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Missed opportunities


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POSTED: Sunday, August 16, 2009

The air shimmers with heat as thousands of cars inch along the H-1 freeway, their exhaust pipes spewing fumes as the engines labor to keep the occupants in air-conditioned comfort.

Bored and restless, a few drivers taste forbidden fruit, surreptitiously sending text messages or browsing the Web on their iPhones or Blackberries.

That is a defining snapshot of Hawaii 50 years after statehood, an era of speedy communications, traffic gridlock and an enduring, unhealthy reliance on fossil fuels. Sure, there are other issues: a sour economy, lost jobs, environmental degradation, drug addiction, obesity, same-sex marriage.

But communications and commutes are nearly universal experiences, at least on Oahu.

How would we explain to a resident in 1959 what life is like today?

Start by saying most folks own a Dick Tracy two-way wrist radio, only it's not a radio and we don't wear it on our wrists. Still, our wireless devices give us access to a worldwide communications network, something unimaginable a few decades ago.

It comes in especially handy when we run out of gas during rush hour and have to call for roadside assistance, a state program launched this year to keep stalled vehicles from making highway jams even worse.

The vaunted Second City was aimed at the traffic problem. It even came with a conjured Hawaiian name: Kapolei.

The idea was that residents of Ewa and Makakilo and Waipio would not have to drive into town if they had jobs in their neighborhood. But those jobs have been slow to materialize, and today most West Oahu workers still slog into the urban corridor, then home again in the afternoon, staring into a merciless sun each way.

It wasn't supposed to be like this.

A decade after statehood, Gov. John Burns lent his support to a project aimed at charting a course for Hawaii through the end of the century.

With involvement by more than 2,000 residents from a variety of disciplines, the Hawaii 2000 Task Force met for more than a year in 1969 and 1970 and articulated an ambitious agenda for the 50th state, including a bright vision of economic security.

“;Technology will free all but a small percentage of the population from work most of the time,”; the final report predicted. “;Work days will be shorter, work weeks may be only a couple of days, long vacations will be more common, workers will start their careers later in life and retire earlier than at present, free to seek an avocation. Everyone, whether he works or not, will receive a guaranteed annual income.”;

Today it's true that many people are working less—having lost their jobs in the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. But in other regards the prediction remains as laughably off base in 2009 as it was in 2000.

The report also envisioned a future with electric vehicles powered by renewable energy sources and a free system of alternative transportation with “;safe, flexible, reliable service.”;

Today, as the city embarks on a $5 billion light rail transit system from Kapolei to Ala Moana—due to be completed in 2019—Hawaii remains as dependent on fossil fuels as it was when King Kalakaua flicked a switch to illuminate Iolani Palace with electricity in 1886. His power source: coal.

“;We failed to follow through on what we knew at that time,”; says Jim Dator, a University of Hawaii political science professor who participated in the Hawaii 2000 deliberations, “;especially since many of the negative things were reinforced by the two oil crises of the 1970s that happened soon after the Hawaii 2000 activities. ... We failed to prepare for the energy, environmental and economic challenges of the present, all of which were very clearly identified in the 1970s as being things that needed to be fixed—or well on their way to solution—by the early years of the 21st century.”;

He added, “;We are nowhere nearer to solutions now than we were then, and in the case of all three—energy, environment and the economy—we have acted to make matters much, much worse in the intervening years.”;

Meanwhile, combustion engines contribute to a scenario unimaginable 50 years ago: a dramatically altered global climate from the rise in heat-trapping atmospheric gases. Rising sea levels, already inundating low-lying Pacific islands, could threaten Hawaii by midcentury.

The ocean itself, once seemingly pollution-proof, now serves as a repository for all manner of detritus, from foam cups to plastic bags and cigarette lighters, all grimly in evidence along the eastern beaches of Kauai and at Keanahaki Beach on Niihau.

And while Hawaii repeatedly ranks among the healthiest states, an epidemic of crystal methamphetamine use has left deep social scars over at least a generation.

Crystal meth, or “;ice,”; surfaced in Hawaii in the early 1980s, and by 2006 U.S. Attorney Ed Kubo estimated that 30,000 Hawaii residents were meth users. Honolulu police no longer track meth arrests, but in the early part of the decade, according to the Justice Department, more than 40 percent of people arrested on Oahu were on ice. The state estimates that 85 percent to 90 percent of the cases when a child is removed from a home are related to the drug.

The news is not all bad.

Hawaii's young people are smoking and drinking less, surveys show.

The recession could end as early as next year, economists say.

Sugar, once king, is long deposed, but agriculture remains alive in exotic crops like flowers, coffee, macadamia nuts and fruit.

And while discrimination has deep roots here, perhaps no other state enjoys more racial tolerance.

“;In the area of race relations, Hawaii does have something special to offer the nation and the world,”; says Bill Hoshijo, executive director of the Hawaii Civil Rights Commission. “;Generally, we do treat each other with uncommon respect and dignity. This is attributable to the culture that Hawaiians have shared with us and our collective history of struggle to build a more just society. We do some things well but we need to do better.”;

The state still hopes to tap into a high-tech future.

One vision, shared by Hawaiian Electric: undersea cables that bring power to Honolulu from wind farms on Lanai and Molokai.

But for Dator the futurist, the past is rife with missed opportunities.

“;Even though we knew in 1970 that the electronic and biological revolutions were under way—we really nailed those two as important drivers of the future—people in Hawaii did not do what was needed to be among the leaders in the development and use of those two technologies,”; he says. “;Instead we put all of our eggs in the easy but very fragile basket of mass tourism.”;

The best explanation borrows not from “;Dick Tracy,”; but another popular comic strip of the day, “;Pogo,”; who famously declared, circa 1970, “;We have met the enemy, and he is us.”;