We live in an unimaginable era of climate roulette. Scientific predictions of Earth-changing impacts – severe storms, sea level rise, glacial melting, drought-induced wildfires, and more – are already tangible in our lifetimes, and loom ominously for tomorrow’s generations.
A number of well-read authors have helped sound the clarion regarding human impacts on the planet, from Rachel Carson’s seminal Silent Spring, to Paul Ehrlich’s Population Bomb, and Bill McKibben’s 1989 climate change tome, The End of Nature. Some may regard these literary warnings as mere clucking of Chicken Little, yet they are rooted in the truth of our times.
Among these influential writers is Vermont-based journalist and author Judith Schwartz, who will be sharing her perspectives on climate change impacts, and the hope of mitigating them, with a Maui audience. The presentation is a part of the ongoing educational outreach of Maui Tomorrow Foundation, a local organization – known as much for filing lawsuits to enforce environmental and planning laws as for its core mission of educating the public and decision-makers to influence positive change – now celebrating its 30th year of leadership in environmental and community activism.
Following the end of Maui’s sugar operations in 2016, Maui Tomorrow released its influential Malama ‘Aina Report “to start the conversation about Maui’s Farming Future.” A regenerative agriculture vision prepared by permaculturist Jenny Pell, the report (available at Futureofmaui.org) broadly covers restorative techniques, practices, and opportunities in the post-sugar-plantation era.
Enter visiting author Schwartz, who has penned two compelling books explicating similar concepts and the relevance of soil and water in addressing climate change impacts. Cows Save the Planet, published in 2013, addresses “unmaking the deserts, rethinking climate change, bringing back biodiversity, and bringing nutrients to our food.” The provocative title, enough to give pause to any vegans in the room, invites the curious to re-examine what they might have heard about the relationship cattle have to climate change, and the complex role of grazing animals worldwide in the balance of healthy ecosystems.
Schwartz said she was drawn to write about soil after writing about economics. “Wealth is dependent upon healthy ecosystems,” she stated. “But we value the [extracted] derivatives, not the whole system. There is a design flaw in our economic model in that nature [as a whole] is given a value of zero.”
Through skillful storytelling and inspiring examples from around the world, Cows Save the Planet is an important call to action. Her second book, Water in Plain Sight (2016), explores the planet’s water cycles and how soil, plants, and animals as biological components fit into the system.
“We ask how climate stress will impact water,” she told me, “but we don’t ask how water affects climate.” If we ask, “How does the Earth manage heat?” Schwartz continued, we will come to understand that water cycles move heat. Plants also manage heat because they manage water.
“We often think of water as a noun, as something bounded by place,” said Schwartz in a National Geographic blog article. “I’ve come to regard water as a verb. Water is always in motion.” She went on to examine three ways that water moves: through infiltration into soils, transpiration through plants and trees, and condensation, a phenomenon she believes is especially relevant to humid places like Hawai‘i.
“With the level of moisture you have,” she stated, “restoration can happen very quickly.”
Fresh off the plane from the East Coast, Schwartz and her husband Tony attended the ‘Aina First-sponsored event featuring restoration ecologist Steven Apfelbaum last week. “I was impressed,” she remarked. “It’s wonderful to explore what’s possible to meet our collective needs in a way that’s inclusive and gives people a role. I like that respect seems to be at the heart of the discussion,” she added.
Schwartz is working on a third book, highlighting examples from around the world on mitigating impacts from climate change and poor stewardship of our planet. Restoration Flash Mob: The Curious Person’s Guide to Earth Repair, the working title, will cover dramatic turnarounds, such as the Loess Plateau in China, an area the size of Belgium which suffered widespread desertification but is now as verdant and green as before. It is likely that the author’s observations on Maui will be documented via a chapter in the new book.
If so, it will be among the ecologically visionary chapters Maui Tomorrow Foundation has been writing as an environmental advocacy and watchdog group. Born in the quest for SPAM (“State Park At Makena”) more than three decades ago, the organization has continued to address quality of life and planning issues.
“If there was no Maui Tomorrow, Maui would look a lot more like O‘ahu,” said Maui realtor and past MTF president Mark Sheehan. “Nearly forty years ago,” he added, “some Maui activists realized that county planning agencies were too busy permitting and approving developments, and not planning for Maui’s future. It became clear we needed an organization to protect Maui’s future.”
In the thirty years that have followed, MTF has often been at the forefront of vital and politically volatile planning issues: water use and stream diversion, South Maui resort development, affordable housing, airport runway lengthening, cultural site protection, shoreline erosion and armoring, urban sprawl, over-tourism, and local agriculture.
The group has taken to the courts to address potential community impacts and climate injustice as needed. The state Supreme Court agreed a decade ago that Hawai‘i Superferry should not have been allowed to operate without an Environmental Impact Statement. A current legal challenge is focused upon the inadequacy of the final EIS for a proposal to construct a $20-million, 60-foot tall digester and power plant at Kahului Wastewater Treatment Facility in the tsunami and sea level-rise inundation zones.
The group has been equally effective in taking innovative steps to bring about solutions, and direct negotiations with stakeholders. One of MTF’s original founders, planner Albert Perez, is the current executive director. Faced with an unpopular state Department of Transportation plan to place a 900-foot boulder revetment on the eroding shoreline of Olowalu, Perez took a tape measure to the Honoapi‘ilani Highway late one evening, when traffic was light. He determined there was sufficient pavement width to restripe the road as an interim measure, and convinced DOT to forego the shoreline structure while the long-term solution of highway relocation can be pursued.
Vice president, policy analyst, and historical researcher Lucienne deNaie helped forge an unprecedented settlement in planning for the Makena Resort lands. In marked contrast from initial development proposals, the signed agreement addresses downsizing density while preserving open space and view planes, water quality, beach parking, cultural site preservation and access, native plant preserves, affordable housing, and a community benefit fund.
As a persuasive voice for responsible growth and planning issues, Maui Tomorrow’s decision to sponsor Judith Schwartz’s lecture was easy, said Sheehan. “It is clearly a way to educate our supporters and community on carbon sequestration, regenerative ag, and food security in the era of climate catastrophe.”
Soil, Climate, and the Promise of Regenerative Agriculture
401 Baldwin Ave., Pa‘ia
Monday, April 8. 6:30-8:30pm
Image 1 courtesy Tony Eprile