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Incorporating Hawaiian cultural concepts into today's society

Sustainability / As modern Hawai’i residents ponder how to achieve sustainability, they needn’t search far for guidance.

‘All we have to do is look to our ancestors,’ says Ramsay Taum, who as founder of the Life Enhancement Institute lectures and teaches on ways to incorporate Hawaiian cultural concepts into today’s society.

One common misconception, however, is that adopting culturally-based, traditional systems entails the need to ‘go back someplace,’ says Taum, who is also director of external relations and community partnerships for the University of Hawai’i-Manoa’s School of Travel Industry Management and operations director for Hawai’i Nature Center.

Instead, he sees it as ‘bringing forward those principles and practices our ancestors utilized and employed. It may mean a hybrid of low-tech and high-tech opportunities.’

Pre-contact kanaka maoli lived in harmony with their environment and achieved fuel- and food-sufficiency, feeding a population now estimated at 800,000, he says. They did it by embracing certain values and practices, and the ahupua’a concept was a cornerstone.

In days of old, the islands were divided into sections that ran from the mountains to the sea. Each ahupua’a had resources, and residents traded with others to get what they needed in a decentralized, family-based cooperative approach.

The state has adopted that concept as the framework for discussing its 2050 sustainability plan, a move Taum considers promising’and indicative of a larger trend.

‘There are a number of people who are accepting that model,’ he says. ‘They’re willing to do what others have already done, to learn from what they did and how they did it and accept the over-arching values that go with it.’

Chief among them is aloha, he says. ‘Although it’s overused, fundamentally aloha really acknowledges sustainability because it’s about reciprocity. It’s about giving and receiving.’

While an ahupua’a is usually defined in topographical terms, ‘the system of ahupua’a is not just a physical place,’ Taum says. ‘It necessitated balancing the behavior of people as well as management practices.’

This was done through the concepts of aloha ‘aina’approaching that which feeds you with an awareness of reciprocity’and malama ‘aina ‘caring for that resource and exercising thoughtful stewardship.

‘That’s not to say it’s an anti-development mentality, but a balanced approach,’ the director says. ‘The ahupua’a was an engineered environment, but in manipulating the earth, Hawaiians found a symbiotic rather than parasitic relationship.’

In achieving that balance, one also has to consider how to maintain the authenticity of a place and quality of life, he says, ‘and that requires a great deal of respect. It leads back to aloha and on to kuleana, which means not just responsibility, but stewardship.’

Taum adds, ‘If you want to enjoy certain privileges in Hawai’i, such as build a successful business, you have a responsibility to give back and not just take out.’

Under a traditional Hawaiian model, he says, ‘it’s not so much what I’ve gotten personally, but what we’ve done collectively. Each of us is responsible for the success of the others. There’s a consciousness or awareness you are part of the system and you spend your time doing your part. And if you do that, then you’re pono. Prosperity would be a measurement of how pono someone is.’

Through it all, the individual is motivated by an awareness that ‘my behavior is affecting others more than just myself, and that comes down to kuleana,’ he adds.

Taum says he is ‘cautiously optimistic’ that the Islands are moving toward a culturally-based model of sustainability. ‘The yellow light is on only because I don’t think there are enough people who understand the system, even in the Hawaiian community, or if they do, they aren’t being consulted.’

He also acknowledges that ‘we have a long way to go to learn how to operationalize these principles in contemporary times.’