Kauai Blog Post #7 – 7-12-13 Sustainability

Apparently the winters here on Kauai have been wildly varied over the past several years. The previous winter was fairly dry, and the summer was wetter than usual. But this winter was a serious deviation from the comfortable weather I experienced over the past year. We had many days with 5 inches rain accumulation, and we barely saw the sun in the month of February. My middle name could have been “mud”, then. Living in my bamboo and tarp shelter, I was more than ready to begin construction of my new house this spring.

When I built my temporary structure, the thin-walled bamboo wasn’t cured or harvested at the ideal time (spring, when the sugar has been depleted, and it’s less susceptible to bugs). The bamboo began cracking, and the Costco tarps suffered from the Kauai sun, and many windstorms tugging on the grommets.  Old Hale disintegrating The guava support poles – tamped in 2′ deep holes – might last another couple years before rotting.

My choice to build my new “hale” (Hawaiian for house) with high “energy-embodied” cement pier blocks, cement-filled cardboard sono-tubes for the foundation, and conventional lumber and building materials – was a matter of expediency.


I needed a dry place to live which wouldn’t require rebuilding every six months. The natural building structures that are suited for this region – thatched roofs, cured structural bamboo, mud bricks, and other “sustainable” building materials didn’t fit my need for expediency, so they wlll have to be experiments in the future.

Hale in construction

My hale took me 3 months to complete by myself – with a helping hand and carpentry advice occasionally.

Finished Hale

(See Hale Building Project complete slide show).

My “excuse” for not being a die-hard sustainability advocate, is that I consider this a “transition” period in which we are moving to what I believe will become an essential mode of living in order for humans to continue on this planet. I don’t cook with wood on a rocket mass stove, but use propane.

Akee Stir Fry

Cooking with wood would necessitate focusing on that part of survival, rather than building my new hale or growing my own food.

Frying plantains over a fire

I’m choosing to prioritize my time to create stable infrastructure with today’s accessible materials, while growing as much of my food as I can at this point in time.

Taro and lettuce wrap

Currently about 50% of my food comes from our farm. We’re increasing production of our annual crops (taro, sweet potatoes, squash, etc.) and perennial fruit and nut trees and shrubs for future food harvests.

Veggie  and banana Garden

Transition is also my “excuse” for driving around Kauai as much as I do for errands and purchasing food needs that aren’t yet being satisfied from our land – and for using my laptop computer to write this blog. Most of my needs – as with most Americans – are dependent on the global economy during this transition time. I can almost hear the refrain like the “Tradition” song in Fiddler on the Roof. “Transition”.

For the past forty years of my life I’ve asked myself how humans could live sustainably on the planet. After growing up as a “tree-hugger”, hiking in the mountains of Colorado, I wrote my college entrance application essay on environmental conservation – the same year as the first Earth Day (1970). Soon it felt too much like a fad, however, so I studied basic sciences to understand the nature of the world: biology, then geology, then biomedical research, then teaching science in public schools. Throughout those several careers I was still bothered by my concern for how to conserve our planet’s beauty and resources, while supporting human survival and thrival.

In my self-study of Human Design (a fusion of astrology and esoteric systems) I learned that my ‘incarnation Cross of Maya” is supposed to describe my purpose.  It is essentially a drive to make sense of the nature of the universe, and communicate it to others (“behind the veil of Maya”). My focus on human sustainability was initially based on basic science. Later, when teaching high school science, I developed a “systems perspective” that everything is really a system, made up of smaller systems – described by the science of complexity, or “complex adaptive systems”. I developed a curriculum for studying the principles of natural systems (the cell, a molecule, an organism, an ecosystem) and understanding how to apply those principles to social systems (a family, a school, a country, a religion). Years later, in my study of permaculture, I apply the same principles to design healthy, sustainable systems.

Do I have a clear understanding of how humans might live sustainably on the planet? Not yet.. But my year and a half living in Kauai has given me some more experiences and insights. I’m drawn here because of the year-round growing season, and the diversity of highly productive edible plants – plus a climate requiring only simple, unheated shelters.

Here in Hawaii, people refer to the possibility of “what if the boats stopped coming”, to encourage more local food production. The fact is, Hawaii is no more self-sufficient in food than most parts of the country. The grocery stores ship in pineapples, avocados and bananas from off-island (the Philippines) – in addition to everything else on the shelves. Kauai’s largest agriculture production is GMO seed corn. But we’re very serious about growing our own food in the small community where I live: we say, “food first” – and compromise how we meet our other basic needs during this transition.

I would also say “food first” fits my model of human sustainability. I see food production as analogous to the way the human body distributes energy to itself. Living systems are based on a “holarchic” structure. A “holon” is a system that is both a whole and a part – derived from the root word in electron, neutron and proton. A cell is a whole system with its own “purpose” of survival, and it’s also a part of a large functioning system (an organ, for example). At the cell level, energy is distributed in the form of short-lived molecules like ATP, that fuel chemical reactions. At the organ level, the energy is delivered as more stable molecules of glucose, which cells convert into ATP. The whole organism ingests fats, starches and sugars which are processed into glucose and energy storage molecules.

