Maui is Speaking— and We Had Better Listen

Pictured: A scenic view of Hawaiian nature. Photo by Claudy Boy, a friend of the author's, December 2022.
Pictured: A scenic view of Hawaiian nature. Photo by Claudy Boy, a friend of the author's, December 2022.

By Hayat Imam

Fear turned to relief when my friend’s son, a teacher in Maui, sent a Facebook message: he was safe. I was particularly distressed by this situation as I had known him since he was a little boy, but also because my friend had visited him in Maui and sent me many pictures and stories of the wonders of this stunning place. Still fresh in my mind, it hurt that these images began to be quickly replaced by pictures of Maui burning. Nearly three thousand structures were destroyed, and many souls departed. In this orgy of destruction, the only bright spot was the historic hundred and fifty-year-old Banyan tree in Maui that still stood in spite of some damage.

The town of Lahaina, hardest hit in the Maui fire, was the 1802 capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom of King Kamehameha. As home to Hawaii’s Royal Family, this whole area contained significant cultural treasures. The Kingdom’s rich art, artifacts, statues, stories, historic records were all largely destroyed by the fire—a whole heritage wiped out. Undoubtedly, this most wondrous of places on earth has been sacrificed, so we can fully feel the shock and horror of our times in our deepest selves. This new story of another Paradise Lost, and with it our innocence again, must finally wake us up. It is past time for us to sincerely internalize the lessons of this tragedy.

First, we must realize that Earth is in a fossil fueled state of immense vulnerability. Mainstream media occasionally admits that global warming is caused by human behaviors and even, sometimes, that global warming contributes to climate change; but it is the rare mainstream journalist who pointedly makes the connection that global warming itself is the result of carbon emissions directly linked to burning oil and gas. To save ourselves and the planet, we have no choice left but to urgently mobilize towards an energy path away from fossil fuels. And we as citizens and consumers must also face up to the reality that our gluttonous lifestyles are inextricably linked to fossil fuels – and must change.

Second, we must accept that we are all in this together. This tragedy confirms that the world is a very small place indeed, and that we are all deeply enmeshed and intertwined. There is nowhere to run: We are all in Maui. Global warming is melting the ice caps, raising sea levels, shaking up wind patterns, and all of these are impacting one another. The scale of the Maui fires was linked to Hurricane Dora, some hundreds of miles away out at sea. The storm changed the balance of atmospheric pressure, creating heavy wind gusts that raced at 81 miles per hour towards land! These winds in turn caused small brush fires to flare up uncontrollably and move rapidly at a mile a minute, engulfing large portions of the island, and taking everything in its path. This was the deadliest wildfire in US history. And this is not a one-off event. As I write, dangerous hurricanes are forming off the coast of Florida.

Third, we must ensure adequate coordination and preparedness to deal with climate disasters when they strike. Throughout the Maui fires, electric grids were down at crucial moments and Maui residents found there were no warning sirens activated by the county or the State. Nor were they alerted to plans for evacuation. When residents tried to flee the flames in their own cars, they faced traffic jams on roads that were blocked for hours. Some had to jump into the ocean to escape the flames, and many did not survive. The suffering of the vulnerable, the elderly, the children, the disabled, is unimaginable. As a final straw, there was no supply of water at hand to defeat the flames, and even the fire hydrants were dry.

Bureaucrats and politicians downplay the crises that loom ahead of us. They promise much, but in the end deliver little. And by the time chaos surrounds us, it is too late. What we must all shoulder, on top of everything else, is the job of being non-stop advocates for our own communities. The sirens were silent during the fire, but it is up to us to be the Sirens of this age who warn of severe climate change and impending disaster if we continue our heedless path. In that capacity, let us look at the harsh lessons that are still to come.

The United States will now have to address its greatest folly in Hawaii- unbalanced and rapacious development. I am embarrassed to admit that it is only after the tragic fires of Maui that I thought to ask how had Hawaii been acquired by the USA in the first place, since Hawaii used to be a sovereign nation under the constitutional monarchy of Queen Lili’ uokalani? In brief, by the mid 1800’s, the beautiful weather of Hawaii had attracted US entrepreneurs with colonial ambitions who bought up large tracts of land for monocultures of pineapple crops and sugar cane. These handfuls of wealthy families and conglomerates were bent on immediate profits as the driving force, rather than any long-term vision of well-being for all.

Wealth gave these sugar and pineapple planters such excessive amounts of power that, aided by Christian missionaries and the U.S. Marines, they were able to depose the Queen. Shortly afterwards, President McKinley annexed the Islands of Hawaii in 1898, securing a strategic naval base in the Pacific Ocean. It tells us the whole story when we note that the name of the first Governor President McKinley installed in Hawaii is Sanford Dole, a family member of the Dole Pineapple Company. Hawaii was soon overrun by foreigners who outnumbered the native population.

We could say that the fire in Maui began 200 years ago, with the unsparing depletion of the very resources that made Hawaii a lush and fertile ground for agriculture – as well as a beloved tourist destination. The tourist industry increasingly pursued a similar trajectory of excess and imbalance, allowing unlimited numbers of visitors each year. Long before the fire, Maui’s natural resources were being depleted at an alarming rate. Industrial agriculture and tourism used up millions of gallons of underground water and dried up the bounties of wetlands throughout Hawaii. In its natural form, Maui would never have burned. This lack of diversification has left the country without a cushion in the middle of this present crisis.

Unbridled and unbalanced growth also forged a crisis of democracy. Small numbers of wealthy Hawaiians and corporations monopolized decision making, ignoring the wisdom and experience of local people and traditional elders. In this moment of reckoning these voices are desperately needed to reimagine the process of development, which requires a complete shift. Otherwise, we are bound to experience the heat and winds of outraged nature again.

If tourism is still the path forward, it must be done differently for the survival of the Islands, and for future generations to have a chance. But this is easier said than done, as rebuilding will require heavy financial resources. And, no surprise, Naomi Klein’s well-articulated ‘shock doctrine’ is already in play, and offshore developers are jumping in to make quick money with the usual tourist traps. We can be sure this version of tourism will prove to be as unsustainable and dangerous as before, despite the crying need to balance tourism with ecological priorities.

Thank you, Maui, for your final and most vital lesson: we are in the middle of an unparalleled climate change emergency. On September 17, 2023, a resounding call went out to President Biden from 75,000 people who participated in the March to End Fossil Fuels in New York City, to acknowledge this dire moment we are in, and declare a National Climate Change Emergency.

Hayat Imam is a member of MAPA’s board of directors.