Putting the life back in science fiction

The Future Looks Like Hawai’i?

Haven’t posted for a month, because (among other things) I’ve been out marching with posters and everything (Marches for Science and Climate), and then I went on vacation for two weeks to the Big Island of Hawai’i.  And in honor of the vacation, I’d like to post about one of the more misleading thoughts I’ve had for years: the future looks like Hawai’i.

I’m sure you’re now thinking of girls in grass skirts and coconut bras dancing to the ukelele under the coconut trees by the beach while you eat mahi mahi, avoid the bowl of poi,  and drink mai tais  while you wait to be entertained, and that’s the image I don’t want to promulgate.  That’s the Hawaiian fantasy of cruise ships and expensive luaus, and that’s not at all what I’m talking about here.

No, I’m thinking of the real Hawai’i.  We stayed a week each in two vacation rentals, one on the southeast Puna side (the rainforest where, it is said, the government likes to relocate its witnesses) and one in the Kailua-Kona area on the touristy west coast, near where the chiefs used to seat their royal rumps when they weren’t out playing their version of the game of thrones.

So what do I mean by the future looks Hawaiian?

–The people are ethnic, often indeterminately so.  They’re really hard working (the work traffic on the Kona side started before 6 AM), but mostly not paid so well.  Meanwhile, a lot of the land is bound up in big ranches (like the Parker Ranch), resorts, and other such things.  So a few rich people, and a lot of people working hard to get by.  Sound familiar?

–It’s kinda hot and humid all the time, unless you go up in altitude, which means you go somewhere into the island’s interior, which isn’t flat to speak of.  The Big Island at 4,000 square miles is a bit smaller than LA County (or Connecticut), but when you realize that it’s basically all one big volcano with a bunch of subsidiary cones, you understand that it’s literally oozing topography (from Kilauea).  And geography too, with a desert in the center and the tallest mountain on Earth.  Indeed, much of the island (including the high ranch areas on the northwest and Hilo) remind me more of Oregon than of a tropical paradise.  At least if you don’t look at the plants too hard.

–Speaking of the plants, that’s the eyecatching thing for a botanist: it’s mostly weeds, unless you’re really high up, in which case it’s just fairly weedy.  There are great rolling grasslands composed primarily of introduced pennisetum grass, with eucalyptus for shade (or Mexican mesquite down lower, or Brazilian peppertrees).  Parts of the Kohala range look for all the world like Oregon, and the saddle between Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea looks like eastern Oregon, unless you know your plants.  On the Puna side, there were native Ohi’a trees, but they were interspersed with all sorts of things, including the Schefflera actinophylla, the octopus tree, which is a close relative of the Scheffleras we neglect as house plants.    Most of the birds are non-native, as are almost all the mammals, the lizards, the coqui frogs, the…you get the picture.  When climate change takes off and everything’s migrating, I’d expect California and many other places to be more like weedy ol’ Hawai’i.

–Oh, and the Ohi’a trees are being taken out by Rapid Ohi’a Death, caused by the fungus (probably a species complex) Ceratocystis fimbriata This is another one of them difficult problems, and there were shoe cleaning stations at the entrances to many parks.

–If you read Hawaiian history, you’ll find out that King Kamehameha I, who was born on the northwestern tip of the island on one of the windiest areas I’ve ever seen a small airport in (did you know a Cessna could hover?  Neither did I.  That’s headwind it dealt with right after it took off, and I’m only slightly exaggerating), presided over a population crash from somewhere north of half a million people when Captain Cook arrived (extrapolating from their estimates of 400,000-500,000), to somewhere around 130,000 people when the first missionaries ran a census fifty years later.  That’s the effect of the virgin ground pandemics that hit the chain, starting with Cook.  While the social system did break down (the tapu system was abandoned, Christianity was promulgated, the Parker Ranch was founded on what used to be densely populated farmland…), the monarchy did not break down for another hundred years or so, and that’s an important hint for how radical depopulation could play out.  Total anarchy is not guaranteed, and indeed, some people may use the disruption to grow wealthy and/or powerful.

I could and probably should go on and discuss the chaos that will happen when the islands are cut off from the mainland, but I’ll leave it there.  As Gibson noted, the future is already here, but it’s just not very evenly distributed.  I’d suggest that Hawai’i shows many aspects of that future.  Unfortunately, and especially on the Kona side, the place is getting over-run with California-style gated communities and planned developments, with malls of multinationals, tract housing, the whole nine yards.  The irony here is that a somewhat hopeful view of our possibly dystopian future is getting over-written by the greed of the present.  But that’s the kind of stuff I go on vacation to see, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.