Some scientists say that humans are using the earth's resources faster than the planet can replace them. The problem is severe in island settings like Hawaii, where development threatens the delicate balance of nature. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports from Honolulu on efforts to achieve sustainable development in the Asia-Pacific region.
A study released last month by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences says for the past 20 years, humans have depleted fish, forests and arable land faster than the earth can regenerate them. The finding does not surprise Gordon Grau, a zoologist at the University of Hawaii. He says humans are exhausting an inherited natural trust.
"We are spending that down at an increasingly rapid rate," he explained. "Within the next 50 years, if our children and grandchildren are to have a future, we have to go from being consumers to being involved in regeneration. Growth itself is not bad. Development is not bad. It is the byproducts, the waste that come from growth and development."
Biologist Allen Allison of the Bishop Museum in Honolulu displays a case of Pacific birds captured and preserved 100 years ago. Many of these species, once abundant on islands from Hawaii to New Guinea, are extinct. He says for Hawaii in particular, the statistics are sobering.
"Of the documented extinctions that have taken place in the United States, 75 percent of them have involved organisms found only in Hawaii," he said. "And given that we are two-tenths of one percent of the land area of the United States, that is obviously a very high proportion of species."
Mr. Allison notes that of the 900 species of native plants in Hawaii, more than 100 have 20 or fewer remaining specimens. He says some species have been lost to goats and pigs, which were brought by native Hawaiians when they came from other islands. Other species have been lost to recent development.
Zoologist Gordon Grau looks to traditional Hawaiians for a model of sustainable development. He says these Polynesian people divided up their land, and each group was responsible for living off its allotment. They grew taro and raised chicken and pigs, and also bred fish in fishponds.
"They had to make a go with what they had, which is basically the fertility of that land and sea, wind, water and sun," said Mr. Grau. "They used all of these renewable resources to produce the food and other resources they needed to make their living."
Mr. Grau stresses that around the world, natural fisheries are being depleted. Taking a cue from native Hawaiians, he is breeding a type of snapper as a prototype of a species that can be bred in captivity. He and his colleagues conduct their research at a marine center on tiny Coconut Island, off the coast of Honolulu.
Geographer Michael Park disputes that native Hawaiians are a model for sustainable development. He says their society was rigidly structured and its benefits mostly went to a ruling elite. He adds that Hawaiian monarchs decimated a species, the sandalwood tree, as its value increased on the 19th century market.
"So the Hawaiians themselves no longer practiced a sustainable subsistence economy once there was a market for the extractive industries," he explained. "They engaged in this extraction in a wholesale way."
Mr. Park says the damage has only accelerated as the human presence on the islands has become greater.
These researchers say there are no simple solutions in the quest for sustainable development. According to Allen Clark of the East-West Center, the old approach of "get dirty, then clean up" no longer works. Mr. Clark says the cost of cleaning industrial waste is too high for all but the richest countries, and many natural systems are now losing the ability to regenerate.
On the positive side, the researchers say many countries now recognize the problem. The Bishop Museum conducts surveys of plant and animal species throughout the Pacific, providing their results to government planners.
Zoologist Gordon Grau and his colleagues are developing sustainable fish-farming methods that they hope will make aquaculture a staple of food production. And Allen Clark of the East-West Center says some Asia-Pacific nations are preserving supplies of a threatened natural resource, fresh drinking water. Among Asia-Pacific nations, he cites Thailand and Malaysia as countries that are managing water wisely, but he still foresees a water crisis looming throughout the region.
These are some of the problems to be dealt with at an international conference on sustainable development in Johannesburg next month. The meeting, which comes 10 years after the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit, will test the ability of industrial and developing nations to cooperate on issues that have often divided them.