short rotation pulpwood monocultures. They know I'm sure other possibilities exist, but no one has taught them what those are. So education becomes a cornerstone--which means protocols must be established for getting information to communities about specific actions, the tradeoffs involved, whether a given course is consistent with the vision. These protocols should include learning from communities--i.e. the infortmation flow must be 2-way.

This leads to my third and final suggestion for general approaches to achieving sustainbility.

3. Establish protocols for learning, teaching, experimenting, adapting, and ho'oponopono.

The concept of adaptive management has come to the fore in resources management--it essentially boils down to trying new things, learning by doing. Public lands are the logical place to do that, to let people get creative, to find out what works and what doesn't. To give people a real place on the ground which enlarges their vision of the possible.

Some form of ho'opono is essential because conflicts will arise, and here agin ike is essential, so that competing choices can be evaluated in the light of implications for sustainability.

The time is ripe on this island to begin moving in a meaningful way toward leaving our children a legacy we can be proud of. The seeds are planted, in Hamakua, Kohala, Ka'u, and a wonderful opportunity is coming up to nurture them. Thanks to Curtis Tyler, the county council has endorsed the principle of sustainability. The General Plan is coming up for revision, so the opportunity exists to build concepts and meaningful actions related to sustainability into the plan, to shift responsibility for the plan from bureaucrats to the communities, to engage the communities in meaningful dialogue about their visions, the legacies they want to leave, what it will take. I suspect many in the power structure will be frightened by that prospect, and it will only happen if a majority of the council supports it. I've only lived here 3 years, but its hard for me to imagine there has been a more importnat election than the one coming up.

I started with a personal story, and I'll finish with one. In the late 1980's the battle over saving remaining old-growth forests in the PNW was really heating up. One of the areas in contention was Bald Mountain in southern Oregon. A man named Lou Gold had built a crude lean-to below the summit of Bald Mountain and spent much of the Spring, Summer, and Fall living there as a witness for the mountain. The rest of the year he traveled throughout the country giving talks, generating support for old-growth preservation. One hot August I was with a group of people who walked in to spend some time with Lou. Each morning and evening we would climb to the summit of Bald Mountain, where Lou had done a most remarkable thing. A USFS fire lookout staion had once stood there, and when Lou first arrived he found a bunch of rubble from the now-collapsed lookout. He took the stones that had formed the foundation and built a Plains Indian Medicine Wheel on Bald Mounatin's peak. Every morning and evening we walked that Medicine Wheel, offering our own personal prayer. One morning, walking the wheel, it came to me that what Lou had done on Bald Mountain was what many people were now doing on the planet, taking the rubble from the old Taker culture and building something beautiful, harmonius, and sacred.

Thank you for your attention. The best of luck in the upcoming elections.

Aloha kakou


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