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Henry Curtis


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POSTED: Friday, May 15, 2009

The nonprofit group Life of the Land manages to weigh in on a vast array of issues vital to Hawaii residents, despite having only two paid staffers and relying largely on private donations.

Founded in 1970 by a group of women alarmed that raw sewage was then being pumped into the ocean, the group is best known for promoting sustainable land use and energy policies—but it also advocates for open government, civil rights, gender equality and other quality-of-life issues.

Executive director Henry Curtis, 56, a graduate of New York's Queens College who has lived in Hawaii since 1991, is known for his expertise on energy regulatory policy. He's optimistic about Hawaii's ability to wean itself off fossil fuels, and says the state's future depends on it.

Question: What are the biggest environmental issues in Hawaii right now?

Answer: The biggest issues facing Hawaii environmentally are climate change and self-reliance, that is whether we are going to become energy and agriculture self-sufficient or whether we are going keep depending on external supplies ... At the moment, we ship into Hawaii over 90 percent of our energy and agricultural needs ... If we were more independent we could design our economy to support the local populations ... rather than having to design it to attract capital from elsewhere.

Q: What fundamental changes are needed?

A: If we start with energy, we have the capability to produce all we need, 20 times over ... yet when you really look at the state's initiative to have 70 percent clean energy by 2030, only about 28 percent of that is renewable energy. It's more about how you spin it and less about what you're actually achieving.

Q: What about development as an environmental issue?

A: One example is the proposed rail system for Honolulu. We said that transportation and land use are intertwined. Building a rail system will greatly impact land use and the two of them have to be looked at together. What areas will be for ag use, development, affordable housing, urbanization? Let's look at the whole picture. And we were told 'no, we are looking at a very narrow focus, we're not looking at the side effects, we're not looking at the impact.' It's the unintended side effects of policies that often come back and bite us.

Q: Do you oppose the project?

A: Life of the Land does not have a position for or against the rail. We do believe that both above ground and at-ground have to be looked at, but we haven't taken a position on the rail itself.

Q: What consequences do you foresee?

A: Let's assume (for the sake of discussion) that the new transit system works perfectly, providing rapid transport from Kapolei to Downtown. That means that agricultural areas around Kapolei could be rapidly urbanized and developed ... Waianae is already overtaxed, overused, and if you have a rapid population surge right next to it, that will impact the Waianae Coast. There has been talk of converting the entire area along the rail line to have mid-rise or high-rise buildings. That would elevate the whole skyline. Those issues grow out of the rail but are being excluded from the debate over rail impacts.

Q: Life of the Land was among a coalition of community groups rallying at the Capitol earlier this month in favor of civil unions. How does that issue fit your mission?

A: People are a very important part of the environment. The reason that we are working on environmental issues is both to protect the flora and fauna, but also the quality of life for the people ... because when a community is healthy the people care more about the environment ...

Q: How do you balance environmental goals with the realities of modern life?

A: We say society has certain (lifestyle) expectations right now, so how can we achieve them in a sustainable matter? ... One of the ways out of our huge dependence on fossil fuel is to install a lot of energy-saving devices everywhere, but it's been known for 150 years that energy-efficiency does not lead to less energy use ... The only way of really changing is to get people to reduce demand or switch to renewable sources, and while both are admirable, we focus on the latter.

Q: What are the most promising renewable energy sources?

A: To achieve energy independence you need some source of energy that works all the time. Wind, sun and waves are all great, but they all are intermittent. OTEC (ocean thermal energy conversion) is very promising. (The renewable energy technology, being tested on the Big Island, uses the difference in temperature between the ocean's warmer surface and colder depths to generate electricity.) The combination of OTEC and the intermittent sources could make us energy independent.