Each level of the holarchic organism has a different level of energy “currency”. The vegetables in our garden are an ideal food to be growing for fresh harvest just before eating, so they retain their vitality. Other more stable starch foods are able to be stored longer, and might be more suitable for local village trading. The “bread-basket” regions would be most efficient for growing and distributing the long-term stored foods. However, the methods used for mega-farms in the Midwest are degrading the soil, and not as sustainable as less “efficient” small organic farms that could be growing food locally. The small local farms are based more on human relations in their trading, and are therefore more responsible for the vitality of the food they sell, and how they care for their soils. My goal for locally sourced foods would be 75%, in a sustainable world. That would necessitate many transitions. We would have to change our eating habits to fit those foods that grow locally in our climate, according to the seasons. As the song says, “Love the one you’re with”. (See Tropical Foods complete slide show). 

Of course this would also require a transition in economics, since it’s more expensive and less efficient to grow food organically, in small farms – often with hand tools. Other economies of scale could eventually develop to support local food – farmer coops for sharing bulk purchases and pooling produce and distribution food hubs, for example.

I would call this a “scale principle” that the human body uses for its energy needs. But it is related to the essential concept of growth. As a system grows it may try to use a different scale for distribution of food – what we call “economy of scale”, as many large city-based civilizations have attempted throughout history, unsuccessfully. There are benefits of economy of scale – for example the cell is a new organism which evolved by collaboration of smaller sub-cell organelles. However there are costs as well as benefits of a larger more complex system. More energy is needed for transportation throughout the system. It also requires much more energy expenditure for regulation and communication among the parts of the much more complex system. Our global economic system is not currently what I would consider to be a healthy, sustainable system. It has allowed “externalization”, with a degradation of the natural environment. It isn’t a cohesive system working for the survival of the whole, like a cell. That’s the ultimate cost to our economy of scale approach to fuel greater growth of humans on the planet: an unsustainable system.

There are other scale principles which also adversely impact overly large social systems. Our money system has evolved to become a self-serving and impersonal one, rather than the personalized village exchange systems which complemented the gold-based impersonal exchange money systems in historical times. Without the relationship-based tribal nature of humans during hunter/gatherer times, opportunism and competition have become dominant over the need for doing what is best for the overall system.

No closed biological system can continue growing without limits. A petri dish of agar grows bacteria until they reach a maximal population, and then they die – unless they are given more agar from “outside” the system. As the Club of Rome group said in 1972, there are limits to growth of humans on the planet. The “growth imperative” that we say necessitates a continually growing economy is in direct conflict with this notion of limits to growth. Our economic system substitutes financial capital for living and material capital, but even borrowing financial capital from the future (“credit”) doesn’t free us from limits to growth. Europe is now charging “negative interest” in attempts to stimulate its economy, but the last figures for US growth of GDP tell the real story: Our GDP “grew” at -2.89% this first quarter of 2014. Our economy is at a standstill, and our levels of borrowing from the future (debt) are not helping at all. The cheap debt money created by central banks is flowing into the stock market, but not into actually stimulating the economy. We are at the end of growth.

Another part of the sustainability equation is a “balance of trade”. In the body, each cell takes in energy from the blood stream, and provides some “goods or services” for the rest of the body in exchange. Similarly, even if I’m growing 50% of my food needs on our farm, I need a balance of flow of goods and services across our border for the 50% of the food I buy – and the multitude of non-food needs for which I use financial capital. For our farm to be financially sustainable, we have to balance the flow of our financial capital to the outside world, with the flow into our bank accounts for the goods and services that we “export” (market produce, consulting services, workshops, etc.).

Top Bar Comb

In a proposed “sustainable world”, communities might grow about 75% of their food needs, and produce goods or services for export outside that would exactly balance their import needs. An imbalance of trade such as that between the U.S. and China is not sustainable; I’ve never seen any solutions proposed for rebalancing this trade deficit. Similarly a constantly growing economy is not sustainable. No biological system continues growth indefinitely, in the manner that our politicians promote. The question is how might this transition to authentic sustainability occur.

Local food production isn’t presently economically competitive with “global economy production”; it’s cheaper for me to buy an inexpensive bag of (organic) brown rice than grow the equivalent calories in food. See Garden Pictures album). My personal motivation to transition from rice to sweet potatoes, isn’t a commonly held value – even with Hawaiians who know about the possibility of “the boats stopping”. It’s much easier to live in that river in Egypt (denial).

Zackary and Cuban Red rack

In biological evolution, change often occurs in large increments – for example when a climate shifts due to glaciation, that selects for new dominant species. A global economy melt-down is not a particularly constructive incentive for helping humans to learn to live sustainably – a process which takes time. My hope is that a gradual economic process might cause food prices to rise (perhaps assisted by a California drought, Quantitative Easing by the Federal Reserve, and Mideast conflict driving up oil prices?) Higher food prices might motivate the changes that are needed to bring more farms into production, and encourage individuals to grow more of their own food. The large population of unemployed (no longer “counted” by official figures) could save the cost of high-priced food by growing their own food. Satisfying the other needs we have for shelter, energy, and our modern technological desires makes the equation even more complex, but higher prices can make it more economical to produce other goods locally. Other sustainability experts suggest a more drastic disequilibrium (economic collapse) might be the incentive for transition to a sustainable human existence – but I am optimistic that we can transition to sustainability more smoothly if we have sufficient inflation over a long enough period of time. A “slow squeeze”, rather than a dramatic collapse. I feel blessed with my life in Hawaii, where I have the opportunity to work on my personal transition on a voluntary basis, while I watch the transition story unfold elsewhere in the world.

Celebration on the Roof

Bios Design
design bylili estin