Saturday, 19 March 2016

HAWAII: Is sovereignty the wrong issue?

As the poster above for today's meeting shows, the debate over Hawaiian sovereignty is hot. Last month, a draft constitution for Native Hawaiians was agreed - behind locked and guarded gates - by an organisation called Nai Upuni. Although they are supported financially by the State’s Office of Hawaiian Affairs, their claim to be representative of indigenous groups is vigorously opposed by another association called ʻAha Aloha ʻĀina(1). In response to a lawsuit and U.S. Supreme Court ruling, the proposed ratification vote has now been cancelled(2).

There are wrongs to be righted. The campaigning site Cultural Survival outlines some of the difficulties of the marginalised and exploited "first nation" Hawaiians(3). Many have had to move to mainland USA for a better life - there are some 90,000 in Las Vegas aka "the ninth island"(4). In their own ancestral lands, Native Hawaiians are now a minority - exactly how small, depends on how you define them; maybe 10% - 20% of residents. There is more than one reason for this: numbers of Native Hawaiians crashed after European contact in the late eighteenth century, as imported diseases swept through the population, but also there has been a large influx of Asians and Americans in modern times, especially since the illegal(5) annexation of the country by the US following a coup by sugar businessmen(6, 7, 8).

Even compensatory help for Native Hawaiians is limited, as Amy Sun explains: "In 1921, Congress passed the 'Hawaiian Homes Commission Act,' which [set aside merely] 3% of the total land for Native Hawaiians. [...] 'Native Hawaiian' is defined as a person who is at least 50% Native Hawaiian. So if you [have less than this proportion], you lose your right to homestead." Sun also notes that Native Hawaiians are over-represented among the State's homeless(9). The need for a collective voice is obvious.

But there could be as much danger as opportunity in seeking a separate kind of citizenship - the example of Native Americans is not heartening. Besides, as President of the Grassroots Institute Keli’i Akina commented, "This [constitutional exercise] represents a significant waste of funds that could have been better used on the projects that Hawaiians truly care about–like health care, job training, housing, and education."(10) In addition, sovereignty activists must surely be aware of the possibility of legal (or tactical) traps in constitutional processes - think of the 1959 Hawaii plebiscite, in which residents voted on whether to remain a territory or become a US State (11). Crucially, independence for Hawaiians was not on offer in 1959, and to have voted either of the two given choices could be taken as implicit abandonment of claims to national freedom. It's been argued that this subtle stratagem cuts across a UN Resolution made some years before, so perhaps international legal challenge is still possible(12).

Having said that, is it geopolitically realistic to expect the USA to relinquish its hold on the islands, especially at a time when China is forging closer links with one Pacific nation after another?

Irrespective of the machinations of empires, the status quo is not an option in the long term, for a far greater factor for change is involved: sustainability. This is a global issue, which impacts heavily on Hawaii. The State has a population of around 1.4 million; even without 50,000 military personnel and an average 200,000 tourists at any one time, there are well over a million permanent residents. Estimates of numbers in 1778 vary widely - between 200,000 and anything up to a million(13) - but whatever the actual figure, the lifestyle then was dramatically less resource-intensive per capita. How much longer can a large, high-burn civilisation last in Hawaii?

Take energy: despite having the third-lowest per capita energy use in the USA in 2013, Hawaii imported 91% of its needs in that year(14). The goal is to move to 100% renewable energy by 2045, but even now this is beginning to look like wishful thinking(15). Besides, the devices involved in renewable energy production imply a vast network of enterprises, just as with Adam Smith's 1776 example of pin manufacture(16)  - except that those modern enterprises also mostly consume non-animal/non-human energy. The foundation of the world's technological network is vulnerable.

Then there's food: again, 90% is imported and modern agriculture and food management is also highly energy-intensive(17).

How long have we got, to make changes for survival? "If the world continues to consume fossil fuels at 2006 rates, the reserves of oil, coal and gas will last a further 40, 200 and 70 years, respectively," said a survey in 2007(18). There's lots of ifs and buts in arriving at such an estimate, yet the message clearly is: not forever.

Does that 200 years of coal sound reassuring? Polynesians came to Hawaii at least 800 years ago. We need a perspective reaching beyond our own brief personal lifetimes. After all the desperate attempts at technical fixes, human societies will have to simplify their way of life and shrink their numbers. It is perhaps not too much to suggest that the successors of the tribes that today are oppressed, exploited, undermined, pitied, patronised and romanticised could one day simply be what is left of humanity, provided all is not consumed in some Rapa Nui-like madness. While addressing issues of social justice now, we must also plan for that great transition.

Traditional societies are not relics of the past: they are our ultimate future.
(5) See this interview with Professor Williamson Chang:
(11) Remaining a territory could have been worse: only this week, American Samoans - who are ruled by, yet not citizens of the US - have asked the Supreme Court to rule on whether they should be granted birthright citizenship:
(12) "One of the many obligations as stated in U.N. Resolution 742 in 1953 declares that one of the 'factors indicative of the attainment of independence or of other separate systems of self-government,' is 'freedom of choosing on the basis of the right of self-determination of peoples between several possibilities including independence.' -
(18) S. Shafiee & E. Topal, "An overview of fossil fuel reserve depletion time", University of Queensland - 

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