(Ed. Note: This weekend, while working on stories our new print edition of the Chronicle. I ran across this essay, which I wrote over a decade ago in the Hawaii Island Journal. The stories I’m working on are about the future of recycling on the Big Island, the influence of the real estate construction industry on government and two proposed laws that would make it easier for people to live near their jobs. This piece is relevant to all three issues–and, sadly, just as pertinent now as it was then. We still need to learn these lessons. –AM)
by Alan McNarie
This edition contains yet another piece about waste and recycling by Alan D. McNarie. Over the years since I first began writing for the Journal’s predecessor, Ka’u Landing, I’ve written tens of thousands of words on the topic – so many articles that I’ve lost count, and have sometimes referred to myself, jokingly, as “Mr. Garbage.” Frankly, I’m rather sick of writing about the subject.
But it’s a topic that just won’t seem to go away, especially on an island forced to cope with mainland living habits in a limited space. The issue of what to do with East Hawai‘i’s garbage, especially, is one of the toughest, most intractable problems that the Kim administration faces – partly because of the previous administration’s inability to face it creatively, and partly because of the current council’s own inability to form a cohesive policy or to agree with the Mayor’s. Despite that, the island has made some significant progress, opening the Kea’au recycling center and steadily increasing the amount of recycling diverted from the island’s landfills. And our neighbor island of Maui has made some even greater, highly innovative strides.
But even on Maui, they’re only diverting about a third of the waste stream into recycling; they recently had to cap off their own landfill and start another. Recycling is never going to be the total answer. Nor is burning garbage to produce power; just look at the mountain of clinkers outside the Pepe’ekeo power plant, if you think it is. That cinder pile is quite likely the second-largest man-made artifact on this island, after the Hilo landfill. There will always be stuff that won’t burn, or that isn’t safe to burn, and there will always be ashes left after burning.
We haven’t even begun to address the real issue, which is that we simply create too much waste. Changing that is going to be the toughest job of all, because it involves rethinking something that many of us summarize with a sacred phrase: the American Way of Life.
Since the dark days after 9-11, our president and his minions have repeatedly said that we were going to war to defend the American Way of Life. It’s a catch phrase that our leaders use almost as much as “defending freedom.” But the American Way of Life is almost certainly the most extravagant and wasteful society ever conceived by humankind: a society shaped by three hundred years in which we solved our problems by grabbing more land and materials, until we’d expanded clear across a continent and halfway across the Pacific, gobbling up millions of years’ worth of resources — oil, coal, metals, timber, fossil groundwater, topsoil — in a mere twelve or so generations. In Minnesota, we turned an entire range of hills into a vast holes in the ground to extract iron; in Appalachia and the Western U.S., we’ve taken entire mountains for coal and copper. Now we’re starting to run out of nearly everything from oil to old-growth timber, so we’re buying or seizing everyone else’s resources. There are only 250 million or so of us, and over 6 billion people worldwide, yet we consume about 20 percent of the world’s energy.
America’s westward expansion has shaped our culture in other ways, as well. The ability to seize new lands helped to form the original American Dream: instead of waiting to inherit your father’s farm or business, you went out and started your own. And frontier life no doubt helped shape our extraordinarily heightened cultural values of independence and self-reliance.
Some time in the past fifty years or so, the American dream morphed from owning one’s own farm or business into owning a house in the suburbs — and still more recently, into owning a home or condo next to a golf course, inside a gated subdivision. But our encultured values of independence and self-reliance still drive us to occupy incredible amounts of space and use up incredible amounts of resources. We drive to work everyday in our own cars, burning up incredible amounts of gasoline. We drive to shopping. Each family home houses maybe two generations –the parents and their kids, until the kids turn 18, when they’re encouraged to “find their own place.” Each household must have pretty much everything it needs to function, from power tools and lawn tractors to eight place settings of dishes and flatware for entertaining guests. Very few Americans would survive if all their possessions were piled on top of them.
Or if their waste streams were piled on top of them, either. We generate mountains of garbage. Some of it’s just worn-out stuff, but most of it is green waste (caused by our desire to own a little patch of land, like the vestige of a family farm, but not enough to support a sheep, so we buy steel sheep that burn gasoline and don’t digest what they eat), paper products and petroleum products — much of the latter two in the form of cardboard and plastic packaging. Instead of getting our hams from the family smokehouse, we get just enough meat for a couple of people; it’s wrapped in plastic and Styrofoam, and generally shipped from a packing plant miles (in our case on this island, often thousands of miles) away.
