01/16/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Speed, Greed, and Sustainability

I have friends who moved to Hawaii from the great white north, got married, and have crafted a life living on top of the active volcano there. They work as part-time park rangers, teach English, paint, and live in a modest but comfortable cottage on land they have purchased, surrounded by the ferns of a tropical paradise. Their income sometimes skirts with the poverty level, but their lives are rich beyond imagination in terms of community, spirit, ideas, and contribution. They spend little, grow much, reuse often, and waste nothing. Their lifestyle is more satisfying than that of so many other folks I know who have bought into the speed-and-greed frenzy that is ripping our planet apart at the seams and leading to chronic conditions from obesity to depression, heart disease and cancer.

These folks have much to teach about the unsustainability of habits born of the last thirty years: using aluminum foil under a turkey so we don't have to clean the pan, tossing plastic water bottles after a single fill, getting in the car when a pair of feet or a bicycle will do, driving huge, heavy, gas-guzzling vehicles, leaving lights on when we're not in the room, opening the patio door when the air conditioning is on, drinking too much, eating too much, buying too much, pushing too fast and too hard in all things.

Of course we can't all move to Hawaii, but a look at what is happening on the island is fascinating and instructive. The recession has set the archipelago abuzz with sustainability strategies fueled by the high price of importing food and the special challenges a down economy brings to a community dependent upon tourism. While the rest of the world goes through resources at an unprecedented rate and people starve in gigantic numbers, people on the Hawaiian Islands are beginning to do things differently. You can learn more about Hawaii's sustainable resources here.

Of course the number one focus of sustainability is food, and Hawaii's climate makes possible growing a wide range of crops, including papayas, bananas, tomatoes, ginger, avocados, lettuce, sweet potatoes, oranges, lemons, garlic, onions, peppers, cucumbers, jackfruit, breadfruit, lychees, pineapple, rambutans, and more. There are also specialty crops like cacao, coffee and macademia nuts. Hawaii is smack dab in the middle of the Pacific ocean, but whatever difficulties that location creates in terms of imports is more than offset by the riches of the local ocean, which draw fisherman from the entire Pacific Rim. While that ocean's fisheries are in a dreadful decline, there should still be enough to feed the islands if conservation laws are enacted and enforced.

In much the way mainland sustainability reaches both forward to technology and back to native American growing practices, Hawaiian sustainability began with the ancient Polynesians, who were master gardeners and botanists. They knew how to keep seeds such as breadfruit alive for months during an open ocean canoe voyage, and how to graft plants, enhance growth, and most importantly how to utilize the botanical resources of their islands to maximum effect. In addition to finding survival value in a wide range of fruits and plants, they made sails out of pandanas leaves and used bamboo for building beams, walls and more.

The state of Hawaii is remote, small, and blessed with a 12 month growing season and a climate suitable for a wide range of food plants, but it is part of the USA and a microcosm of cultures clashing and special challenges. As the population grows "greener" than any travel brochure can show, surmounts geographic and social issues and moves sustainability from counter-culture to grassroots movement to mainstream effort, it will be a place to watch. In combination with the kind of shift in priorities my friends have chosen, the Hawaiian model may help us refocus on green projects, live in harmony with nature, stimulate an economic renaissance by refocusing industry on green products and projects, and thereby create spiritual, social, and aesthetic riches.