HILO, Hawaii (RNS) The caravan of tourists begins to form at dusk, snaking its way down a deserted stretch of State Route 130 on the big island of Hawaii, past the point where lava flows from the Kilauea volcano destroyed the roadway.
As night falls, visitors scramble over the rough terrain to the viewing area, fixing their binoculars and cameras on the glowing plume of smoke and choppy waves that mark the spot where lava seeps into the Pacific.
Here, new Hawaii is being created as the ocean hardens molten rock into new coastline. But beneath the tourists’ feet, the earth is being reborn as green ferns and grasses reach upward from the crevices carved by the volcano’s fiery flow.
“There’s a whole other magic that’s here that is so powerful and so strong” said Hanalei Fergerstrom, a priest of the Temple of the god Lono.
For Fergerstrom, that power is not just the beauty of the tropical paradise, but the inexorable connection between the Hawaiian people, their faith and the land where their ancestors sowed the first seeds of human life into the volcanic soil.
The fires of Kilauea provide a stark backdrop to a burgeoning debate in Hawaii that has pitted sacred beliefs, environmental protection, economic growth and sustainability against each other.
As a practitioner and teacher of traditional island spirituality, Fergerstrom advocates for native Hawaiian rights and worships the pantheon of Hawaiian deities including Pele, the fiery goddess of the volcanoes, who inhabits Kilauea.
The native religion centers on the belief that all things contain a spiritual force called mana. It is this sacred force that runs through people, deities and living things, but also weather, waves, rocks and the steam seeping from volcanic fissures. Through prayers, chants and dancing the hula, people can communicate with the spiritual forces in the world around them.
Because of the sacredness of living and nonliving things, the Hawaiian belief system created a society centered on conservation and self-sufficiency. Natives divided the islands not by property lines, but by self-sufficient pie-shaped wedges called ahupua’a.
People lived on the shoreline, while the pristine volcanic summits were reserved for the gods.
Today, the spiritual beliefs that honored the volcanoes as the realm of the divine are being practiced as conservation — Hawaiians fighting to preserve the environment from developers, tourists and even environmental groups.
“Native Hawaiians were pretty good conservationists in their own way,” said Les Sponsel, director of the spiritual ecology program at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
“Almost anything in nature was considered in some way, to some degree, spiritual — the waves coming in and out (were) the gods of the ocean breathing. Even rocks were considered to have some kind of spiritual power.”
These beliefs carried with them the ideas of caring for the land as a family member, of asking permission before partaking of the earth’s gifts and of accepting responsibility as a member of an ecosystem.
The Polynesian people had a lifestyle far less detrimental to the delicate island ecosystems than that of the European settlers who followed them, according to Sponsel. Areas of spiritual significance were kept pristine because access was limited to priests or those who traveled with a spiritual purpose.
The old Hawaiian ways stand in sharp contrast with places like Volcano National Park today, home to the Kilauea and Mauna Loa volcanoes, which receives upward of 2.5 million visitors a year.
Fergerstrom and other native Hawaiians are troubled by the focus on tourism and attempts to preserve the volcanoes, rather than include them as a vibrant, living part of Hawaiian culture. “You preserve dead things, like you pickle mangoes, you pickle onions,” he said.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the island, the sacred summits of the dormant Mauna Kea volcano are at the center of an even more heated controversy, pitting the realm of the spiritual against the interests of science and development.
For Hawaiians, Mauna Kea is the umbilical cord that connects the terrestrial with the realm of the gods. Limited access protected its pristine ecosystem and helped keep water supplies clean as they flowed to population centers in the lowlands.
“Anybody could go to Mauna Kea, but you had to have a reason,” Fergerstrom said. “Now, how do you balance what is the exploited part with those people who are actually on spiritual journeys?”
Mauna Kea’s summit is a prime site for astrological and scientific discovery, home to the world’s largest astronomical observatory. Fighting development on Mauna Kea is an issue on which native Hawaiians and environmental groups have found common ground.
But sometimes even good intentions miss the mark.
“Conservation without recognizing the culture, the sense of place, isn’t really conservation,” said Marti Townsend, program director of KAHEA, the Hawaiian Environmental Alliance.
KAHEA works on behalf of native Hawaiian environmental rights on numerous issues, including attempts to prevent the University of Hawaii from installing additional telescopes on Mauna Kea.
In many cases, environmental, political and business sectors don’t appreciate the cultural or spiritual concerns tied up in decisions on land and resource usage. These misunderstandings often pit well-intentioned groups against one another in the so-called “green-brown divide,” with eco-advocates accused of cultural insensitivity on one side, and native Hawaiians labeled as stuck in the past on the other.
“Just because you’re giving respect to something that was here before you and will exist after you, does not mean that we are advocating for something that’s somehow not forward-thinking,” Townsend said.
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As these groups grapple with finding mutual understanding, the need for a sustainable future is all the more apparent. Before white settlers arrived, the Hawaiian Islands provided for upwards of 1 million people. Today, a similar number of residents and tens of thousands of tourists are sustained almost totally by imported food, goods and energy.
Hawaii is the most oil-dependent of all 50 states, relying on imported petroleum for 90 percent of its primary energy, according to the Hawaii State Department of Energy, even though the state has abundant wind, solar, wave and geothermal resources.
“Those are major sources of energy, so it seems natural that we wouldn’t be mining oil and taking carbon and burning it and taking carbon from the crust and putting it in the atmosphere,” said Rob Kinslow, executive coordinator of Hawaii Interfaith Power and Light, a chapter of a national organization that promotes interfaith conservation efforts.
The year-old Hawaii group is trying to build relationships within religious communities on Oahu in order to create a platform for faith groups to advocate conservation and sustainability.
“The church, along with everybody else in our society, has bought into the idea that the environment is a wholly owned subsidiary of the economy,” Kinslow said. “In fact, the opposite is true, in that the world we inhabit, the world that we were given by the creator, the world that we’re told to steward, it’s our home and it’s the church.”
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Still, Kinslow doesn’t see a sustainable solution in simply unplugging from oil and trying to harness large-scale alternative energy, either. The better idea is a return to the small-scale, sustainable communities that live within the means of the resources they have, much like the pie-shaped ahupua’a where native Hawaiians once lived.
Fergerstrom says Hawaii could be the place where the lava enters the water, sending out ripples of social change to model a more just, peaceful and sustainable world.
“Like Pele, how do you kindle the fire, how do you keep those embers burning long enough for it to catch the rest?” he said.