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Editorial: Build a smarter, greener Hawaii

Wednesday was the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, and even those who may have been unaware of that milestone undoubtedly have noticed that the Earth has been having an unexpected period off.

Stay-at-home orders have compelled a virtual shutdown for tourism everywhere but especially here, owing to Hawaii’s isolation and insulation by the Pacific Ocean. This has been a crushing blow to the economy of the state, which is itching to get its businesses back to work.

The islands do want the tourists’ return, of course, but in the necessary abundance of caution against inviting them back too soon, Hawaii in past weeks has witnessed an unplanned experiment.

What happens when there is a sudden curb on traffic and outings in general? In Hawaii, just for starters: The nearshore water clears up, the beaches are peaceful and clean and the natural impact of human activity, or the lack of it, is evident. In big cities everywhere, there’s much less traffic and pollution on the highways, with a visible improvement in air quality.

But Hawaii can’t and won’t stay in this petri dish forever, nor should it for much longer if positive case-trends hold. So it would be wise to make the most of the lessons we all can learn from this life-changing yet instructive experience.

Alan Oshima, the retired Hawaiian Electric executive tapped to lead the work of the newly established Hawai’i Economic & Community Navigator (recoverynavigator.hawaii.gov), is among those making this point. The stated vision of this new planning organization: “Changing the trajectory of Hawai’i towards a more balanced, innovative, sustainable economy that balances the people, the place, and the culture with the environment, land, and ocean.”

The initial presentation of that group’s rough outline for its action plan includes a guiding principle urging the state to “adapt and innovate”: “We will not be reverting to a 2019 reality,” it states.

There are no details yet. But the bottom line is that Hawaii needs to find ways to restart businesses, including the visitor industry, that capitalize on renewable energy and otherwise leave a lighter footprint on natural resources.

Some of this is already on the viewscreen. Chris Tatum, president and CEO of the Hawaii Tourism Authority, said tourists, especially the younger generations, increasingly want to support visitor experiences that are sustainable and respectful of the environment.

What does this mean? It can mean that efforts to reduce crowding at beaches and on trails are acceptable, even endorsed, and that charging a modest fee to help with upkeep could gain support. With the hit on tax revenues taken in the shutdown, such an assist could be essential.

For local residents: Businesses could continue to embrace practices adopted, under some duress, during the shutdown. Teleworking and staggered work hours could continue to some degree, which could save resources for some stressed businesses and reduce traffic for the community.

Along these lines, Hawaiian Electric this week came out with its annual Sustainability Report. In this document, utility executives restated their commitment to green energy and the electrification of transportation, although the report acknowledged the possible change in timelines for some projects. More broadly, businesses could look for greater efficiencies in their plan to reopen, which might well benefit the bottom line, too.

There are enough worrisome impacts of the pandemic, but Earth Day may have provided the occasion to extract at least this positive potential: This disruption in economic activity forced a reset button. When we push it, Hawaii needs to come back stronger and smarter about how it works.

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