A few months back the magazine U.S. News & World Report singled out Timbuktu, in Mali, Western Africa, as a town much the same as it was 1,000 years ago.
Population about 15,000...all structures the tan color of the surrounding desert, mostly mud brick walls on dusty streets...three mosques made of dried mud...a river port that is hardly more than a muddy embankment...access roads that are mostly tracks on the desert...stalked then, as now, by low-grade war, starvation and distrust.
Electricity has been added. TV, too. And sporadic air service. The town even recalls a mid-millennium period when its population grew to 100,000, with an enlightened judicial system and a great Islamic university whose manuscript collection remains in Timbuktu today, perhaps its greatest glory other than its widely known name.
A friend from Hawaii flying in Africa once encountered a black doctor from Atlanta headed to Timbuktu to trace his roots. They met again on a return trip and the doctor confided he was very thankful his ancestors had been forced to leave the place.
I recall these stories as we enter the year 2000 in the hope that Hawaii by the year 3000 won't also be a romantic name but a terrible place our descendants will be glad to have left behind.
An outlandish idea? I hope so. An impossibility? No way!
As part of an exercise for the East-West Center in 1988 I constructed some future scenarios for Hawaii. I gave them names like Disaster Scenario (we do everything wrong), Backwater, Third World, Fortress Hawaii, and Nostalgia Scenario (romantic but impractical).
I had a final glorious one I called Future State in which we embrace change and turn it fully to Hawaii's advantage.
Some of the variables involved our future decision making include:
Will we accept a global world or reject it in favor of super-isolationism?We have today the great asset of being the world's most harmonious multi-cultural community, one that over 41 years as a state has had a rainbow of elected governors -- Caucasian, Japanese, Hawaiian and Filipino.
Will we become a Third World country with vulgar extremes of wealth and poverty and not much in between?
Will we protect Hawaii's natural beauty or muck up our green hills, clean air, clean streams and clean beaches?
Will we use our development controls to see that growth is paced to the carrying capacity of our transport systems, water supplies, sewage disposal and the like?
(My personal belief is that we can have a happy population many times our present 1.2 million if we do it right and pace it properly. After all, Singapore has more than 3 million people on an island smaller than Molokai, yet maintains high standards.)
Will we seek a vibrant cultural life or be content to be a cultural backwater? (Opinions vary as to what constitutes a rich cultural life. Great cities have something for everyone.)
This is a delicate balance helped by the fact we all are in minorities. Can we keep it that way? Can we avoid stirring up the kind of hatreds now tearing apart the former Yugoslavia and some parts of Africa?
If we fail on too many of these points, Timbuktu here we come.
A.A. Smyser is the contributing editor
and former editor of the the Star-Bulletin
His column runs Tuesday and Thursday.