Ironically, this drive for personal independence has left us, as a nation, incredibly dependent. Not only have we used up most of our own resources; we’ve created a lifestyle that’s so expensive that we can’t compete for jobs with the much of the rest of the world.
Other cultures have more-or-less tolerated our resource-hogging, so far, because they know how to live comfortably on much less. I saw this first-hand when I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand. Thai families lived perfectly happily with at least three, sometimes four generations in each home. Middle-aged men living with their parents were common; a young man who got married often moved his wife into his parent’s household. And families lived within walking distance their work; teachers lived in housing supplied by the school; factory workers lived in housing supplied by the factory; shopkeepers lived over their shops, and farm families lived on their farms. Nearly every farm was located within bicycling distance of the nearest village. For rare occasions when a trip to the city was necessary, there was plenty of cheap public transportation. Nobody needed a car.
And everyone shared what they had. I’ve often pointed to the example of the bicycle pump that I owned. I was living in a factory-worker’s house behind a furniture factory, since the school’s housing was full. All the factory workers borrowed my bicycle pump, whenever they needed one. Sometimes I would have to go looking for it when I needed it, but eventually it always came back. And of course, one doesn’t need a bicycle pump all that often.
The pump was a sturdy iron thing, weighing six or seven pounds, with a three-foot length of hose. By sharing it with twelve families, I saved at least 72 pounds of processed iron and 36 feet of rubber hose, and all the energy required to mine, harvest, manufacture and transport those resources. And all those families saved the money required to purchase their own bicycle pump.
Multiply those figures by the scores of such objects that the average American household has. The resource and financial savings are pretty staggering.
That was only the beginning of the resource conservation inherent in Thai society. A typical Thai toilet, flushed by dipping a bowl into a tank and throwing the water into the toilet bowl, required only a quart or two of water to flush. Instead of a dozen different cleaning products, Thais generally bought a big box of what Americans would call laundry detergent, and used it for everything from dish washing to scrubbing floors. Goods in stores seldom came in packages, if that could be avoided. Paper bags, when they were needed, were made from glued-together magazine pages. All of the paper at our school was recycled: thicker, looser stuff than American paper, but actually easier on the eyes because it wasn’t glaring white. Nobody used incandescent bulbs in their homes or businesses; every light was fluorescent. Most food came from local farms, which sometimes used chemicals that were banned in the U.S., but which also engaged in what, in the U.S., would be called permaculture. When I stayed with a host family during my Peace Corps training, I was surprised to discover that every tree in the “forest” surrounding my family’s house produced something edible. The family wasted little food, and generated relatively little trash–and most of that was composted.
I have lived the American Way of Life and the Thai Way of Life. I can testify that Thais are no less happy, and probably are generally happier than Americans.
In the global economy, we are now competing directly with the Thais, and the Chinese, and the Mexicans, and dozens of other cultures that have learned these hard lessons of conservation and sharing. The whole world cannot afford to live the American Way of Life, nor can it afford to let us keep turning its resources into mountains of garbage. Eventually, it will stop letting us do so–if not by bombing us, then by selling us things until it has all our money and owns all our assets.
Ronald Reagan was fond of saying that there really were simple solutions, there just weren’t easy solutions. In this case, I agree with him. If we don’t want to truck garbage across the island, and if we don’t want foreigners hating us so much that they fly airplanes into our extravagant skyscrapers, then the solution to both problems is simple, but very hard: we must change our way of life. We must stop demanding that the world support our lifestyle; we must learn to share and conserve, and develop social institutions that allow us to do so.
This may be easier to do in Hawai‘i than on the Mainland, because many island residents already have roots in cultures that knew better, and many Hawai’i residents of American ancestry came to these islands in search of an alternate way of doing things. In Hawai‘i, we don’t have to be, and shouldn’t be, typical Americans. We can choose the best of American culture – its emphasis on human rights and democracy, for instance — and the best of our other root cultures as well. Perhaps Hawai’i can forge a way of life that the Mainland can imitate. But we need to get started. The landfills are overflowing, and gasoline is over $3 a gallon