11/25/2013 02:59 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

Jungle Beat: Making Strides Toward Sustainability

You might think it would be easy to return Hawaii and the rest of the United States to a more sustainable way of life. After all, it's simple to plant a garden, raise some chickens and supplement your family's diet right in your own back yard.

But it goes much deeper than that, and no one recognizes the intricacies of the issue better than Jacqueline Kozak Thiel, our new State Sustainability Coordinator. After Governor Abercrombie appointed her, she hit the ground running in mid-October and is rapidly coordinating various departments and agencies at numerous governmental and non-governmental levels.

Eight governors, including Abercrombie, are serving on President Obama's Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience. As an important part of this new effort, these leaders "will develop recommendations on how the federal government can better support local preparedness and resilience-building efforts," according to a November 1, 2013 press release from the Governor's office.

Thiel added:

The task force established by President Obama gives Hawaii a direct line to provide recommendations on removing barriers to federal resources, identifying opportunities for collaboration, and developing tools to better support our unique needs and local efforts.

Having served as the Community Outreach Specialist with the Kauai Invasive Species Committee for over four years, and then as the Hawaii Invasive Species Council's communication coordinator for five years, Thiel is making good use of her master's degree in urban and regional planning as an East-West Center Fellow with a focus on implementing sustainability plans. "The Sustainability program includes only my position at this point," she explained.

With our efforts spread across many agencies, the private sector and grassroots organizations are leading many endeavors, so a coordinator role is key in bringing the diverse work together.

Her plans include the creation of a website,, which will serve as a community resource that can encourage people to get involved. Stay tuned for news of that when it happens.

"The Task Force is moving quickly," Thiel added. "In December, we will meet in Washington, D.C. to develop our recommendations, which we will present to the President within the next year."

"As an island state, Hawaii represents a microcosm that is grappling with all of the planet's sustainability challenges," Thiel said during a phone interview with me.

The three pillars of sustainability are called 'the three E's': environment, economy and equity. Food is a great example of where these three pillars intersect. Because Hawaii faces issues with affordability, I don't want to see food deserts in low-income communities, where people can't access healthy, locally sourced food. We hope to help restore a traditional diet by connecting with local farmers and reducing our reliance on imported food. This is about celebrating the fusion of our multicultural cuisine with things we can grow here that truly nourish us.

The Hawaii state definition of sustainability, which is now in state law, is to respect the culture, character, beauty and history of our state's island communities and to strike a balance between economic, social, community and environmental priorities. Thiel elaborated:

This means that we must meet the needs of the present generation without compromising the future generation's ability to meet their own needs. In order for sustainability to be meaningful, we must have definitions, measures and milestones that enable us to track our progress.

"The school garden projects that are happening throughout the Islands are so exciting," she added,

because they are teaching the younger generation to value fresh foods that they grow themselves through an environmental education process. We are teaching them the ways that their ancestors lived and reducing the disconnect that people of our modern society have with the natural world. Information is powerful and empowering our citizens is one of our primary goals. Changes will not happen overnight, but with collaboration, education, tracking and empowerment, we will reach our goals of becoming more sustainable, and the health and vibrancy of our communities will benefit from the change.