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Necessity as Mother of Invention (and Sustainability)

February 14, 2013 - Ray Tsuchiyama

Maui, an isolated island in the middle of the Pacific (similar to other South Pacific islands), has an unsustainable energy model that everybody agrees on, but nobody has a alternative: importing oil at $100-plus a barrel to make gasoline to power cars (oil also is burnt to create steam, drive turbines and then electricity). Adding to gasoline Maui also imports almost all food, clothes, furniture, electronics, toothbrushes, clothes detergent – anything and everything.

Only in a far-away past of World War II (1941-45) did Maui residents try something different – conservation (for a while after the Pearl Harbor attack* electric lights were ordered turned off at night at homes due to the fear of Japanese bombings) and cars and trucks were re-configured to run on ethanol (from sugar cane) when imported gasoline supplies were requisitioned for military use.

Mauians did fear for their lives and immediately felt the absence of all imported things that made lives a bit more efficient and comfortable – Maui suddenly -- along with the rest of Hawai'i -- the target of a blockade.

On the same day as the Pearl Harbor attack (December 7 1941) Japanese submarine sank the freighter Cynthia Olson 1,000 miles northwest of Hawaii. On December 11 the Matson freighter Lahaina was sunk, and later two more freighters and two oil tankers crossing the Pacific ocean before the end of 1941 were also blown up by submarines. During the War Japanese submarines failed in two attacks on Kahului Harbor – which led to the quick construction of the Kahului Naval Air Station for fighter and reconnaissance aircraft.

As the Pacific War continued, Mauians pulled together and tried to survive.

Scarcity, necessity, and the privations of war are all mothers of invention and innovation.

In the four long years of war, Mauians did without many necessities and made things last as long as possible, like sewing old clothes to last longer, eating more local vegetables, fish and fruits (instead of driving cars to buy frozen Mainland meats that never arrived at stores, people repaired old hunting rifles to hunt doves* and wild pigs and restored nets for fishing), bought far less salty, fatty canned meats and imported liquor (my late uncle B. recalled an upswing in home-made okelehao), and less sweets and cakes (white refined sugar was rationed, while people lived amongst sugar cane fields; Coca-Cola was reserved for U.S. military troops, but the local Maui bottling plant also distributed the highly-valued sweet drink to local Maui shops, often clandestinely), walking than driving the car (hospitals had less medicines, so Mauians were careful not to get sick; obesity, heart disease, diabetes levels all dropped, and overall Mauians’ collective health improved, strangely enough). Sustainability was the new paradigm on the island.

Also, throughout the war years, not much trash tossed out by anybody**, since anything could have another use.

Nearly seventy years later, decades after the Pacific War brought a less-is-more sustainable lifestyle to Maui (and people hated it, and that is human nature, and returned to their pre-War lives immediately), how is the value of trash changing on Maui?

*In an earlier blog post I wrote about my Uncle B.’s lonely walk-trek (kind of akin to an Australian “walkabout”) from Kahului to Kihei – this occurred before World War II and he was hunting for birds: My Commute Crossing the Maui Isthmus

**In my travels in India I remember passing what looked like trashfills, but so many people had picked up items to re-use (paper to burn for cooking fires, pieces of steel for shanty construction materials, even steel paper clips had some use), that there was absolutely nothing remaining except ultra-tiny blowing pieces of paper or plastic, completely worthless. Often when I throw items, still useful in some way to somebody, into the trash can, I reflect on my India travels – a kind of delayed culture shock.


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