09/03/2013 04:30 pm ET Updated Nov 04, 2013

What Sustainable Islands Teach Us

How can humanity manage someday to support more than 9 billion lives on one small planet - an island floating in an ocean of space -- without destroying the environment? Can our energy systems operate solely on renewable energy and still be affordable? Can we truly feed ourselves from local agriculture and maintain the diets of developed countries? How can we make the systems that provide the necessities of life more resilient in the face of an uncertain future? Can we achieve these goals and increase the prosperity of our people? Will we have the wisdom to work together to make this happen?

We have so many questions, and so few answers.

All civilized societies learn more quickly from actions than theories. As humans, we adopt innovations more quickly than other species. How much more quickly would we evolve if we had natural laboratories to demonstrate wholesale transformation to a sustainable future as a system?

Islands are the jewels we have been seeking -- the microcosm of the challenges we face in transforming the infrastructure that delivers basic human needs from the fossil fuel-based paradigm of last century into the sustainable systems vision of the 21st century. Islands are systems unto themselves. They offer us the ability to define solutions that work on a scale large enough to be commercially replicated, while being small enough to be executed in a matter of years, not decades.

Hawai'i is one of the most isolated land masses on earth: approximately 2,500 miles from the nearest major port, home to more than 1.3 million people, who import more than 80 percent of their food and energy needs. A major hurricane, tsunami or malevolent act of man could cripple the infrastructure that was largely designed and installed during the two decades after statehood, during an age where fossil fuel was cheap and abundant; when no one could imagine that the price of gasoline would rise above $1 a gallon. During this period, Hawai'i adopted the technologies and business models of the rest of the country, only on a much smaller scale.

When the inevitable change came, and oil prices rose to more than $100 a barrel, the business models failed. Most of the dairies, poultry, and hog farms closed; electric rates skyrocketed to unthinkable levels -- three to four times the national average; the economy shuddered and the state fell into recession. Hawai'i became the U.S. canary in the proverbial coal mine, the harbinger of a dying fossil age.

In this blog, we will discuss the rebirth of a new age that springs from sustainable technologies and business models at full commercial scale. You will hear from voices in business, government, the non-profit community, and everyday people from different generations. We will discuss how to operate, manage, regulate, and profit from a distributed utility with more than 50 percent renewable energy, and what it takes to fully move to 100 percent renewable energy. We will debate the merits of biofuels, and whether technologies are ready for a new feed-and-fuel paradigm. We will explore how social networks can catalyze widespread energy efficiency. We will discuss a new distributed architecture for utility systems, and what this means for rethinking the relationship between the utility and its customers. We will move beyond the romantic tales of small farmers and ask the harder questions of whether the predicted Malthusian catastrophe of a population of 9 billion humans outpacing food production can be averted through sustainable agriculture. We will discuss the challenges of transition from the feedlot-based industrial agriculture to grass-fed precision husbandry.

We won't have all the solutions.

Our islands will teach us how to frame the right questions.