Environmental perspectives from Hawaii

DOWNEY - This column will be coming to you from Hawaii over the next couple of weeks, where my wife and I are combining vacation with a work conference. The island state of Hawaii has a plethora of environmental complexities to deal with, and the airline passenger is reminded of this as, prior to landing, you're asked to fill out the Hawaii Department of Agriculture "Plants and Animals Declaration Form":"ALOHA and Welcome to Hawai'i. Many plants and animals from elsewhere in the world can be harmful to our unique environment, agriculture, and communities. Please help to protect Hawai'i by not bringing harmful pests into our state." More on this in a moment, but by now you're possibly asking "how, Lars, can you call yourself an environmentalist and justify traveling on a jet plane that guzzles fossil fuel like there's no tomorrow?" The simple answer is that I'm not ready to give up the joys and pleasures of visiting such a beautiful environment. But I've also run the numbers: according to a 2009 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the most recent figure for average fuel consumption per airline seat is about 58 mpg. At that rate my portion of the 2,500 mile trip from LA to Maui will consume about 86 gallons of fuel, round trip. As I've mentioned previously, my bike commute to work in Culver City is 35 miles round trip. So it will take about 60 trips, or 12 weeks commuting to work on my bike, to compensate for my Toyota Camry's 25 mpg consumption of the equivalent 86 gallons of gas from LA to Maui and back, if I were to drive to work. We could call that my carbon offset for the luxury of flying to Maui. And I assure you I'll start pedaling as soon as I get home. From another perspective, that 86 gallons creates about 1720 pounds of CO2. I could also count that against the 18+ tons--yes, tons--of CO2 my whole house solar electric has saved since it was installed in 2009. Forgive me for flaunting these two luxuries. That said, I would describe the solar as not a luxury, but a commitment--a commitment to transition into a future with new options for energy and for sustainable living. And this is where the relationship between Hawaii's environmental challenges and those of the City of Downey meet. Because the whole planet is in transition, and the challenges of a small, relatively isolated island like Maui demonstrate in relief the challenges that Downey either already faces to some degree, or will soon face, albeit on a less intrusive scale. For example, returning to the state's mandatory plant and animal declaration for incoming travelers, Hawaiian visitors have been importing non-native plants and animals since before recorded history, including not only pigs--ironic, considering the main dish at a lu'au--but numerous types of invasive plants and other animals. Mosquitoes arrived in the early 19th century, brought in as revenge, according to an old myth, by a jilted non-Hawaiian sailor. Those mosquitoes are now responsible for the near extinction of Hawaiian bird species due to the transmission of avian malaria. Banyan trees, a type of ficus, were also imported to Hawaii. In Lahaina, close to where we're staying, there's a banyan tree that takes up most of a city block. Similarly, ficus trees, once a prime choice for tree planting in Downey, are now viewed as invasive by the City of Downey Public Works division responsible for trees, partly because they grow so fast as to disrupt sidewalks and street paving. By the same token, both California and Hawaii have only one native palm tree each--a fact whose irony, given all the luscious palm tree artwork for both states, is underlined every day I look across the street at my neighbor's house, which is almost completely landscaped in palm trees. The broad principle at work here is that native plants, native animals, and native insects all interactively benefit the native environment. Non-native flora and fauna, on the other hand, almost universally disrupt it. Comparing Maui and Downey is also true on other levels that impact the environment. For example, the Hawaiian islands of both Kauai and Maui have recently banned plastic shopping bags, although plastic produce bags are still permitted. With this year's expiration of California's current law regarding plastic shopping bags, and the potentially imminent passage of a plastic bag ban by the City of L.A., Downey may also be looking at changes in plastic bag laws in the very near future. Another comparison is obvious. Hawaii is running out of landfill space, such that several of the Hawaiian islands have already begun to export their trash. Likewise, the Puente Hills Landfill will close this November, and communities throughout the Los Angeles area, including Downey, will have to address the challenges of where to dispose of their trash, including the possibility of export to the Mesquite Regional Landfill in Imperial County. So, in a nutshell, Hawaii's challenges represent a litmus test for other modern communities in a transitional global environment. And Downey is certainly one of them.

********** Published: Febuary 7, 2013 - Volume 11 - Issue 43