How the history of Hawaii may predict the future of the world
The analogy is obvious: Eight principal Hawaiian islands are adrift in a universe of ocean, just as our eight planets (sorry Pluto) are isolated in a universe of space. The first Polynesians, from the Marquesas, arrived perhaps as early as 200 A.D. Back-and-forth migrations from a second wave of Polynesians from Tahiti took place until around 1300 A.D., at which point newcomers stopped arriving and the Hawaiians were alone in their world until the late 1700s. That’s when Western Civilization arrived in the form of British Captain James Cook.
Having brought a few dozen plants and a few animals in open canoes from Tahiti, the Hawaiians survived—flourished—for 500 years in isolation. Central to this accomplishment is a division of land called an ahupua’a (go ahead, say it, ah-hoo-poo-ah-ah). An ahupua’a is a stream valley running from the sea to the mountains, with agricultural terraces in between—like the taro fields pictured above on the Big Island’s Waipio Valley.
Though the land divisions are not as uniform or distinct, the concept of the ahupua’a applies to modern settlements, from small towns to big cities: Without the bounty harvested from the land and sea, life cannot exist.
In Hawaii, everyone worked. Everyone had a place. The elders, kapunas, passed working knowledge to the children, the keikis. Law-breakers were dealt with harshly, so that if someone was in trouble, they ran to get into ‘jail,’ a place of refuge that was safe from worse punishment. After a period of time, the miscreants were allowed to rejoin their village. Productivity from each individual was an essential given.
At the time of Cook’s arrival, the Hawaiian population was estimated to be around 800,000—not that far off from today’s million-plus. Some historians have theorized that back-and-forth migrations to Hawaii ceased because the ahupua’as were all populated. No more room at the inn.
In the century following the coming of Westerners, the native population of Hawaiian fell to around 50,000, mainly due to disease. Conventual wisdom and historical fact say the Western World destroyed an island kingdom that was the epitome of ‘locally sourced sustainability,’ to use today’s words.
There is no doubt that disease and unlawful annexation meant the demise of the Hawaiian nation. But what would have happened in Hawaii if the West had not arrived? Would King Kamehameha have conquered Kauai (after more than two centuries of inter-island wars), and reigned over a sustainable, peaceable nation? Or would success, in the form of population growth and depleted resources, put the Hawaiians’ survival in jeopardy? Reports from the earliest missionaries, before the drastic die off, tell of an undernourished common class of Hawaiians who lived in the shadows of the ruling class, or ali’i.
That questions—about the future of Hawaii absent the influence of the West—will go unanswered. Throughout Hawaii are rock etchings, petroglyphs, some of which were a mystery to the first Polynesians. The questions regarding the fate of these people will also go unanswered.
Recent decades have seen a revival of Hawaiian traditions, seen as the only way to counter adverse effects of growing population and pollution. The outcome of this revival is uncertain.
Hope in Hawaii, however, is certain. The concept of the ahupua’a—respecting and preserving the land for survival—is not a philosophy, but a way of life, a reality that cannot be denied. The unanswered question from Hawaii’s history is being asked today. Can a population strike a balance with nature and not implode from its own success? Hawaiian cultural traditions say, ‘yes, it’s possible, we did it.’
Whether peaceful survival happens on our island in space, remains to be seen, and not in the too-distant future. In the meantime, world leaders would be advised to converge on these isolated Pacific islands and learn lessons from the past.
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