Join us at sustainability summit

Whenever I need to write something important that is longer than a page, I find that it helps to allow the topic to rattle around in my head for a while. I found that in graduate school, that period lasted about three weeks on average, and then I would pull the proverbial all-nighter and the words would pour forth.

Procrastination was my constant companion, and it seemed that I could not actually put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard until just before the due date, even as I counseled my writing students to do as I said and not as I did!


Now, when so much of what I do is driven by deadlines, I have tried to pull back from that last-minute practice, but the rattling around in my head stage is still necessary, which is why, of late, I have been thinking a lot about sustainability in preparation for giving one of the keynote presentations at the upcoming Hawaii County Sustainability Summit.

The term is used in so many ways — environmental, economic, cultural — and each is important to our collective future in its own way. We often see examples of economic sustainability interfering with environmental sustainability in that the least expensive way is sometimes the most costly to the environment.

Take plastics, for example, which are durable and cheap and lightweight, but which seem to have an infinite shelf life, still present in the environment years later as we see them wash up on our beautiful shores, entangled in our marine life.

Similarly, the environmental cost of the pandemic has been great, as we try to maintain the health of our community. Instead of eating indoors and risking exposure, many of us turned to takeout, with its disposable containers and utensils. The good news here is that many of these items are now compostable, but it took a long time to get to that point. Similarly, think of all the masks and gloves that we are using at an alarming rate to keep the pandemic at bay.

As I think about the various challenges that surround sustainability in Hawaii, however, I am heartened by the knowledge generated by our university and the knowledge inherent in our Native Hawaiian community. If we are to create a sustainable present so that we can have a future, we need to draw on both these sources of knowledge and expertise.

At UH-Hilo, we have research and teaching in many areas of sustainability as well as campus practices that sustain us. Everything from a campus composting program to replacing lights with more energy efficient models helps us contribute to environmental sustainability.

Meanwhile, our faculty and students conduct research and teach the practices of sustainable agriculture, tropical ecology and conservation, among other things. Recently, our Ka Haka ‘Ula O Ke‘elikolani College of Hawaiian Language has begun to plant traditional plants on the makai side of their building to provide a learning and living space as they simultaneously work toward sustaining Native Hawaiian language and culture.

Also in the area of cultural and community sustainability, our academic programs concentrate on rural issues, as much of our island population lives in rural areas. The rural nature of much of our island allows us to enjoy lush green landscapes, rugged lava strewn trails, and productive family farms and ranches. People living in these areas, however, need access to good education, health care, and other services, and UH-Hilo helps prepare that workforce and our research informs the efforts of those services.

Educating the workforce of this island and nurturing students’ agency as responsible citizens is perhaps the most important way the university contributes to the sustainability of our island in all its facets.

I often say how the future of UH-Hilo is inextricably linked to the future of our island and state. A joint commitment to sustainability efforts in our county is one way we assure that our community will not only survive but thrive well into the future.


I hope many of you will be able to attend the sustainability summit next week ( ), joining fellow citizens in a discussion of how we sustain and improve life on the island.

Bonnie D. Irwin is chancellor of the University of Hawaii at Hilo. Her column appears monthly in the Tribune-Herald.

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